Monthly Archives: June 2012

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).


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 Establish Story-Context from the Get-Go

Starting gun

Starting gun

The purpose of the establishing scene is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World. By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasize the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around her — the amount of change that this world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of success that the Hero has achieved in acquiring the goal. How do we go about sketching in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One answer is to do so through the deft use of imagery.

Establishing Context Through Imagery

Precisely what is established at the start of a story? In Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger, suggests that an establishing scene should introduce the tone, time, location, as well as, the theme of the story, in other words, the framework of the tale. The first couple of minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduces us to the world of business through a series of images — its buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are. Indeed, the first images in a film or novel are often the most powerful and, therefore, need to be selected carefully since they set the framework for the entire story.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent and influential world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with a defining sequence of images, those of a school preparing for its opening day procession — banners announcing the school’s solid foundations of education and moral learning, foundations steeped in discipline, excellence, and honour. Such images help to establish the theme of conformity stemming from such traditions, a conformity which will be questioned by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established the time, place, tone, and theme through an effective use of starting imagery, the writers of these stories are now able to concentrate on plot and subplot from the basis of a solid framework. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.


Selecting the right images with which to start your story is important, since such images help to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your entire tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead and confuse the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.