A Character's Fatal Flaw: The Vital Element for Bringing Characters to Life
By Dara Marks
Growth is the by-product of a cycle that occurs in nature; that which flowers and fruits will also eventually wither and go to seed. The seed, of course, contains the potential for renewal, but does not guarantee it, nor does the seed instantly spring to new life. There is a necessary dormancy where the possibility of death holds life in suspended animation. In the cycles of our own lives, these near-death moments are rich with heightened dramatic possibilities that the writer wants to capitalize upon.
These are the moments in the human drama where the stakes are the highest, where our choices matter the most: What's it going to be, life or death? For a story to be dramatically interesting and thematically important, the protagonist must be at the point of great internal combustibility, where the conflict in his or her outer life demands inner transformation if survival is to be achieved.
This brings up the most essential demand for a well-dramatized script: In order to create a story that expresses the arc of transformation, a need for that transformation must be established. It is within this context that I can best define the fatal flaw of character.
First, it's important to highlight the fundamental organic premise on which the fatal flaw is based:
- Because change is essential for growth, it is a mandatory requirement for life.
- If something isn't growing and developing, it can only be headed toward decay and death.
- There is no condition of stasis in nature. Nothing reaches a permanent position where neither growth nor diminishment is in play.
As essential as change is to renew life, most of us resist it and cling rigidly to old survival systems because they are familiar and "seem" safer. In reality, even if an old, obsolete survival system makes us feel alone, isolated, fearful, uninspired, unappreciated, and unloved, we will reason that it's easier to cope with what we know than with what we haven't yet experienced. As a result, most of us will fight to sustain destructive relationships, unchallenging jobs, unproductive work, harmful addictions, unhealthy environments, and immature behavior long after there is any sign of life or value in them.
This unyielding commitment to old, exhausted survival systems that have outlived their usefulness, and resistance to the rejuvenating energy of new, evolving levels of existence and consciousness is what I refer to as the fatal flaw of character.
The FATAL FLAW is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness.
In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey has committed himself to a survival system that operates under the assumption that if he takes care of everyone else, somehow, magically, his own needs will be met as well. There was a time in George's life when developing his ability to care about the needs of others helped George grow into a more loving and less self-serving human being. Powerful feelings of self-worth accompanied these actions. He felt good about himself because he was getting as much as he was giving. His life had a balance to it. But there came a point of diminishing returns when the value of what was coming in was no longer equal to the value of what was going out. As more and more demands were made on George to put the needs of family and community above his own, his identity as a caretaker became fixed. Other aspects of George's nature were suppressed or ignored and the only things that grew in their place were anger and resentment. The system of putting everyone else's needs before his own was breaking down and George felt unhappy and unfulfilled, but he continued to heave all his energy outward until the day when there was absolutely nothing left. That was the day he decided to jump off a bridge.
The flaw in George's limited perception of his own identity was about to prove fatal. Therefore, the real drama of the story centered on his ability to expand this self-perception by reclaiming his greater value before it was too late.
Identifying and utilizing the fatal flaw is one of the most powerful tools a writer can develop. It distinguishes an aspect of character that not only determines behavior, but also establishes the internal conflict that will ultimately drive the story. George's fatal flaw, his inability to fulfill his own needs, is expressed in his behavior by portraying him as someone who takes care of everyone else's needs at the expense of his own. The interior conflict that results in suicidal desperation is, therefore, not a random choice made by the writer. It is a logical consequence of George's flawed perception that he is all used up.
A fatal flaw does not always relate directly to a physical death. It may foreshadow a more metaphorical death, a killing of dreams, desires, passion, identity, or any other aspect of the self that would open up to a greater, more expansive view of the character's whole nature.
Most importantly, a fatal flaw is not a judgmental verdict that a writer places on a character, nor should it ever be a moral judgment. For example, if a sixteen-year-old has sex or gets drunk, it doesn't mean he or she is fatally doomed. The fatal effect occurs when life stops, when growth and change are held back. Therefore, always look to the winter of a character's cycle-- "the winter of our discontent"-- and ask what has become exhausted in terms of self-perception. A sixteen-year-old who is completely dependent on his or her parents to make all decisions may be in far more jeopardy of not maturing than the teen who casually experiments with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This is not to say that a teen who exclusively uses artificial stimulus in place of developing real self-esteem isn't in jeopardy as well, but it depends on the degree to which any system of survival is out of balance to everything else.
Identifying the fatal flaw instantly clarifies for the writer what the internal journey of the character will be. This is no small thing, because once the writer is clear about what the protagonist needs in terms of internal growth it will clarify the external conflict as well. The physical challenges in the plot serve the function of pushing the protagonist to grow past old boundaries that define who he or she is so that the person can potentially become someone greater by the end of the story.
Finding the Fatal Flaw
If the fatal flaw is determined by mere guesswork, or by trial and error until something feels right, the entire substructure of the script will be based on a random, arbitrary choice. The results, of course, will be random as well. To define the fatal flaw organically, so that it rises to meet the writer's intentions, it must be drawn from the theme.
Because the fatal flaw reveals an aspect of character that can potentially destroy the opportunity for growth, it is always created around a value that opposes the theme and the internal goal for the protagonist.
Therefore, we can say that:
1. The fatal flaw represents the opposite value of the theme.
2. The fatal flaw is determined by inverting (finding the opposite value of) the internal goal of the theme.
For example, in Dead Poets Society, the theme of seize the day sets up as an internal goal for the protagonists; the need to be true to their own natures. Their fatal flaws, therefore, must be something in their character that betrays or is false toward their true nature.
Defining the fatal flaw of character greatly enhances the writer's understanding of what is driving a story. In the breakdown of Dead Poets Society, we can see that the addition of the fatal flaw instantly turns all the other work we've done with the theme into tangible character development. We don't yet have the details of how the co-protagonists will behave, but knowing that they are false to their nature gives a writer an enormous amount of information to work with.
There would be no conflict to resolve in Dead Poets Society if becoming true to their nature was something the boys were already good at. Therefore, when we first meet them in the setup of the film, it must be apparent that they are struggling against being true to their nature.
Once the fatal flaw is defined, it begins to provoke essential questions for the writer to ponder. Why would someone struggle against being true to their nature? What does being false to one's true nature actually mean? And is it really possible to be false to one's nature?
There are no specifically correct answers to these questions, but the technique of finding the fatal flaw demands that writers investigate their own perceptions of the theme. Most importantly, it channels the writer's thinking toward issues that will ultimately play out the dramatic conflict that is implicit in the theme.
To see this more clearly, let's put some skin on the bones of these characters who are being false to their nature. Because an idea like this can be interpreted in so many different ways, being false to one's nature certainly doesn't mean one specific thing. It can mean that a person is living a lie, hiding from himself or herself, hiding from others, living in fear, not being authentic, denying his or her own needs, and so on. The choices are vast and they need only to reflect the writer's vision of the theme. This is why ten people can write a story about coming of age, utilizing the theme of being true to one's nature, and each writer would have a very different story to tell.
Utilizing theme to determine the fatal flaw eliminates having to poke around in the dark, trying to define a character's behavior and motivation randomly. If behavior and motivation don't fall strictly in line with a writer's thematic intention, they run a very high risk of becoming distracting and meaningless. On the other hand, in a film like Dead Poets Society, it's easy to see how the protagonists' behavior relates directly to being false to their nature. From the first frame of this movie forward there is an inauthentic, pretentious, and controlled atmosphere that surrounds the students, who themselves seem constrained and guarded. This behavior is highlighted even further when the boys find a moment to themselves and they instantly become more relaxed and self-confident, out of sight of authority figures. This focus on the contrast in their behavior clearly signals to the audience exactly where the source of their problems lies. The boys do not behave naturally out in the open, only in private where they feel safe. It makes them come across as deceptive and certainly insecure. One of the students even has difficulty acting naturally among his peers. He seems not only to be withdrawn but completely out of touch with what feels natural to him. Further, as the story develops, the effect of not expressing his true nature destabilizes one of the boys to the point of complete self-destruction.
In this script, deceptive, insecure, withdrawn, and unstable are all strong choices for creating characters who demonstrate what it looks like to be false to one's nature. Here is what the thematic scheme of Dead Poets Society looks like once we add the character traits that were determined through the fatal flaw of character.
Dead Poets Society
SUBJECT OF THEME
THEMATIC POINT OF VIEW
Carpe diem -- Seize the day
Be true to your nature
Being false to your nature
While there are many more details and complexities to be filled in, what this breakdown shows a writer is that there is a direct and authentic way to arrive at story choices that will support the writer's vision and keep it focused on what he or she values.
Turning Theme into Character
When a film lacks a fatal flaw of character that is connected to the thematic spine of a story, the development of character traits for the protagonist often serves other agendas, such as making a character likeable, memorable, or politically correct. These types of choices seldom connect well or deeply with a writer's thematic objectives and will render a story shallow and ineffective, even if it is well intentioned with strong thematic underpinnings.
Without a technique to consciously evaluate choices, writers can't know what is motivating them. As a story consultant, I receive many scripts that have characters designed around a writer's sense of wish fulfillment rather than reality. This often means that characters behave as alter egos, going where the writer is afraid to go in real life, which makes the characters idealized, stilted, and two-dimensional.
I once worked on a script with an extraordinary plot idea, but the first draft had such enormous problems with character development that the story was quite ineffective. The protagonist was a young man who had a cruel, domineering father, and in a pivotal scene he marched in and boldly told his dad to go to hell. Because this scene, in particular, had a very false-sounding ring to it, I attempted to get the writer to step into the shoes of the protagonist to try to bring his emotional reality to life. As we worked together, I asked him if he had any personal experiences that were similar to the father/son relationship depicted in the story. It took a minute before he responded, but surprise suddenly registered on his face. He confessed that up to that moment he had not consciously connected with the obvious. He did indeed have a terrible rapport with his own father, who was an intimidating tyrant. I then asked if this was how he would speak to his own father under the same circumstances and he visibly shuddered. We then improvised what this confrontation might actually have been like. It was uncomfortable, painful, and real. I not only cared about the young man in the story, I began to care about the callous father as well--and I certainly cared more about my client.
An interesting paradox occurred here: When the writer instinctively created a strong, invulnerable character to step in and fight his battles for him, the story itself lay impotent. However, when the writer got honest and connected his own ineffectual feelings with what the protagonist was experiencing, his story gained strength and power.
Meet the Author: Dara Marks
Dara Marks, Ph.D. is a leading international script consultant, seminar leader, and author of one of the top selling books on screenwriting, Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc. She has specialized in the analysis of the modern screenplay for the past three decades, and Creative Screenwriting Magazine has consistently rated her one of the top script consultants in Hollywood. Dara has worked for most major Hollywood studios and her advice has been sought on a variety of films and television programs. She has a doctorate degree in Mythological Studies and her groundbreaking work in this field continues to help writers engage more deeply ...