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Designing a Character Flaw That Matches the Story's Theme

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by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

A writer recently sent in a question that I suspect many writers ask:

“Does the [protagonist’s] flaw have to be related/connected to the theme?”

So let’s discuss. 😊

According to most fiction-writing and screenwriting paradigms or gurus, the protagonist should have a flaw, sometimes called a “fatal flaw.” This gives the character something to overcome, a source of conflict, and a way for the audience to measure whether change has occurred.

A flawed character is also easier for the audience to identify with, and to feel sympathy for. It’s tough to engage with a character who seems perfect, invulnerable, or who never screws up.

So a flaw is a useful thing to think about when creating your protagonist. But how do you decide what kind of flaw to assign this character?

Not just any old flaw will do, of course.

Which brings us back to the original question: “Does the flaw have to be related/connected to the theme?”

How is the protagonist’s flaw connected to the theme?

The way it’s usually explained, the flaw is a sort of outgrowth or manifestation of the faulty belief that the protagonist needs to change by the end of the movie. Over the course of the story the character learns a thematic lesson, changing their belief, which then alters their behavior, aka the “flaw.”

Say the protagonist’s flaw is being overly cautious, for example. We’d make sure to design that character such that their abundance of caution is actually rooted in some (faulty) belief they have.

Then, over the course of the movie, what the character experiences would convince them that their belief is faulty and needs to change. Their faulty belief would be replaced with a new belief. And once that belief changes, they can discard the flawed behavior. When we see their new behavior, it’s proof of the transformation, the acceptance of the new belief.

That new belief is the theme, or thematic lesson, of the story.

What about characters who don’t change?

Just like any other screenwriting theory we discuss here, consider it a tool, not a rule. Every story is different, and part of the fun and challenge is finding what works best for the story you’re telling.

Some characters don’t learn a lesson, don’t transform their flaws, and don’t change at all. In those cases often we understand not-changing to be the point of the (usually tragic) story.

But there are other stories where the protagonist doesn’t seem to change and the movie isn’t a tragedy, or any less powerful.

My go-to example of this is The Silence of the Lambs, because Clarice really has only the subtlest of internal change. I’d argue it’s there, and it’s an important aspect of the story, it’s just not obvious.

Clarice’s flawed belief is the doubt she has in her own abilities. She hides this through sheer ambition, focus, and hard work. (I’d call ambition her “flaw,” which shows a flaw doesn’t have to be a negative quality, it just has to have some kind of negative effect on the character’s life.) In the story, Hannibal challenges Clarice to rise to the occasion, ultimately showing her she is capable and can do it herself, without his help. In the end, she’s still ambitious. She’s just wiser, better prepared to keep going.

Meaning comes from change (however big or small)

We look to change to understand meaning. So, whatever the change in values we see expressed in your story, that’s how the story’s meaning – its theme – is conveyed to us.

If the protagonist stops being overly cautious in order to live a fuller life, then we understand which value is more important and we can interpret the “lesson” that story has for us.

In this example, maybe the flawed belief the protagonist holds at the start of the movie is, “The world is dangerous and you have to be overly cautious so you don’t get hurt.” Then he experiences the events of the story and learns the thematic lesson, maybe something like, “An overly-cautious life is a waste of our precious time on earth.” And because he embraces that lesson, he begins to live life fully.

The audience probably isn’t going to walk out of the movie articulating a precise theme; they’ll just have the subconscious understanding that “being overly cautious = bad, living life fully = good,” because that’s the change they saw happen in the movie.

A character is more than one flaw

If the “flaw” is the thing the character needs to change by the end of this experience because it’s an outgrowth of their flawed thinking, that’s one thing. But a well-drawn character will have other traits, too. Persistent personality traits that don’t need to change (and won’t change) by the end of the movie.

For example, let’s say the protagonist we started designing is also self-centered. He’s both self-centered and overly cautious at the start of the movie. Which of these characteristics is his “flaw”? We’ll begin to see as the events of the story test him.

If, over the course of the movie, we see his self-centeredness being challenged, and that’s the value or quality we see change by the end of the movie, then we’re going to draw a conclusion from that. What new way of thinking did he embrace, which caused that change? That’s the lesson we’ll take away, i.e. the theme.

We’ll understand the other traits to simply be “who he is.”

What does it all mean?

The important thing to keep in mind is that the protagonist’s journey through the story is what delivers the theme. How the story plays out, what the character experiences, and how they’re changed by it… that’s what tells us what it all means. We look for change to understand meaning. So consider what change your story shows us, and whether that change proves the statement you want to deliver.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

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