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What’s the easiest way to tell the difference between an amateur and a pro script? That’s easy: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. The pros know how to do it. Amateurs don’t. Most amateurs don’t even attempt to add character development. And the ones who do usually use something like addiction or the death of a loved one to add depth. It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t add these traits. But if you really want to delve into your character and make him/her three-dimensional, you want to give them a flaw, then have them battle that flaw during their journey, only to overcome it in the end. This is called a “transformation,” or an “arc.” It’s when your character starts in a negative place and finishes in a positive place. If you really want to boil it down and get rid of the fancy-schmancy screenwriting terms, it’s called “change.” And the best movies have central characters who go through a big change.

Now I don’t have 50 hours to write about character development so I can’t get too detailed here. But I should tell you a few things before I get to the meat of the article. Character flaws are more prominent in some genres than others. For example, you should ALWAYS include a character flaw in a comedy. Our inability to overcome our flaws is essentially what leads to all the laughs in the genre. Action movies, on the other hand, often have heroes who don’t change. The story moves too fast to explore the characters in a meaningful way. Thrillers are similar in that respect, although a good thriller will find a way to squeeze in a character flaw (I remember that movie “Phone Booth” with Colin Farrel and how it dealt with a selfish character). With horror, it depends on what kind of horror you’re writing. If you’re writing a slasher flick, character flaws aren’t necessary. A thinking-person’s horror film, though? Yeah, you want a flaw (the lead’s flaw in The Orphange was that she coudln’t move on with her life – she was obsessed with the past). In dramas, you definitely want flaws. Westerns as well. Period pieces, usually.

In my own PERSONAL opinion, you can and should ALWAYS give your characters flaws, no matter what the genre. People are just more interesting when they’re battling something internally. Without a flaw, without something holding them back, characters don’t have to struggle to achieve their goal. And that’s boring! Think about it. I always tell you to place obstacles in front of your hero so that it’s difficult for them to achieve their goal. Well what if while your character’s battling all these EXTERNAL obstacles, he also has to battle a huge INTERNAL obstacle?? Much more interesting, right??

You just need to match the kind of flaw and level of intensity of that flaw to the kind of story you’re telling. For example, Raiders is a fun action flick, so we don’t need a big deep flaw for Indy. Hence, Indy’s flaw is his lack of belief in religion and the supernatural. He doesn’t care about the Ark’s supposed “powers,” because he doesn’t believe it has any. But in the end, he finally believes in a higher being, closing his eyes so the spirits from the Ark don’t kill him. It’s a very thin and weak execution of Indy’s flaw, but the story itself is fun and light so it does the job.

The problem I always ran into as a writer was that nobody gave me a toolbox of flaws that I could use. That’s why I wrote today’s article. I wanted to give you eleven (the new “ten”) of the most common character flaws that have worked over time in movies. Now when you read these, you’ll probably say, “Uhh, but that’s too simple.” Yeah, the most popular flaws are simple. And the reason they’re simple is because they’re universal. That’s why audiences find them so moving – they can relate to them. Remember that – the more universal the flaw, the more people you’ll have who can identify with that flaw.

1) FLAW: Puts work in front of family and friends – This is a flaw that tons of people relate to, especially here in the U.S. where our country is set up to make us feel like losers unless we work 60 hours a week. Balancing your personal and professional life is always a challenge. It’s something I personally deal with all the time. I work a ton on this site. And when I’m not working on the site, I’m working on future ideas for the site. That leaves me with very little time to go out and have fun. The question then becomes, over the course of the story, “Will the hero realize that friends and family are more important than work?” We see this explored in movies time and time again. Most recently we saw it in Zero Dark Thirty (in which Maya never overcomes her flaw). Or last year with Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in Moneyball. Again, it has to match the story you’re telling, but it’s always an interesting flaw to explore.

2) FLAW: Won’t let others in – This is a common flaw that plagues millions of people. They’re scared to let others in. Maybe they’ve been hurt by a past lover. Maybe they’ve lost someone close to them. Maybe they’ve been abandoned. So they’ve closed up shop and put up a wall. The quintessential character who exhibits this trait is Will in Good Will Hunting. Will keeps the world at arm’s length, not letting Skylar in, not letting Sean (his shrink) in, not letting his professor in. The whole movie is about him learning to let down his walls and overcome that fear. We see this in Drive, too, with Ryan Gosling’s character refusing to get close to anyone until he meets this girl. We also see it with George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air.

3) FLAW: Doesn’t believe in one’s self – This should be an identifiable flaw for anyone in the entertainment industry. This business is full of doubters, especially when you’re still looking for a way in. It’s tough to muster up the confidence in one’s self to keep going and keep fighting every day. But this doubt isn’t limited to the entertainment industry. Billions of people lack confidence in themselves. So it’s a very identifiable trait and one of the reasons a main character overcoming it can illicit such a strong emotional reaction from the audience. It makes us think we can finally believe in ourselves and break through as well! We see this in such varied characters as Rocky Balboa, Luke Skywalker, Neo, and King George VI (The King’s Speech).

4) FLAW: Doesn’t stand up for one’s self – This flaw is typically found in comedy scripts and one of the easier flaws to execute. You just put your character in a lot of situations where they could stand up for themselves but don’t. And then in the end, you write a scene where they finally stand up for themselves. The simplicity of the flaw is also what makes it best for comedy, since it’s considered thin for the more serious genres. I also find for the same reason that the flaw works best with secondary characters. We see it with Ed Helms’ character in The Hangover. Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (afraid to stand up to his father). And George McFly (Marty’s dad) in Back To The Future.

5) FLAW: Too selfish – This flaw I’m sure goes back to the very first time two homo sapiens met. There’s always been someone who puts themselves in front of others. Everybody in the world has someone like this in their life, so it’s extremely relatable and therefore a fun flaw to explore. It does come with a warning label though. Selfish characters are harder to make likable. Just by their nature, they’re not people you want to pal up with. So you need to look for clever ways to make them endearing for the audience. Jim Carrey in Liar Liar for instance – an extremely selfish character – would do anything for his son. Seeing how much he loves him makes us realize that, deep down, he’s a good guy. But it’s still a tough flaw to pull off. I can’t count the number of scripts readers or producers or agents have rejected because the main character “isn’t likable,” and usually it was because of a selfish asshole main character. A few more notable selfish characters were Han Solo in Star Wars, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, and Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

6) FLAW: Won’t grow up – This is another comedy-centric flaw that tends to work well in the genre due to the fact that men who refuse to grow up are funny. We see it in Knocked Up. We see it in The 40 Year Old Virgin. We saw it with Jason Bateman’s character in Juno. We even see it on the female side with Lena Dunham’s character in the HBO show, Girls. I’ll admit that this flaw hit a saturation point a couple of years ago, so either you want to find a new spin on it (like Lena did – using a female character) or wait a year or two until it becomes fresh again. But it’s been proven to work because of how relatable a flaw it is. Who isn’t afraid to grow up? Who isn’t afraid of all the responsibilities of being an adult? That’s what I want to get across to you guys. These flaws all work because they’re universal. Everybody has experienced them in some capacity.

7) FLAW: Too uptight, too careful, too anal – You tend to see this flaw in television a lot. There’s always that one character who’s too anal, the kind of person you want to scream at and say, “LET LOOSE FOR ONCE!” We all have friends like this as well, so it’s another extremely relatable flaw. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is plagued with this flaw. Jennifer Garner’s uptight hopeful mother in Juno is driven by this flaw. And you’ll see this flaw in Romantic Comedies a lot, in order to give contrast to the fun outgoing girl our main character usually meets (Pretty Woman).

8) FLAW: Too Reckless – You’ll usually find this flaw in more testosterone-centered flicks. Like with Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon, or James T. Kirk in the latest incarnation of Star Trek. The flaw dictates the character enter a lot of big chaotic situations in order to battle his flaw, so it makes sense. I’m not a huge fan of this flaw, though, because I believe the best flaws are universal. That’s why they emotionally manipulate audiences, because people in the audience have experienced those flaws themselves. Recklessness isn’t something people emotionally respond too. That’s not to say it isn’t effective and doesn’t allow for a satisfactory change in an action flick. It just doesn’t hit that emotional note for me like a lot of these other flaws do.

9) FLAW: Lost faith – This is a bit of cheat because questioning or losing one’s faith isn’t necessarily a flaw. But it’s an incredibly relatable experience. Something like 97% of the people on this planet believe in a higher being. But a majority of those people question their faith because now and then something terrible happens to shake it. Which is why you’ll see a ton of characters enduring this “flaw.” We saw it with Father Damian Karras in The Exorcist after his mother dies. We see it with Mel Gibson’s character in Signs after his wife is killed in a car accident. Again, losing someone close to us is a universal experience, so it’s one of those “flaws” that works like a charm when executed well.

10) FLAW: Pessimism/cynicism – This flaw isn’t used as much as the others, but you’ve seen it in movies like Sideways with Miles (Paul Giammati has actually made a living out of this flaw), Terrance Mann ( James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams, and Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club. I always get nervous around flaws that make characters unlikable and pessimism tends to do that for me. For example, I never warmed to Sideways as much as others because Miles’ pessimism was so grating. But on the flip side, tons of people relate to that character for the very same reason. They’re just as frustrated with life as he is. Which is why the movie has its fans.

11) FLAW: Can’t move on – This is one of the lesser-known flaws but a powerful one. It’s basically about people who can’t move on, who are stuck on someone or something from the past. Their obsession with that past has stilted their growth, and brought their life to a screeching halt. Most famously, you saw this in Up, with Carl Fredricksen, who hasn’t been able to get past his wife’s death. But you may also remember it from the movie Swingers, where Mike (Jon Favreau) is still obsessed with the girl who dumped him. He keeps waiting for that call. With relationships being so fickle, people are experiencing this flaw ALL THE TIME, so it’s very relatable and therefore very powerful when done right.

So there you have it. You’ve now got eleven flaws to start applying to your characters. And remember, those aren’t the only flaws you can use. They’re just the most popular. As long as you start your character in a negative place and explore how they get to a positive place, you’re creating a character with an arc, a transformation. There’s more to character development than this, which I discuss in my book, but getting the character flaw down is probably the most important step.   Feel free to offer some of your own character flaw suggestion in the comments section. I’ll be watching closely so I can steal the best ones. :)

  • Kay Bryen

    Speaking of character flaws, here’s mine:

    After yesterday’s discussion, and despite everybody’s best attempts, I refuse to let the term “v***t draft” catch on. (See, I can’t even type it!) I mean, I can barely stomach the sight of people throwing up in movies as it is — which seems to be every other movie these days. I suppose it passes for “character development”.

    I miss the blissful days when I’d only throw up watching Tea Party activists during tea-time news.

    A Scriptshadow poster was kind enough to suggest an alternative term: “diar*hea draft”… You’re seriously not helping :-)

    Normally I’m neither squeamish nor squirmish. I mean I once had a slimy slithery snake creep up my leg and up my shorts… so I held my breath and slowly dragged myself along the ground (not unlike a snake) until I could reach piece of burning wood from the fire and burn the snake’s head on my thigh.

    I will say this though: having a detailed outline sounds good on paper, but I’ve discovered that the best moments in my stories tend to just arise in the heat of the moment, often going in directions my outline could never have prophesized.

    So find what works for you; I’m just saying for me, I need a detailed outline like I need a burning stake through my skull.

    • carsonreeves1

      Even though this comment is tongue-in-cheek, I’ve always felt the same way about the term!

      • Kay Bryen

        Well Carson you get a free pass because you came up with “GSU”. Now copyright that bad boy already!

    • Avishai

      “Outlines are meant to be broken.” I’m not sure who said that, or if it’s even a real quote, but I stand by it. There’s no need to be a slave to your outline- it’s not like it’s written in stone. (and if it is, I can’t comment, I don’t know the situation.)

      Also. You don’t like vomit draft- how about story fart?

      …I’ll show myself out.

      • courlo

        rough rendition?

      • Kay Bryen

        Yeah you probably should get your coat now Avishai :-)

        I should also point out that my dislike of the term is technically not a character “flaw” but merely a character “quirk”.

    • JakeBarnes12

      “I once had a slimy slithery snake creep up my leg and up my shorts… so I held my breath and slowly dragged myself along the ground (not unlike a snake) until I could reach piece of burning wood from the fire and burn the snake’s head on my thigh.”

      Thank you, Kay. Just… thank you.

      • Kay Bryen

        I wish I was making that up Jake. It would certainly make me a kickass screenwriter in action sequences.

        • JakeBarnes12

          Indeed. :)

    • Jonathan_D_S

      Jesus, Mary and Jerome. Can you elaborate on the incident– Where? How old? Alone? My character flaw is snakes (from watching Raiders 20+ times as a youth) so I’m fairly certain I would have just tipped my hat and said “touché, Life.”

      12) Flaw: FEAR OF SNAKES
      (you’re welcome to use this Carson)

    • BennyPickles

      Outlines are like maps. Sure, on a road trip, the best sights and locations are the ones you didn’t plan for. But that doesn’t mean you should go out driving without a clue to your destination. Always plan a path, but allow yourself to take a scenic route whenever you feel like it. As long as you return to your original planned path, you should be fine – otherwise you’ll get lost.

    • Keith Popely

      You should watch THE GREAT SANTINI.

    • Somersby

      I think this is an important discussion. I’m with you on this, Kay.

      The downside of outlining, as I see it, is that the writer imposes himself/herself on the story from the get-go, saying in effect, this is where I’m beginning the story, this is where it’s going to go, and this is how it ends.

      Going directly at the story without an outline is, for me, much more exhilarating and satisfying. Yes, of course, you need an idea in your head where you think the story should go – and that’s where to aim. But more often than not, the story will unfold in ways you could never have expected or predicted. Madeline L’Engle says in her book Walking on Water that “inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job for the artist is to listen to the work, and go where it tells you to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (Emphasis mine.)

      This is not a particularly popular approach, I know. And you need a certain commitment and/or sensitivity (for lack of a better word) to be able to write this way. I embrace it because I find it frees me from having to have everything worked out before I put fingers to keyboard. And there IS something really powerful, even mystical, when you allow the story to inform you about the direction it needs to go.

      That doesn’t mean you throw things like structure, goals, stakes and urgency out the window. In the same way a pianist doesn’t abandon his mastery of technique to improvise or play without sheet music, the writer must rely on technique in order to be free enough to listen to the story. In my experience, the more proficient I am with structure, character, dialogue etc., the freer I am to trust my instincts.

      Be interested to hear if others approach their work in similar ways.

      • Somersby

        Just as an add on: I once heard Lawrence Kasdan describe his writing process as, “I write what I see”, allowing his mind’s eye to dictate the story. Essentially, it’s the same process.

      • tom8883

        Genius scripts may start with outlines but there is no way the genius is contained in the outline. Scaffolding. Iteration. Those are two theoretical ideas involved in all genius works of storytelling. A lot of what one writes is a tool to get to the final product. The layers involved are infinite and it’s basically a miracle (the gift of human creativity) at how they come together. This is one interpretation for why many mavens of craft are unable to produce great scripts. Structure is but a tool. Because the learning and screenwriting talk is all about structure, some people conflate structure with what they are trying to create. Personally, I think we need new ways of talking about screenwriting.

        For me, I always begin with my logline and use that to anchor me. But its interpretation is magic.

        It’s not a popular approach, as you say, Somersby, because art is not identical with money. And the studios want money before art. They want a formula that writers can learn and follow and generate from rapidly. Whereas art has it’s own sort of schedule which at times can be rapid and at other times not so much. Of course, $ and art can come together.

        It’s important to remember that you must write in a way that you enjoy. Because if you don’t enjoy the process then you won’t be able to sustain it. You don’t want writing to be like working in a factory, do you?

  • Avishai

    Could this have come at a better time for me? Not even a week after my script was criticized for a lack of character development, suddenly, an article about character development. This is perfect.

  • ripleyy

    Looking at star-signs is always a good way to add depth to your character, though it’s not a flaw, but if you base your character off a star-sign you’re familiar with, it makes it easier to create them. The easiest one of them all is basing them off Cancer, because Cancers are often so complicated and complex plus Cancers have intense mood-swings or perhaps a Scoprio because they are renowned for their aggressiveness. Libras, Capricorns, there’s something defining there that is worth a look at. While it sounds crazy it helps me most times when I’m having trouble.

    Flaws, to me are the highlight of creating a character. I often use “can’t move on” because that’s one of the many flaws that makes it fascinating to watch a character move out of. While they most likely won’t be able to move out of that flaw, they’ll often learn from it.

    Also, watching a character battle insurmountable guilt – either through having a guilty conscience or whatever – is always interesting. It’s the best way to make a character evolve and a good way to get the audience to like him or her.

    While it was never talked about in the article, I think it’s a good place to talk about how situations should have flaws. The environment should have a flaw as well. You have have a car chase but the one flaw in this environment is that it’s busy or that there is a construction work – that’s the flaw that hinders the chase. Sometimes it’s best to have a flaw for your environment – a disadvantage – because more often than not, the world your characters are inhabiting are as flawed as they are. This works better in Science Fiction I think. :)

    • http://twitter.com/wereviking Warren Hately

      The old UNKNOWN ARMIES roleplaying game recommended giving characters a star sign as a characterisation technique and you’re right, it’s a good one. Nice suggestion.

      • ripleyy

        I didn’t know that, but yeah, it helps so much if you’re struggling. :)

      • http://twitter.com/kinnygraham Graham

        Warren – just to say, I got your reference there. Just so you know you are not alone.

        Graham (self-styled dipsomancer)

        • http://twitter.com/wereviking Warren Hately

          Glad to know mate thanks!

    • Xarkoprime

      Really cool comment. I never thought those signs would be of any use to me, but it makes so much sense now that you pointed it out :) Thank you.

      • ripleyy

        It’s fun if you base them off your own star-sign, I find that you make better characters that way. I’m not a Libra so I would find it harder to make a character that “acts” like one, but you should give it a go sometime.

        On a side-note, I go on this website that lists a good selection of personality traits: “gurusoftware(dot)com(forwardslash)GuruNet(forwardslash)Personal/Factors(html)”

        It helps time-to-time.

        :)

  • courlo

    good scoops, carson. hey, the protags in my most recent 3 scripts embody numbers, 5, 8 and 11. ijs.

    • carsonreeves1

      thank you courlo. :)

  • carsonreeves1

    I’m going to try and make mine worth at least 25 cents.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.bradley.71066 John Bradley

      I pollitely disagree with Warren, I thought this was a good article.

      • Age_C

        Agree. Sometimes it’s nice to have this stuff splayed out in front of you every now and then. I’ve jotted them into my notebook. Great article. FYI my protag goes from a 4 to a very numb 9.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.bradley.71066 John Bradley

    It’s also good when you have two characters whose flaws contrasts each other. I have a crime drama I am working on and the two lead characters are detectives. One detective is a great guy who does everything the right way, but refuses to stand up for himself. The other detective is a grab you buy the balls kind of guy, but is dirty. When one characters weakness is the others strength it makes things very compelling.

  • ElliotMaguire

    This is definitely the most easily accessible article on this subject I’ve read, which is great news for a simpleton like me.

    Another thing that works well is combining character flaws, as long as it makes sense of course.

    In a script I completed recently, I used ‘Doesn’t believe in oneself’, ‘too reckless’ and ‘lost faith’, and I think it works well. You still have to know your character inside out to ensure that you don’t create a schizophrenic character, but if you naturally tie all those flaws into the same event or back-story, it should work.

    One thing that I think works great as well is tying those flaws into the storyline of the film in as subtle a way as possible, and in doing so creating the theme. Pixar do it brilliantly in pretty much all of their movies, they’re so thematically rich.

    Great article Carson, I really like the new way of the site, really educational but accessible.

  • max

    Great fucking article. Every young, aspiring screenwriter should visit this site once a day. (Older, professional ones too!) Your insights, Carson, are always dead the fuck on!

    I personally keep a folder with all the articles copy/pasted in word. Every now and then I go back, read them, and get grounded in the reality of screenwriting.

    I’m adding this one to the fucking folder, biatch!

  • grendl

    I like the article but of course there’s overlap between the categories. Miles in “Sideways” needs to move on, is cynical following being dumped by his wife, has lost faith in himself and his writing, is uptight and kinda can’t grow up. Felix Unger needs to move on and is anal retentive. Rick Blaine in “Casablanca” has a lot of the listed issues.

    What I’m saying is enumeration of these flaws is unnecessary. Like in “Spinal Tap” with the amplifiers that go to eleven. Why not just make ten louder.

    But if this will get writers to see the need to have character flaws, so be it.

    Moving to a positive place doesn’t necessarily mean completing a Scrooge-lie arc from miserable greedy miser to avuncular altruist. It just means a life out of balance comes into balance. Griffin Mill, the screenwriter murdering studio executive in Michael Tolkin’s “The Player” doesn’t become a better person by the end of the film. He gets away with murder, and proves he is the king of the Hollywood jungle through intelligence and dumb ass luck ( the witness fingers the planted detective in the line up instead of him )

    Movies are mostly about courage, facing ones fears and by doing so overcoming them. Someone who lives in fear, who can’t sleep at night, that’s a character rife for exploration. The coping mechanisms people have to handle those fears result in detrimental behaviors which in turn lead to negative consequences which in turn leads to pain, loss and probably guilt. Guilt is a hard thing to live with and characters worth watching usually possess a conscience, something villains normally don’t.

    That’s what makes the “Player” so funny imho. Conscience is Griffin Mill’s character flaw, and in the end it is exorcized. Survival is the only thing that matters. Normally stories don’t try to advocate getting away with murder.
    Good article nonetheless.

  • MelanieWyvern

    I’ve expressed my emphatic agreement with many articles here at SS, but this one, I disagree with in its entirety. Or rather, I agree that flaws are necessary for comedy and for some varieties of non-action drama — but then, I don’t really enjoy many comedy films (just a few), so I don’t particularly care how people execute them.

    But frankly, I think this is just a recipe for cliché when it comes to action films. If a flaw is organic to a story, fine, it should be included. The Die Hard broken-marriage arc works because it’s not just a trivial personal story between McLane and his wife; the wife stands for the American people, being “infiltrated” by Japanese and European business, and McLane represents traditional American enterprise. Rambo’s flaw is emblematic of the American treatment of its Vietnam vets. These flaws actually mean something, beyond the trivially personal.

    IMO, the easiest way to screw up a film is to tack an arbitrary arc onto a character in an action film just because he supposedly needs one. Having an action hero struggling to reconcile with his wife is just as cliche as having him fight a heist in a towering building. It’s been done, and done well. Tacking some psycho-flaw onto Indy in Raiders would diminish the character and the film.

    At least if you’re going to go the flaw route, do it originally. In Taken, for example, the character’s arc happened BEFORE the film begins, not during it. Before the film begins, Neeson has already realized that he screwed up and neglected his marriage. In the film itself, he’s emphatically proved to be RIGHT, and the other characters arc around HIM (the ex-wife realizes his over-protectiveness was 100% justified; the daughter realizes what a great father he actually is).

    There’s one more thing: the issue of “relatable.” People relate to different things. Some people (especially that male 18-34 demographic that you want to target in action films) might relate more to the “reckless” arc than many of the others on the above list — and by relate to it, I mean, enjoy the main character’s recklessness and want to see him be as reckless as possible! In other words, that recklessness may be no flaw at all, at least not one that needs to be “corrected” — and the film is more entertaining for it.

    • Avishai

      I think it all depends on the execution. It’s only cliche if you write it cliched.

      • MelanieWyvern

        I think it all depends on the execution. It’s only cliche if you write it cliched.

        I don’t disagree, but that’s also a truism: great storytelling can overcome anything.

        The flip side of that coin is that there are indeed countless action films that are terrible, with lead characters who don’t have flaws. But correlation is not causation: the fact that the lead characters don’t have flaws isn’t what makes them bad movies. Bad storytelling/acting makes them bad movies, and flawed protagonists wouldn’t have made them any less awful.

        • Avishai

          Right. Character flaw is a tool. You need to know how to use it, when to implement it, how to emphasize it. If you just throw it in and call it a day, in all likelihood it just won’t work.

          • MelanieWyvern

            If you just throw it in and call it a day, in all likelihood it just won’t work.

            Agreed 100%

            If the writer has a burning need to explore a characteristic of human behavior, an original insight into it, and the skill to explore it in an entertaining way, then it can and should be used. But if a writer is just stapling a flaw from a dozen other films onto his screenplay to tick off a checklist, then it’s going to be forced and artificial, and weaken the script.

    • Xarkoprime

      Well I guess that also comes down to a matter of opinion also, or maybe you just used a bad example. I know a ton of people, including myself, that found Taken awful. Rotten Tomatoes has the critics consensus as fun, but brainless and it received a rotten rating. Maybe that’s a reason why…

      • MelanieWyvern

        The Rotten Tomatoes audience reaction is 83% positive.

        Also, the film was a huge commercial hit. This only shows once again how far the critics are out of touch. “A ton of people” is anecdotal. The box-office numbers are a quantifiable measure of the film’s success.

        • Xarkoprime

          If we’re going to bring up box-office numbers, then we’re going to have to call the Twilight series one of the best franchises ever created, and we’ll have to call My Big Fat Greek Wedding the best movie ever made.

          Not knocking, but you get what I mean.

          I also tend to steer away from that percentage because you don’t know who the reviews are coming from. It could range from your every day movie watcher to someone who watches the movie and thinks Liam Neeson was hot, so they gave it a thumbs up. The actual film critics consensus said that the movie was mindless, and the process to become an RT critic is far more complicated than clicking a button.

          • JakeBarnes12

            Yeah, you’ve nailed it, Xark.

          • MelanieWyvern

            I’m not one for calling the box-office the absolute arbiter of anything, but the reality is that any other method of evaluation is completely subjective. But I definitely don’t consider a critical consensus to be superior to the box office as any kind of measure of anything, as IMO, critics largely have similar politics, which inform their tastes.

          • Xarkoprime

            The only sample you can take from box office numbers is interest. If we were talking purely concept and loglines here, I would completely agree with you that box office numbers are the best indicator, but we’re not. Do you know how many movies I’ve went to in my life and wished I’d saved my money instead of paying to watch? A lot. And I can tell you I’m not alone in that department, it’s a common thing. Do you know how many people saw The Devil Inside and tried to get their money back at the end to no avail? I do. A lot. That movie made 58 million dollars (pretty good for that type of movie), so by your standards, using the box office scale, that movie was pretty good. Better than say, Memento, that made 23 million. There are also a ton of great independent movies that get a limited release, again, those movies wouldn’t hang with blockblusters if we’re using your box office “best indicator” method.

            I do agree that a critic’s consensus is not concrete evidence that a movie is/isn’t good. That’s just the wonderful essence of opinions, everyone has them and they’re all different for various reasons. It’s quite complex. Critics loved Looper, Carson hated it. It’s going to happen with everyone and will always be inevitable. However, if we’re going to start talking about Taken and using it as an example of a movie that works even though it goes against the grain (having a character arc happen before the movie starts and that flaw already defeated), it’s kind of important to acknowledge that this isn’t a movie that received high acclaim and especially not for the complex storyline it had.

            And I guess as far as holding a random group of people that may or may not have any background in the making of/watching of film over a critic’s consensus, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Especially because you can view who those critiques are coming from and the logic behind them (their posts have to be at least 500 words I believe, possibly 250, and it’s monitored by RT).

    • JakeBarnes12

      Your “Die Hard” example isn’t how good flaws work in stories.

      In good stories using flaws (yes, of course you can have good stories where the protagonist does not have a flaw) it’s the protagonist’s flaw that is preventing him/her from achieving the goal in the story. They will not, CANNOT, get what they want until they change, but they can’t see this. Usually the flaw is resolved in the relationship storyline.

      I’m oversimplifying here since there are external and internal (conscious and unconscious) goals and the ways in which the flaw expresses theme. There’s also wider definitions of flaw as a protagonist clinging to a belief system that has outlived its usefulness, etc. I’ll leave discussion of these concepts for another time.

      All to say “Die Hard” is in fact an example of a “tacked on” flaw since there is nothing internal for McClane to overcome in order to defeat Hans Gruber. His reconciliation with his wife comes after he has achieved the story goal.

      Not sure how much I’d laud the character work in “Taken.” The ironic thing about “Taken” and the disappointing “Taken 2″ is that Liam Neeson’s character DOES need to learn to be less overly protective. Any reasonable person watching this character can see that by trying to protect his daughter he’s actually driving her away. It takes a ridiculously improbable “go-to-Paris-get-sold-into-sex-slavery” plot to justify his caveman attitudes.

      This is clumsily acknowledged at the end of Taken 2 when he accepts that his daughter has a boyfriend and the movie ends with them all licking ice creams. Freudians, start your engines. No doubt her sudden acquisition of expert driving and grenade-tossing skills convinced him she was now qualified to venture outside the safety of the United States.

      Still, I think you’re preaching to the choir here, M.

      Action movies are usually simple stories about simple protagonists facing external conflicts. Nothing wrong with that but it’s not really the purview of psychological complexity.

      • MelanieWyvern

        The ironic thing about “Taken” and the disappointing “Taken 2″ is that Liam Neeson’s character DOES need to learn to be less overly protective…This is clumsily acknowledged at the end of Taken 2 when he accepts that his daughter has a boyfriend

        In fact, you’re confirming my point and making it for me.

        Taken 2 did tack a cliched “progressive” arc onto the Neeson character, just as this article recommends, and it was a poorer film as a result. By contrast, the original Taken didn’t have this, and it was a better film for it.

        Action movies are usually simple stories about simple protagonists facing external conflicts. Nothing wrong with that but it’s not really the purview of psychological complexity.

        Movies are first and foremost entertainment, not psychology essays.

        Psychological complexity is only a benefit if it improves the entertainment quotient. If it diminishes it, then it’s of no benefit to a film. A detriment, in fact.

        If one is serious about psychological complexity, then publish a paper in a psychiatric journal. Movies are meant to entertain audiences.

        And if a writer is just choosing flaws for his character out of a shopping list, like selecting potato-chips at Walmart, this is hardly likely to result in a profound and original psychological insight. Rather, it will create cliche, because its origins are cliche. This SS article could basically be called, “Choose among these 11 cliches from dozens of other movies to tack onto your characters.”

        • JakeBarnes12

          The reason “Taken 2″ was a horrible movie, Melanie, had nothing to do with its “progressive” (puh-leeze) character arc and everything with its ridiculous plot machinations.

          You mischaracterize character flaws as cliches and suggest that entertainment and psychological complexity are at odds.

          ANY story technique can be used in a cliched way, so that complaint means nothing, and for an intelligent audience (which I believe covers a majority of movie-goers) a character who struggles with internal as well as external conflict IS entertaining because it promises more conflict AND it makes the character more intriguing since we want them to somehow overcome their inner demons and change.

          Giving your character a flaw like selfishness isn’t choosing from a shopping list, as you suggest, Melanie.

          It’s a STARTING POINT for exploring, for building your character. Selfishness in a character can express itself in many different ways and it depends on the CREATIVITY of the writer to find fresh and interesting ways for this trait to manifest in a particular character. It also raises the question of WHY the character is selfish, which leads us into back story.

          When you learn how to use flaws to build and arc characters, when you understand how character flaw can be used to express theme, then you are in a position to write scripts where characters have flaws and also scripts where they do not.

          If you don’t, you’re stuck writing characters who don’t change.

          • MelanieWyvern

            Much of this simply restates Avishai’s point that everything depends on execution, with which I agreed.

            You mischaracterize character flaws as cliches and suggest that entertainment and character complexity are at odds.

            Nothing of the sort.

            1. I’m decrying the use of cliched character flaws — and in particular, the tacking on of character flaws when they are not organic to the storyline.

            2. Characters can be complex without changing. They can be complex to begin with.

            If you don’t, you’re stuck writing characters who don’t change

            This is a circular argument.

            You’re asserting that it’s necessary for characters to change because if they don’t… they don’t change. Well, obviously. That’s like arguing for X, because without X, we won’t have X, when the question at hand is whether X is necessary in the first place.

            The issue at hand is whether characters need to change to make a movie entertaining, and I assert that this is not necessary. There are great films where characters change, and great films where characters don’t change.

            This doesn’t make the movie static. They can go on a journey, they can be tested, they can experience pressures and challenges, all of which create rich storylines. The character can be challenged, for example, by external and internal temptations, and in such a case, a character’s ability not to change but to maintain his resolve, or his principles, or be true to himself, is the triumph, and an exciting process to watch.

            It is often not a change in a character, but the evolving revelation of characteristics and abilities that have existed within the character all along, and are reveals by trials, that make a character fascinating and reveal his complexity and richness.

  • Poe_Serling

    A few years back, I had the opportunity to hear Shane Black speak at a screenwriting expo. He said he approached character development in two ways.

    First – start your character off at the lowest point in their life. Mel Gibson is a suicidal cop in Lethal Weapon. Bruce Willis is a disgraced ex-Secret Service agent sleeping in his car in The Last Boy Scout.

    Second – start your character at their very best point in their life… then pull the rug out from under them. Geena Davis is a loving wife, nurturing mother living the perfect life in Rockwell, USA… soon regains her memories of her not so pleasant and troubled life as an goverment assasin.

    End of lecture. ;-)

    • srdiction

      That’s cool.

  • Cfrancis1

    Great post! Definitely a keeper.

  • Pointbreak

    in reply to some of the comments, especially regarding TAKEN, isn’t that an example of a flaw which develops the character, it just happens before the film begins (backstory) rather than during the film.

    To me, this highlights the importance of flawed characters, rather than fighting against the argument.

    I haven’t seen TAKEN 2 but I’m guessing Liam Neeson is less flawed in the sequel and therefore maybe not such an interesting character.

    I’m sitting on the fence, as I like some characters with zero flaws and some with major [cliched] flaws, such as Will in GWH.

    Good article Carson

    PS… don’t forget COLD WAR…

    • MelanieWyvern

      in reply to some of the comments, especially regarding TAKEN, isn’t that an example of a flaw which develops the character, it just happens before the film begins (backstory) rather than during the film.

      Yes, which is what I said in my response — that this, at least is a more interesting way to use a flaw than having a character work through it over the course of the movie.

      Also, the beauty of Taken’s approach is that the film proves that the flaw may not have been a flaw at all, because it is only because of the skills that Neeson developed while neglecting his family and focussing on his job that allow him (in the movie) to save his daughter. A flaw or a blessing, see? MUCH more original than just another “transform over the course of the film” arc, which is what this article is discussing.

      • JakeBarnes12

        “… the beauty of Taken’s approach…”

        Now there’s a phrase you’ll never hear from those “out of touch” critics.

  • Citizen M

    Another flaw is doesn’t see what everyone else can see. For example:
    Doesn’t notice that his best friend is using him; or
    Doesn’t notice that her child is crying for help.

    • JakeBarnes12

      Obliviousness.

      • Keith Popely

        Or overly faithful. This “flaw” could actually end up being a virtue when it turns out she was right to believe in a “bad” character. Demi Moore’s faith in the murder suspects in A FEW GOOD MEN.

  • Howie428

    The article is a strong summary of character flaws. Thanks. Here are a few others that spring to mind for me:

    Being Too Nice/Kind — Typically the character starts off being taken advantage of by others, until a shocking experience turns them nasty, before they realize the value of niceness but keep enough nastiness to keep them from being exploited.

    Being Naïve/Trusting — Another one that follows the pattern above. The trust is crushed, before it comes back the other way.

    Being a Lone Wolf who can’t work with a partner/team — Works well for a story where you want your hero to be badass/skilled from the opening, but you still need somewhere for him to go as the story plays out, e.g. Wolverine.

    Being Greedy — A common bad guy flaw but also one the good guys often get as well. Either a character starts with nothing and does very well for themselves, before pushing their luck or ethics too far. Or a wealthy person lives an unfulfilled life. Either way they typically learn that acquiring the stuff they’ve always wanted (usually money) is not a good thing and start giving that stuff away.

  • MWire

    Nice article and timely for me. I need to point out that my protag’s flaw caused his problems in the first place.

    Carson mentions Cameron’s flaw in Ferris Buller’s Day Off. But what’s Buller’s flaw? It’s been a while since I’ve seen it.

  • Xarkoprime

    Thanks a lot for the article Carson, it will be extremely helpful in my next re-write when I dive into my characters even more. And thanks to the community who have already posted a few great things to add to the topic. I Love SS :)

  • Poe_Serling

    Here’s a wonderful article/example of character flaw and how to use it to create even more conflict in the body of your story. This is courtesy of the good folks over at the Scriptlab:

    “Cool Hand Luke… In the opening scene, we see Luke (Paul Newman) using a pipe cutter to cut off parking meter heads. We see he’s cheerful, drunk, and wearing a faded GI Field jacket, with a bottle opener hanging on a silver chain around his neck. And as two officers approach, Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson’s screenplay reads that Luke “lifts a bottle of beer, opens it and drinks, smiling. On his smile, FREEZE FRAME.”

    That’s it. By page one we have everything we need to know about Luke’s major flaws.

    We understand that this is a man who defies authority and the cutting off of parking meters is his way of sticking it to “the man”: the police, the government, or anyone who conforms while wearing a uniform. Yet a second flaw illustrates a psychology of rash, impulsive action. He must know he’s going to get caught, which seems clear enough with his smile to the police. So despite knowing the consequences, Luke still follows his impulsive drive.

    And the irony of all this is that even though his prison sentence is relatively short (it was just parking meters), his inability to conform to prison life along with his reckless decision making creates much larger obstacles, leading him down a tragic and deadly road if he so chooses to continue.”

    • Malibo Jackk

      Can’t help comparing it to Cuckoo ‘s Nest.
      Mental Hospital instead of prison.

      (Don’t know if there is the same level of distrust in authority
      that existed when those films were made.)

      • Poe_Serling

        You’re right, Malibo…

        Anti-establishment films had a nice run in the late ’60s and early ’70s:

        Easy Rider

        Wild in the Streets

        MASH

        Catch 22

        A Clockwork Orange

        One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

        Network

        and

        of course,… my personal favorite: Billy Jack – the world’s most violent pacifist… with the emphasis on the ‘fist.’

  • thescreenplayman

    I was thinking about this and as writers, we think the more flaws my character has and the more flaws he or she has to overcome, is going to make a great character. But what I learned is that more than one flaw (maybe two is acceptable, but only two) makes the character too complicated and makes your mind spin when trying to figure/flesh out the story/character development. Point is, one major flaw is great for a story and many screenplays utilize that and not delve into more than is acutually needed. Any thoughts on this???

    • tom8883

      I think there’s a difference between the conscious decisions screenwriters make and the end-product, which is supposed to be a real person. Real people are complicated even when the labels we create to organize our thoughts when structuring our screenplay need to be simpler.

  • Acarl

    What a fine bottle of wine you’ve shared with us today, Carson. Thanks for posting!

  • DD

    I’ll put this in my handy dandy notebook. Very concise and to the point summation of flaws.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Great article, Carson! Clipped and in my Scriptshadow articles folder!

    Let’s keep in mind too that we can combine flaws for greater psychological depth.

    Beth, the mother in “Ordinary People” is completely uptight and anal, is emotionally blocked and can’t express emotion, can’t move on from the death of her son, and neglects her husband and surviving son. All of these flaws are related and work together.

    Obviously this is a drama which has a lot of space to explore this character, but even genre plots can provide enough room for at least some of this.

    I HATE the example of “Liar, Liar.” It’s like to get Jim Carrey they had to say, you’re this perfect father, you’re a great guy apart from this one little flaw, but don’t worry, we’ll get it clearly resolved by the end and everyone will still love you.

    Lemme tell you, people who are career-driven workaholics neglect their kids. This is the kind of dishonest character work that gives flaws a bad name. The movie can get away with it, of course, because it’s a comedy, a light view of life, but still…

    Ultimately it requires maturity and real life experience to be able to write complex characters because you’ve lived long enough to experience it yourself or to know others who have. That’s what allows you to add the telling details to the basic flaw structure.

    So what are you doing wasting your time reading this? Get out there and murder somebody, sleep with your best friend’s mother, fight in a couple of wars, become a crack addict, and date a dangerous sociopath.

    Personally, I still got one to go.

  • JNave

    Great article. Coming up with a flaw that feels real and is relevant to the story can be tough. For me, seeing examples is the best learning tool. Another valuable lesson.

  • lest78

    Really good article, Carson. Thanks for this.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Interesting you mention this.
      Several days back I thought of another. (But can’t remember.)
      But I will mention a third — Dr. Zhivago.
      Before filming, David Lean told Omar Sharif not to act.
      He wanted the film to be about what the man sees, not about the man himself.
      And what we see is Russia changing, changing in front of this man’s eyes.
      All around him, Russia is experiencing the arc — and the tragedy that it brings.

      Great movie. Passive protag.

  • Cuesta

    “Now I don’t have 50 hours to write about character development so I can’t get too detailed here”
    Well, now you don’t review pro scripts you do have the time :)

    Great, great article.

  • jridge32

    Those are all good ones, Carson. Especially “can’t move on”. I love a character who needs to right a wrong from their past before moving forward. Because they can start out with that as a goal, then something else happens to make the character question just how important getting the original matter resolved really is, and before you/they know it, they’re a lost soul.

    A little cheesy, but you get me..

  • MrTibbsLive

    EGO: is a great character flaw. And one of the best ones.

    Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’ character from Wall Street, had a massive ego that ended up costing him in the end. But it made for a truly memorable character. Even pulling from yesterday’s script, Two Blind Mice, the character written based on Michael Eisner had a massive ego as a character flaw.

  • Dane Purk

    Carson I think a major point you didn’t focus on, and why some comments are calling the flaws list cliche, is the REASON why your character has his or her flaw. Anyone can write a character who’s guarded, or egotistical, or doesn’t stick up for themselves, but where the real magic and imagination and overall writing talent happens, is explaining to the audience WHY your character behaves this way. It’s what makes a cliche flaw feel fresh and relatable: giving it to a unique character that we like. It’s also important to give the character a unique way to EXPRESS the flaw. Instead of just expressing cliche anger or sadness or hesitation, maybe have them show a strange action or say an ironic or unexpected phrase or something.

    We don’t care that Will Hunting is guarded. Whatever. However, we love the reason he is guarded, that he’s an abused orphan who was abandoned by those who were supposed to be most reliable. And we also love the way he expresses his guarded attitude: by insulting anyone who tries to help him and doing it with likeable and seemingly genius intellect.

    So the REASON and the EXPRESSION are the “unique” parts of the flaw, and the one the writer should focus on. Or as the screenwriting motto goes: “give me the same thing, only different.”

    :)

  • SS Fan

    Carson, you mention you’re not a fan of the “too Reckless” because it isn’t a universal flaw, and I agree. But I think that’s exactly why it works so well because in a reverse way it validates your point, it is universal, it’s a catharsis experience for the majority of us (universal) who aren’t reckless but wish we were. Another well done article.

    P.S. Grendl, good comments, nice to see you back.

  • Brainiac138

    Has anyone read Inside Story by Dara Marks? I had to for a screenwriting class in college, and she pretty much bases her whole approach to writing character driven screenplays around your protagonist overcoming their flaw. She also said to be careful of just assigning a flaw and moving on, instead you should make the flaw a survival mechanism that has outlasted it’s usefulness because of the character’s life being interrupted by the story. I kind of give and take what I need from the book, but if you are interested in a very in depth look at character flaws, then Inside Story is a good start.

  • Malibo Jackk

    (Not sure “struggling with” his flaw is always important.
    Did you ever hear John Wayne say — ‘Should I kill this guy or not?’
    Or what about Dirty Harry –. Did he ever advocate gun control?)

  • New_E

    Nice article! These flaws are so “universal” and recognizable that they’ve become cliche though by now. Takes a certain skill to make it all seem fresh.

    For Oscar week, could we have your take on the scripts of nominated films and a link to those you’ve already reviewed (film or script)? These scripts are available and can be downloaded easily.

    Argo Written by Chris Terrio

    Beasts of the Southern Wild Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin

    Life of Pi Written by David Magee

    Lincoln Written by Tony Kushner

    Silver Linings Playbook Written by David O. Russell

    Amour Written by Michael Haneke

    Django Unchained Written by Quentin Tarantino

    Flight Written by John Gatins

    Moonrise Kingdom Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola

    Zero Dark Thirty Written by Mark Boal

    +

    Anna Karenina

    The Impossible

    Wreck-it-Ralph

    The Master

    The Sessions

    Les Miserables

    Skyfall

    Snow White and The Huntsman

    Hitchcock

    The Hobbit

    The Avengers

    Prometheus

    E

  • TGivens

    Thanks for the tips, Carson! Great article! And the timing is perfect. I’m currently trying to identify my protagonist’s flaw.

  • Michaelo

    Thanks Carson. Very serendipitous as I embark on another script journey.

    Let’s hope I can overcome my fatal flaw… finishing what I’ve started. Ha.

  • JaredW

    Interesting list, Carson. It helps to narrow down what is considered to be such an important part of scriptwriting. I’ve certainly used some of these flaws in my own writing, and seeing your explanations of them should definitely help in the rewrites.

  • Condog

    Good article. For the character trifecta, give is a reason for the flaw. Lethal Weapon is a great example. Riggs isn’t just reckless, he’s suicidal! But it’s because of the death of his wife,NAND we instantly have sympathy and empathy for his character. It might not always be necessary (we don’t need a big back story for Indiana Jones, just showing him in the academic setting is enough) but it’s needed for characters that might be on the unsympathetic side. It can even be part of the plot or mystery that gets revealed during the story and makes a great sub-plot. (A Christmas Carol)

    • carsonreeves1

      Great points. I agree. :)

  • edw1225

    You’re having a good week. I thought this and The Graduate were two of your better columns.

  • ff

    Nice article and vet timely for me as I’ve been dealing with this exact problem with my lead character.

    Dude, thanks as always!

  • Malibo Jackk

    Horror would make a good subject for a Carson article.
    I’m not the expert — but the way they say it used to work,
    the party ‘bad’ girls who had sex would be killed off — ‘for their sins’.
    It was a pattern used in horror flicks.
    (Usually in a cabin — in the woods — near some lake — and a guy with an ax.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/elevationrecordings Darran Nugent

    Very good article. Gives me food for thought.

  • Rodney92

    Although I bought your book, Carson, articles like these was going to be what it was about. You write great articles, like this one, on screenwriting. You should consider doing a second book.

  • http://twitter.com/V3ntricity Mercutio

    well said. this is important and hasn’t been mentioned thus far.

  • ff

    Excellent article man. Just excellent!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jgallashaw Jeff Gallashaw

    I think that while these are great flaws indivisually.If you include more then oneit leavesyouwitha protagonist that isn’t remotely interesting as everything is interior or you’re protagonist might be disturbed or seen as it. Now if this is a genre movie it works as if we know going into the film they are disturbed as the film goes along there must be an enemy or nemesis even friend who will assume the protagonist role as the audience will be more behind them after awhile. Either that or it will probably be a comedy.