How to Nail Your Imperfect Fictional Character
An overlooked piece of information for developing the right character for your plot
Years ago, my screenwriting group and I wrote a comedy show for Turkish TV. It had a rich premise with amazing potential. We felt confident that it was going to be a big success.
We were interviewing one of the most talented comedians in the country. Or rather, he was interviewing us. He would be cast as the brother of the main character. We thought we would have to persuade him that his character was just as important as the main guy.
He asked us one question: “What is my flaw?”
We had already given him a detailed chart, pages of description, and backstory. We had character goals, internal and external motivations, conflicts, weaknesses, and strengths. We told him what was desirable and undesirable about his character.
We explained everything all over again. It was a devout Muslim character who would fall in love with a sexually independent woman. We were sure everything was obvious and it was going to be great!
He listened respectfully, then asked “but what is my flaw?” again. We told him bits and pieces. He didn’t seem impressed. Later he turned the project down.
We found another actor and he was brilliant. The show wasn’t a huge success as we hoped for, but not a total failure either. It lasted for 26 episodes. But I always wondered why we couldn’t persuade the first actor. Yes, we all knew that the flaws of a character were important to make them real.
Yes, we wanted to make them human, relatable, and lovable. Of course we needed them to make mistakes and create conflict for our story. None of us was after creating a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu. But what was his insistence for “one flaw” about?
What did this actor know that I didn’t know as a writer?
I wasn’t enlightened until years later when I read Jill Chamberlain’s screenwriting book “The Nutshell Technique”.
Chamberlain explains the function of a character’s flaw with Aristotle’s definitions of tragedy and comedy. Upon reading it, everything suddenly got as clear as day. I didn’t only satisfy my curiosity but I also acquired a key piece of information for developing characters and plot that I had missed before.
Character is plot, plot is character
First of all, let’s remember one important concept about writing fiction.
Character is plot, plot is character.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The traits of a character influence their actions. Thus the character creates the plot. And the plot, as a consequence, reshapes the character. But there is another wisdom here, hiding in plain sight.
The character creates the plot and drives the story.
Yes, many external events happen in a story. Yet, the protagonist must make the critical decisions that put them in trouble.
The main story should be driven by the protagonist because that is what a protagonist means! If your protagonist doesn’t have a real flaw and gets into trouble because of what’s happening to them, they become a victim only. When they win or lose, it’s not really their triumph or failure.
In successful fiction, the protagonist creates the conflict and solves or fails to solve the conflict. And this is directly related to their flaw.
The flaw in Aristotelian tragedies
Chamberlain classifies stories according to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as he described in his work Poetics:
“In a tragedy, Aristotle said, the protagonist has a change of fortune that must be not to good fortune from bad but on the contrary, from good to bad fortune, and it must not be due to villainy but to some great flaw in such a man.”
According to Aristotle’s classification, any story that has a happy ending is a comedy. And any story with a sad ending is a tragedy. Chamberlain adapts the two definitions:
“A tragedy is a story where the protagonist fails to overcome a flaw and falls from good fortune to bad, which means it usually has a sad ending.”
And a comedy is the opposite.
“A comedy is a story where the protagonist is able to overcome their flaw and learn its opposite, and the protagonist sees their fortune go from bad to good, which means it usually has a happy ending.”
All stories depend on “the flaw”
Both definitions mention the flaw of the main character as a determinant. Does the protagonist manage to overcome their flaw and win? Comedy. Is he unable to do that and lose as a result? Tragedy.
Stories are about change. A protagonist has a “before” and an “after”. That’s what we call the character arc. If the character overcomes the flaw they had in the “before”, they get to a better place in the “after”, and the story becomes a comedy. If the character cannot overcome the flaw, he ends up in a worse place, which makes the story a tragedy.
No matter if they overcome it or not, the flaw of the character is the generator of the story. If your protagonist has no real flaw, then the story problem occurs outside of his control. Then your narrative fails to become a full story. It merely becomes a “situation”.
Let's dive into examples from the book.
“Tootsie” is a comedy about overcoming a flaw
In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman’s main character Michael Dorsey is a sexist actor who struggles to find work. When a woman’s part turns up, he accepts the challenge, dresses up as a woman, gets auditioned, and wins the part. He thinks it’s going to be easy, but of course, it is not. It’s funny to watch Michael as Dorothy in a lot of ways.
This movie only works because of Michael’s flaw: He doesn’t respect women. He could have had a variety of other flaws: he could have been a jerk in other ways, he could have been disorganized or messy, he could have had anger issues… But those wouldn’t cut it. In order to drive this story, he needed this specific flaw of not respecting women.
In the duration of the movie, Michael goes through changes, has a steep character arc. He overcomes his flaw and learns to respect women. His flaw transforms into his strength and he wins in the end. This is the whole point of the story.
Memento wouldn’t be Memento if Leonard was perfectly innocent
Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) seems to have an unconventional structure. It messes with our heads by its use of time, by telling its story in reverse chronology. But when we study its structure in terms of storytelling, we find out that it follows a traditional pattern to the letter. It fits the “formulas” of Holywood including Save the Cat.
It also fits Jill Chamberlain’s Nutshell Technique. According to Chamberlain’s analysis, Memento is a typical tragedy. Because it has a sad ending due to the protagonist’s inability to overcome his flaw.
At the beginning of the movie, we watch Leonard shoot Teddy in the head. Then we go one step backward at a time trying to understand what really is going on.
Leonard has a short term memory problem. He can only remember the last few minutes of his recent life. His goal is to revenge his wife by killing her murderer “John G.” Throughout the movie, we watch him get manipulated by others. He seems to be the victim of external events.
However, when we get to the final scene of the movie, we find out that he had killed many people thinking they were John G’s. He just doesn’t remember that he had. And when he learns this fact from Teddy, he makes a conscious decision to deny this fact. He traps himself willingly in this never-ending loop of searching and killing.
Leonard’s flaw is denial. He ignores the reality when he gets to learn it. If he hadn’t had this flaw, then the whole story would be “Poor Leonard has this condition and is trapped in his revenge because he can’t remember a thing.” But no.
He purposefully chooses to ignore the truth because of his flaw. This makes Memento a great story with a real protagonist, not a victim.
The flaw of a fictional character is not just some “color” to our story. It determines the plot.
A character may have many flaws, but only one of them is central to your particular story. And that flaw is the base your plot depends on.
Turkish copywriter and screenwriter, lover of stories, living in New Zealand