Sometimes I think this stuff must be obvious.
But then I watch some TV show or movie…
I’ll admit that writers can be a bit too in love with our own cleverness. We certainly love to construct a sentence with more than one layer of meaning to it. However that’s not very useful when it comes to instructions.
“Your characters should be flawed” is writing advice anybody who likes to write has probably heard before, but does anybody really get it? Especially because there’s actually a double meaning to the advice. So today I’m going to break down one of those meanings (with the other one tomorrow).
“Write a flawed character” seems to be interpreted as a character who is a bad person. So we get stories where the protagonists are jerks or assholes.
But that’s not what the advice is saying. Let’s make up a quick tale:
Bob was hungry.
So Bob went to the kitchen and made a sandwich.
He ate it.
There, a story in the most basic, technical sense. It’s not great or good by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet the character in it still had a flaw.
Did you spot it?
It was Bob’s hunger.
The character’s flaw – is an incompleteness. Your protagonist needs to lack something, and the story is what happens when they go to obtain that something.
Now note that there’s billions of ways to execute this simple idea. Storytellers have even done tales where a character thought they needed one thing, but ended up with something different. Regardless of the details of the execution, the most important question you need to ask of your story is “what does my protagonist gain from it?”
Your character lacks something at the start of the story, they should have that thing by the end of it.
At least one major sign I’ve seen of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu figure in a story is that they lack for nothing, and it is the wider world that becomes more complete by Mary/Gary going out into it – a complete inversion of how a story should go.
Now I can already hear some amateurs defending their story with the protagonist having the flaw of “naiveté.” That does not count. That’s like saying your protagonist needing oxygen or water is a flaw. Naivete is a trait universal to every character (heck every person because we start every day ignorant of what will happen in it). You can’t say a character’s flaw is being naïve, you have to be specific of what knowledge the character needs in their life and why. “The world is awful and generally sucks” is a bad example. “How to tell which people are lying to you and who is honest” is a better, more concrete example.
You must also keep in mind that this flaw needs to be consistent with the character. Let’s look at a certain movie trilogy for some examples.
The original Star Wars gets a lot of mileage out of Luke staring at the double sunset.
You understand almost all of his flaws in that one shot (and the music helps a lot too). He longs for adventure, to honor his father’s legacy, to know what lies beyond the hills, etc etc. This is constantly reinforced through the movie as when they are captured aboard the Death Star, Luke is the one pushing them to go rescue the princess. He jumps into an X-wing to fight an impossible battle. Luke keeps pushing to find his next adventure and to live up to an image he invented of his father. (This is obviously part of what makes the twist in Empire Strikes back so impactful.) Across all 3 of the original movies, Luke’s core flaw is that image above – the drive to push beyond the sunset.
Then we get to the prequel trilogy of Star Wars.
While we can appreciate that George Lucas wanted to create something different, his efforts seem to have led him to making Anakin backwards. When we first meet the slave boy during episode 1, ironically he seems complete as a person. Sure we are told he’s technically a “slave” but his mom seems to have a spacious shelter for them to stay in. He’s allowed to get and work on his own droid. His boss is not unduly harsh and even lets him get off work early and participate in scifi-NASCAR. As far as the viewer is shown, Anakin is not incomplete. The closest he comes to it is when he has to depart his mother and it’s a decision he struggles with. Anakin doesn’t leave to go find something he’s missing – he leaves and as a consequence ends up losing something he has.
You’ll notice this keeps repeating through the prequels. When we see him again in episode 2 he seems generally complete and only becomes “flawed” when he sees Padme again and then discovers he desires her. In episode 3 he seems to be generally fulfilled (considering it’s a war and all) demonstrating skill in battle, being praised and recognized by society, and married to his love. That movie ends up trying to make him flawed by giving him nightmares of Padme in trouble and a bit of jedi politicking that offends him. Yet both of these efforts to make him flawed mid story fall flat because they are not shown with a consistency across the stories. We never hear that he and Padme exchanged letters and remained long-distance friends over the years. We don’t see Padme and Anakin interact at all in episode 1 after their third scene together. We’re never told that Anakin has any ambition – that he wants to be on the Jedi council or longs to have their respect.
I know a lot of people have made jokes about how whiny Luke is but given that from the start our introduction to him is him complaining about not being able to escape from the house for even an afternoon, the audience is informed what Luke’s flaw is – what makes him incomplete. Every movie of the prequel, when Anakin is introduced we are shown no flaw, no sign of him being incomplete. So when the story wants to introduce that flaw halfway through the film (like finding his mother kidnapped and dying), it falls flat for the audience – there is no consistency to it.
Now we go to the sequel trilogy.
I’m going to be honest here: with Rey, it actually starts out strong. We find her alone, and for the next few minutes of screentime, we are given a very good idea of what her flaw is. It’s even conveyed in the above image fairly well: Rey is alone.
Rey wants companionship. She wants to be with friends and family. This is all actually beautifully shown there in the film. Then we see her rescue BB-8. She is reaching out now for others, she is helping another soul that is now alone. When the junkyard dealer offers her the massive bribe for the droid, we can see her turn it down because she would rather starve than be alone again.
Then Finn shows up and it all falls apart.
The scene where Rey rips her hand away from his while they are running ruins whatever effort the story was putting into developing Rey’s flaw. IF being alone was Rey’s “flaw” – IF episode 7 was about Rey finding friends and family to belong with, then she should not have reacted with disgust at being shown care and empathy by another being after so many decades alone. She might have cringed a little out of shock at it happening, but she should have then “embraced” the moment and savored the fact that somebody was with her – that somebody was showing they cared about her.
Instead she scolds the stranger and proceeds to act like a right jerk to him as if she’s more interested in driving him away than actually having another person in her life.
I also want to stress that this does NOT have to involve romance. WHATEVER emotions were ultimately decided between them, that there was a connection at all between Rey and Finn was the most important thing to enforce the idea of the protagonist’s flaw. The rest of the movie then sabotages itself with Rey bouncing back and forth between wanting to go back to Jakku (and therefore be alone again) and trying to bond with people depending on whatever the script requires. Note too that you can do the flaw working against itself (we’ll look more into that in the next part) but the movie doesn’t run with that idea.
The following movies continue this ping-pong issue of Rey’s flaw where she will seemingly long to bond with people, then do everything she can to sabotage that effort. Note too that this could have all paid off in the final movie where the dialog explains that she is trying to “reach all of the past Jedi.” Had the films been consistent with the character, this could have paid off beautifully as the girl who started out alone develops bonds that stretch across time itself and brings her to the belonging she was always seeking.
But then the sequel trilogy closes with her – alone in the desert.
I could theorize on where everything went wrong but that’s not the point. The point is to emphasize that your protagonist’s flaw needs to be clear from the start, and consistent through the story until the climax and conclusion.
Now that is for a story with a definite beginning and end. What about ongoing tales?
Well that’s when you need to have a deeper flaw to your character by which each story may grant momentary relief, but which can never be solved.
One of my favorite cartoons back in the day was Darkwing Duck. His flaw was needing to be recognized and his ego sated – which is why week after week he kept having to struggle with it. “What about someone like Superman?” I can hear some people ask. Well that’s why it’s brilliant that in his backstory, Superman is an alien orphan from a lost planet. Because then his “flaw” is that he is always seeking to be accepted by his adopted home. Thus he does the superhero thing because he wants to show gratitude for home he was given. Yet it’s also why he is always dressing up like Clark Kent because he longs to be accepted for who he is as a person, not what he can do as an alien. (At least, that’s what all the BEST stories have as their undercurrent.)
Again I emphasize, these flaws are not always “bad” things any more than hunger is a bad thing. Having them does not make a character bad or a bad person. It’s just a hook to latch the story onto. If you cannot sum your story up as “This is how [protagonist] got __, which they needed” then think more on what you’re crafting.