Tag Archives: character arc

Understanding Character Flaws

A Flawed Diamond

The Flaw

What is a character flaw? One way to think of a flaw is as an imperfection in a character’s soul or psyche that helps shape the character’s personality. In seeking to hide, suppress, or remove this imperfection, the character engages in a constant tug-of-war between external and internal forces, which helps to drive the story forward.

Types of Character Flaw

Ostensibly, the flaw can be born out of internal causes, such as an emotional scar from the past, or, external ones, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability of a character to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice. Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character help to make for interesting stories that resonate with verisimilitude.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw in character. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, especially his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

Additionally, a flaw generates questions which serve the story: What lies and defenses has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point?

The Character Flaw as a Synching Device

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey though the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self belief (flaw) to one of belief. This inner journey, which represents Neo’s character arc, inflects each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw inflects a character’s external response to the world, and in this sense, helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his or her actions in a story.

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How to Develop Conflict in your Stories

Conflict

Conflict

We’ve often heard that conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories are bound to appear staid and static — lacking dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and thus rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how synchronising the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, to the external conflict makes for a gripping tale that stays on track.

Mounting Conflict

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the spine of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict which arises, should build on the previous one in terms of danger and intensity — both internally and externally. This means that the conflict is adjusted to suit — as the physical stakes change, so does the character’s internal response — fear/prejudice/courage/etc. The internal and external journeys continuously track each other, like partners in a dance. Additionally, obstacles which gives rise to conflict differ from previous ones in order to avoid monotony and repetition.

Structuring Conflict

What follows a scene, or scenes containing mounting conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven, for example, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) decides to walk away from the job, which involves killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces, on his own, an entire saloon filled with men out to kill him. This situation has arisen as a result of a setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan who, himself, has been unjustly accused of murder — and Manny’s pledge to revenge Ned’s death.

Lastly, it is important to note that each conflict has a definite climax, leading directly to the setback: Manny’s shooting of one of the cowboys leads directly to the setback — Ned Logan’s death.

In Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

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How to Deepen Character: Want vs. Need

In a previous post, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain traits at the expense of others. I suggested that the best way to manage this process is to make changes at specific structural junctions such as the inciting incident, first turning point, mid-point, and second turning point.

Another way to think of the character arc is in terms of a character’s awareness of her want vs. her need. Prior to the mid-point, or, the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. She mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because she has not yet discovered or acknowledged her need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, lies on the negative side of the spectrum.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and herself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story, no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means that the prominent traits motivating the character have been overshadowed by other less prominent traits. This change in the goal, or, in the path to the goal, illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

Blade Runner

In the film Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired blade runner, (a hunter of off-world synthetic humans) is persuaded to come out of retirement to hunt and kill a group of dangerous Nexus-6 Replicants, led by Roy (Rutger Hauer), who have landed on earth illegally. We later learn that they’ve come in search of their creator Tyrell, of the Tyrell Corporation. Their intent is to have him extend their lifespan which has been set at four years to prevent them from developing emotions and becoming a threat to humans. During his investigations, Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s personal assistant, Rachel, is herself a Replicant although she is is unaware of this fact. The plot thickens when Deckard falls in love with her and acts to protect her from harm.

Swapping Traits through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realize that what he wants — to get rid of Replicants, is not what he needs — to rise above his prejudice, and to keep Rachel alive. Ironically, during a fight to the finish, Deckard is rescued from falling to his death by Roy, the Replicant he has sought to kill. This act proves Replicants are capable of compassion, a trait that humans seem to have lost.

Deckard’s dominant trait of cold efficiency in tracking and killing Replicants is transcended by the traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In committing to protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker proves that he finally understands that what he wants is not necessarily what he needs. This change of heart clearly illustrates how traits work hand in hand with the story goal to adjust the outer journey — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

In Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to design change in terms of a start and end point. The want is driven by negative traits; the need, by positive ones. Approaching character design in these terms, not only grants you the tools to effectively shape your protagonist’s developmental arc, it also allows you to fashion the outer journey in a way that is consistent with inner growth and motivation.

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How to Write Great Characters

Great characters are an indispensable part of any successful story. Certain genres, such as Action Adventure, or even Science Fiction, tend towards a plot-driven approach; others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character-driven. All stories, however, require convincing and believable characters to complement an effective plot. Much has been written on the subject over the centuries and it is not my intension to rehash this here. Certainly, observation, honesty, intelligence, maturity and empathy, are all attributes that aid the writer in this task. These attributes can’t always be taught in class; they accumulate over a lifetime. There are some core techniques, however, that can be taught and do provide the scaffolding for building successful characters by utilising a set of well-chosen traits.

What are Character Traits?

As the famous writing teacher Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are values or character components that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on. Most traits have a moral or ethical component. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst cowardliness is inconsistent with righteous behavior.

The Character Developmental Arc

We’ve often heard that successful characters change and grow. They learn from events around them. What does this mean in practical terms? In its simplest sense, change in a character means the gaining of prominence of certain traits at the expense of others. Typically, a character is defined by four or five traits. A traditional Protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits. In an “up ending” the Protagonist de-emphasizes his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localized and manageable way.

Knowing

In Knowing, John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), an atheistic astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than Devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is indeed predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, which accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world. This eventually causes John to entrust his son Caleb’s (Chandler Canterbury) future to a group of alien observers who offer to take Caleb and his young friend Abby (Lara Robinson) to another planet to ensure mankind’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been replaced by the dormant trait of faith (at least, in the ability of the aliens to secure his son’s future).

In Summary

Traits contain an ethical or moral aspect, and lie at the core of character formation. Having one trait in opposition to others creates the potential for interesting conflict within the character. Traits, in relation to the structural turning points of the story, afford the writer a way of managing a character’s transformational arc, essential for crafting successful stories.