Three quick ways to nail your main character’s main flaw

Everyone loves a character arc.

Actually, that’s not true. Some characters remain resolute and unchanging. That’s their role.

But typically we like our main character to go through a transformation, an arc. Uncovering their flaw is key. When it mirrors the theme, everything aligns and the stars shine just that little bit brighter.

Dave Herman is a British screenwriter and script editor who knows a thing or two about character flaws. Knows that the main character’s flaw is key to their transformation. So a well-defined flaw is an invaluable guide during the writing process.

Your main character probably has a few flaws. Pick one.

Your main character’s main flaw is an essential ingredient in a screenplay because it’s what stops 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. (Yes, just like real life.)

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.

That’s Herman’s take. Here are three questions he asks to uncover that flaw.

1. 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? How have they managed to turn their flaw into their strength? 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.

2. 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. 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. 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.

3. 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? The specific reason why achieving the goal is difficult for the main character is intimately linked with their flaw.

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