The Trouble with ‘Character Flaws’

“All too often, I read scripts where the character flaw feels slapped on.”

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If you bump around the online screenwriting universe, invariably you will find an article or post about working with a character’s flaw. Identifying a single substantive personality defect makes it easy to think about the character’s transformation and can make them more sympathetic to script readers.

However, this is tricky terrain because all too often, I read scripts where the character flaw feels slapped on, as if the writer thought at some latter stage of story development or received a note from a script reader that the character in question is not interesting enough, seems too perfect, etc., then plucked some flaw out of mid-air and applied onto the character.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a screenwriter, as he told me about a project he was writing for New Line. He said that in a recent script meeting, he and his partner got a note that the execs didn’t feel enough “sympathy” for the Protagonist. I said, “Let me guess. They suggested you give him a dead wife.” He laughed and said, “Exactly.”

That’s an example of “outside in” storytelling, rather than what I keep harping on on my blog and in my classes: Go into the story and dig into the characters.

Working with the notion of a flaw is also a simplistic way of thinking about characters and the nature of their transformation arc. Characters, at least good ones, are multilayered individuals. Rather than thinking about flaws, it’s better to consider the entirety of a character’s psychological state at the beginning of a story. In the case of the Protagonist, they almost always start in a state of what I call Disunity.

If you allow that no person is perfect, that should extend to movie characters as well. Therefore, if you dig into a character long enough, logic suggests you will discover their flaws… and much more.

What I like to do — and what I promote with my students — is to open a Word file for each primary character, then do a one-on-one first person interview. You literally type out a question a la, “What are you doing right now,” then sit for a moment, trying to get into that character’s mindset, and type up a response, “I’m sitting outside at a Starbucks, drinking an orange juice and eating an egg bagel sandwich.” That’s a starting point which you can follow up with any number of questions: Do you do this everyday? Why orange juice, why not coffee? Doesn’t it bother you to spend so much money at a place like Starbucks? Why Starbucks, why not eat breakfast at home? And so on. The idea is to develop a ‘relationship’ with the character. And as their answers reveal themselves, you begin to get a sense of who they are. If you do that long enough and dig deeply enough, it’s almost certain that they will surprise you with a response, perhaps suddenly saying out of the blue, “I am so sad” or whatever.

Robert Towne says the single best way to zero in on the core of a character is to ask this question: What are you afraid of? And I think that’s right. Because humans will do almost anything to avoid things they fear, avoid pain — which means much of who they are, their personality and habits are tied to avoiding that which they fear.

Consider Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. What is at the core of her Disunity? I would argue that it is childhood guilt she feels about the death of her father. When a parent dies, a child will often assume some responsibility for their death, even if they are not culpable at all. Why? Because guilt they can live with, it’s something they can control; the uncertainty of life, which can take away a parent in a split second, is too frightening to incorporate into one’s logic. It’s Clarice’s guilt that causes her to scoop up one of the lambs at that farm in Montana, a desperate attempt to save it — and symbolically her father — from slaughter.

So Clarice has all that going on in her as well as the shadow of her father’s death looming over her all the time. So why does she want to become an FBI agent, working homicides? Sure, she wants to catch “bad guys,” probably tied to the legacy of her father’s work as a sheriff. But I also think it’s a way that she can avoid that gnawing fear she has deep inside — about having to confront her infantile sense of guilt.

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Clarice Starling has multiple dynamics at work in her psyche in The Silence of the Lambs, not just a flaw.

In sum, I agree that character flaws are — in general — a good thing for a writer to be cognizant of and work with re their characters. My point is the best way to do that is not conjuring up possible flaws as abstractions, but rather by digging into the characters. Go beyond the surface. Delve into their entire psyche and try to understand the character to depth.

That’s when stories can come alive… because our characters come to life.

What do you think? How important are character flaws? What’s the best way to source a character flaw for / in a character? Is there a danger in just thinking about a character’s flaw?

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