Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Three Great Ways To Find Your Main Character’s Flaw

In mainstream cinema, the main character’s flaw is the key to their transformation, or arc. So a well-defined flaw is an invaluable guide during the writing process.

I’ve recently been inspired and helped by Pilar Alessandra’s wonderful book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter. Written for screenwriters juggling day jobs, kids and other time-consuming distractions, the book consists of a series of brief questionnaires, each designed to focus your mind on one aspect of your screenplay for ten minutes. I find it a great way to make optimal use of a limited amount of time. However, the main character’s flaw as a basic story element isn’t really treated separately in the book, so I’ve come up with my own coffee break questionnaire…

The main character’s flaw is an essential ingredient in a screenplay, because it’s what stops the them from achieving their goal. It’s the thing they’re most reluctant to face up to, because of the pain or loss involved in really acknowledging the flaw and then changing. It’s also what the antagonist latches onto and uses to make things increasingly difficult for the main character. But the flaw isn’t just important for writing the story, it’s also an essential ingredient in a good logline. It’s the essence of the description of the main character, and as such it indicates what kind of arc the main character will have to go through for there to be a satisfactory resolution to the story, regardless of genre.

So, without further ado, here are three questions which can easily be brainstormed during a ten minute window in between the ironing and the washing-up, or while waiting for an appointment or a meeting, or while your daughter has her ballet lesson… Oh, and here’s my disclaimer: I’m only saying this kind of brainstorming is useful, because I’ve found it useful. As always, my motto is: whatever works for you. Feel free to vary or ignore these questions at will.

How Does The Story End?
If you know how you want your story to end, where does that leave the main character? What are they capable of (physically, emotionally, spiritually, morally, etc.) at the end of the story, that they weren’t capable of at the beginning? Here are some examples. Not from Jaws, Tootsie, The Wizard of Oz, or even Casablanca, though...

By the end of Hallum Foe Jamie Bell’s character is capable of real intimacy. That’s a satisfying ending, because his flaw to begin with is his inability to grieve his mother’s suicide, a psychological obstacle which manifests in his bizarre and anti-social behaviour, and results in his alienation and loneliness.

Here’s another: By the end of Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg’s character is vindicated in his ruthless commitment to justice, which is precisely the ‘flaw’ that gets him demoted to a seemingly uneventful village in the first place. In this story, the main character’s unwillingness to ‘play the game’ (i.e., he works too diligently, making his police colleagues look bad) remains steadfast, but turns from a flaw into a strength.

So, knowing how your story ends allows you to ‘reverse engineer’ the main character’s arc, and determine what the most appropriate flaw is to start with.

What Is The Antagonist’s Goal?
Every great antagonist has their own story, something they are trying to achieve which is being obstructed by the main character. So the main character is going to battle it out with a force that knows them well and is hell-bent on stopping them, particularly by hitting them where it hurts most. Often, the antagonist essentially wants the same thing as the main character, but has a diametrically opposed moral worldview.

In John Patrick Stanley´s Doubt both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman have the best interests of the pupils at their Catholic school at heart. However, they differ in their ideas about how to achieve this. Meryl Streep’s character is an old-fashioned disciplinarian, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is an open-minded liberal. She will do anything to prevent him from introducing a more tolerant, lenient culture into her Catholic school, including fabricating an ‘incident’ to justify firing him. Hoffman’s flaw is his belief that being open about his doubts will bring about positive change. By the end of the story, however, Hoffman is able to accept that there are some things he can’t change. This insight is the direct result of the intense and ultimately successful attack on him by Meryl Streep.

So, if it’s clear what the antagonist wants, then the main character’s flaw is going to be just what they need to get the job done.

What makes the main character’s goal so hard to achieve?
What specific thing does the main character have to achieve for us to know the story is over? What do they have to win, conquer, escape from, retrieve, deliver, refrain from… etc.? And what makes it so much harder for them to achieve this than for anyone else? Why is this the worst possible situation for this character to have to deal with? I mean, none of us wants to be buried alive or stuck on a hijacked plane, so that level of generic, primal emotion works on a plot level. But what specific difficulty does this particular goal raise for the main character in this particular story?

In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan Nathalie Portman’s character finally achieves the lead role in a major ballet production, after years of hard graft and numerous disappointments. However, this achievement turns out to be the beginning, not the end of her story, because in order to dance the part to the director’s satisfaction, she must unleash the dark side of her psyche, which she has kept hermetically sealed away. What makes this task so hard for her to fulfil, is her extreme emotional and sexual repression and its manifestation in her ruthless perfectionism. Her flaw is her inability to let go without losing control, which ultimately proves fatal.

Here’s another example: In Tangled the main character Rapunzel wants to go to the beguiling lanterns that float in the distant sky once every year, but she’s locked in a tower by her wicked stepmother, Gothel. In order to achieve her goal she must escape, but in order escape she needs to lose her innocence, her naivety, and to rebel against her stepmother. This is particularly hard for Rapunzel, because she has been kept completely ignorant of the outside world. She wouldn’t know where to start. Rapunzel’s flaw is her innocence and ignorance, which is precisely why her goal seems so impossible to achieve.

So, the specific reason why achieving the goal is difficult for the main character, is intimately linked with their flaw.

These are three questions I’ve found useful, but I’m sure there are others. In any case, being as clear as possible about the main character’s flaw is a powerful way to focus on what obstacles to put in their way, it helps to crystallize thematic issues and it’s a hugely important component for a good logline… in short, well worth spending ten minutes on!


Adaddinsane said...

Nice one, Dave.

You at London SWF?

And today's verification word is "werdial" - (adj) "capable of transmogrifying into human form".

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks, Steve.

Definitely going to be at the LSF. Look forward to seeing you there!


Phil Gladwin said...

Nice stuff Dave - I think it's worth teasing out even more that you get a really good effect if your antagonist is the one person in the world best placed to attack the protagonist's flaw. Hit them where it hurts! I find it really helps to step back and make sure I'm sure I've got this opposition exactly in place.

Not going to be at LSF this year, sadly, so can I trust you to have a pint for me?