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. :)