Ellen_Ripley_AliensRipley – Character flaw: Lack of trust

I remember when I first heard the term “three-dimensional character.” It sounded like one of those things clueless producers mutter when they don’t know why they don’t like something. Oh yeah, the characters weren’t, umm, “three-dimensional.” That’s why I didn’t like it. Occasionally, you’d run into one of the more affluent execs, who might throw this curve ball at you: “Your characters never popped off the page.” What the hell does that even mean? It’s a freaking piece of paper. If you want things popping off pages, head over to the children’s section at Barnes & Noble.

Ah, but as time went on and I came into contact with more intelligent and established entertainment folk (purely by accident of course), I noticed them using these same darn phrases. “Sorry, the characters have no depth.” “They were paper thin.” “The plot was okay but the characters never popped off the page.” Urgh. Wherever I went, this three-dimensional character thing was following. I needed to find out what was going on.

So I did a little research into this “3rd dimension” and repeatedly came across the term: “character flaw.” This seemed to be the all-elusive key to achieving character depth. A character flaw, I found out, was a negative trait holding your character back from becoming whole. Okay, I could get on board with that. I started watching my favorite movies and, lo and behold, it was true! There were character flaws everywhere I looked. Neato!

But then tragedy struck (well, subjectively speaking). I was on a screenplay message board one evening and found a thread discussing this exact topic. The head screenwriting message board guy in charge (HSMBGIC) was saying that not all characters had character flaws. Indiana Jones didn’t technically have a flaw. John McClane in Die Hard didn’t have a flaw. My whole screenwriting world came crumbling down. What next? Were there screenplays without words?? How could anything make sense anymore!!!

If only that were it. As if some phantom force was set on getting me to commit scripticide, I was introduced to yet another term: “Inner Conflict,” which writers were using interchangeably with “character flaw.” Yet another screenwriter cornered me and whispered, “Don’t listen to those bums. The key to a great character? A VICE.” Don’t even get me started on 70s Writer Guy, who kept telling me all I needed was a good “character fear.” Character fear?? What the hell was that??! It was at that moment I did what any slug-fearing screenwriter would do. I bought a case of Bud Ice at the corner liquor store and got drunk.

I won’t get into how that began a three year bout with alcoholism that ended with me on the top of a stoplight on Santa Monica and Wilshire screaming (the cops informed me), “Knick-Knack Paddywack, give E.T. a phone!” The good news is, I’m better now. And I have medication. Which allows me to drive by myself. Which led to a lot of library visits, where I actually learned what all these terms meant! And because I don’t want you to have to go through what I went through, I’m going to break all of them down and show you how you can use them to add depth to your characters. Get ready for your life to change.  As one of the greatest philosophers in history once said…”I’m tan mom. Biyyyyyyaaaaattttcchhhh.”

Flaw – A character (or fatal) flaw is the dominant negative trait that’s held your character back from becoming the person he’s meant to be.  Selfishness, lack of trust, won’t open up, won’t stand up for themselves, being irresponsible – these are all flaws you’ve seen hundreds of times in films.  The most powerful character flaws tend to be the ones that have hindered your character their entire lives. So in Rocky, Rocky has never believed in himself. But flaws can occasionally be a more recent problem, typically the result of a recent traumatic experience. So if a character was recently dumped by someone they loved, maybe their flaw is that they don’t trust love anymore.

When done right, the character flaw is the most effective way to add depth to your character. This is because once a reader identifies a character’s flaw, there’s an intrinsic need to see that flaw overcome. Being able to change is one of the most universally relatable experiences there is. So seeing someone else do it makes us believe we can do it. It’s almost like we’re living THROUGH the character, and that’s what creates that deep emotional connection.

Inner Conflict – The term “Inner conflict” is often mixed up with “character flaw” because they both infer struggle within our character. But inner conflict is less about overcoming one’s big weakness and more about a battle being waged inside the character. To execute a great inner conflict, you want to give your character two opposing forces that are pulling at him. Luke Skywalker (as well as Darth Vader) is being pulled by both good and evil in Return of the Jedi. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is trying to decide between being good or bad. A newly announced Andrew Garfield film is about a real estate agent who starts illegally kicking people out of their homes. He becomes rich doing so, but his conscience starts to eat at him. He’s conflicted with whether earning a living this way is the right thing (inner conflict).

Again, the advantage of adding an inner conflict is that you’re tackling a universal experience. We’re constantly dealing with our own conscience, with what’s right and wrong, being pulled in opposite directions. The most unsettled we tend to be in our lives is when we’re fighting these inner battles. It’s a very intense experience, and therefore we relate to and engage when we see a character going through the same.

Vices – Vices are often used incorrectly in screenplays, as many beginning writers believe that simply adding a drinking or drug addiction will give their character that elusive “depth” all these producers and agents talk about. 99 times out of 100, however, the characters unfortunate enough to be created this way feel cliché. Why? Because unless you’re exploring the vice in all its depth and complexity, it feels sprayed on, a false veneer hiding the fact that you don’t know how to build depth. A vice is the physical manifestation of an inner conflict. It’s drugs, food, alcohol, sex, gambling – any physical addiction your character can’t control.

In my experience, the only time vices truly add depth to characters is when the writer commits to them 100% – when they explore all the complexities and faults and issues and pitfalls and devastations that come with them. We saw it in Flight, we saw it in Leaving Las Vegas, we saw it in Half-Nelson, we even see it in The Dark Knight (The Joker’s vice is chaos). The screenplay almost has to be ABOUT the vice for it to truly resonate. Otherwise, if you’re just slapping it in there to try and make your character feel “deep,” it’s probably not going to work.

Fears – Fears are the last and typically weakest way to add depth to your character. The reason being, they’re surface level. Unlike a flaw, an inner conflict, or a vice, there isn’t a whole lot going on under the hood with a fear. Take Indiana Jones. His fear is snakes. Good for a chuckle, not much else. Or Brody from Jaws. He’s afraid of water. Cool for later when he must go into the ocean to kill the shark, but it doesn’t really add much depth to his character. Or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. His fear is heights. Sets up a nifty little finale where he must climb up the building to get to Julia Roberts, but there’s never a moment in the film where we feel the depth of Richard Gere being afraid of heights. It’s just a cute little setup and payoff, as are all these examples.

Now this doesn’t mean you don’t want characters who are afraid in your screenplays. Fear is a very powerful emotion. And as you can see from the examples above, it’s a nice little addition to a character who already has depth. You just don’t want fear to be the only element of depth in your character. Any fear should be in addition to, not in place of, these options. The one exception is if the fear is integral to the storyline. For example, if your character was raped, and now they’re afraid to leave the house in fear of getting raped again, obviously the fear is adding depth to your character.

Moving forward, my suggestion for adding depth to your character would be to start with the character flaw. If a character flaw doesn’t feel right for that particular story (Hey, Ferris Bueller didn’t have a character flaw), move to inner conflict. If your character doesn’t seem like the kind of guy with a lot of internal strife going on (aka Seth Rogan’s character in Knocked Up), go with a vice. Only use fear as a last option or if it’s integral to the kind of story you’re telling. There are a few other things you can do to add depth (backstory, mystery, your character’s relationships with others), but for the most part, if you’re not using one of the four elements featured in this article, your character will feel flat (leading to the dreaded, “Your characters never POPPED off the page.”).

Also, it’s okay to mix and match these elements. It’s okay to give a character a flaw and a vice. Or a vice and an inner conflict. If you really commit to one of these elements, one is all you need, but I’ve seen plenty of characters that are battling two or even three of these things. My only advice, if you take that route, is to connect the elements so they feel organic, as opposed to mechanically adding multiple things because a screenwriting blog told you to. For example, if your character’s flaw is that they don’t think they’re worthy of having a boyfriend, an addiction (vice) to food could keep them overweight and unattractive and therefore allow them to perpetuate that belief.

Remember that the main reason readers label characters as “thin” is that there isn’t a lot going on with them. I read so many scripts where I don’t remember the characters five minutes after I finish because there WASN’T ANYTHING GOING ON UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE. These four options are the things you place underneath the surface. Because the characters now have something underneath them, by definition, they have DEPTH. And just like that, you’ve created a three-dimensional character.

  • Paul Clarke

    Anyone claiming John McClaine doesn’t have a flaw should be immediately ejected from any screenwriting forum. Unless, of course, they are referring to the sequels.

    Another good tip: Most people think and behave in different ways. They keep secrets to themselves, or behave externally in a way that is deemed proper by society. A novel, for example, can explain what the characters are thinking. A screenplay cannot. So if you show a character acting one way in public, and quite differently in private or amongst close friends, that helps to show their inner depth and thought processes. Possibly the reason why super hero movies work so well with dual identities.

    • AJ

      Yes. Show the unique behaviors and interactions that define your characters and separate them from the other 6 billion people. We can fill in that they do all of the other stuff somewhat normally.

    • Gregory Mandarano

      So what’s his flaw, other than a marriage on the rocks?

      • Bfied

        Also curious about this, simply because although I’m familiar with the film on a concept/premise basis, I haven’t seen it since I was like 8 years old…

    • Bfied

      I’m also curious about what his flaw is if you could elaborate. I’m familiar with the film on a very basic concept/premise/character basis, but haven’t seen it since I was like 8 years old or something so I could definitely use a reminder. Thanks.

    • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

      I too am curious what his flaw is. It’s been a good while since I’ve seen the film, but I don’t really recall any flaw that is absolutely central to his arc and overcoming that flaw. Sure he *is* flawed – he isn’t perfect – but what’s that *defining* flaw? What does he overcome to achieve his goal?

      The most I recall is he’s a reluctant hero, but that’s not really a flaw as a) he overcomes that rather quickly and takes action, b) that’s a central theme of the Hero’s Journey (refusal of the call).

      But, like I’ve said, been a while since I’ve seen the film, and action films in particular can often tend toward much more subtle flaws and inner conflict.

      • Paul Clarke

        His flaw is that he is pig-headed and egotistical. That is why his marriage is on the rocks. He couldn’t handle that his wife was moving to a better job, and wasn’t willing to go with her.

        It is shown best at the beginning when he and Holly finally get some time alone, they seem to have reconciled. But John snaps emotionally and ruins it all.

        It is highlighted in the battle versus the ‘terrorists’ by the fact that he shouldn’t just emotionally react, he must THINK things through. There is a scene I remember well where he actually whacks himself on the forehead and says to himself ‘Think, think.” And of course, his nemesis in the film is the ultra-controlled, planned every little detail bad-guy Hans.

        I don’t recall a single moment where he clearly overcomes the flaw as such. But he ends up controlling his emotions, out-thinking them. Making them mad, making them react emotionally (like by killing one brother).

        My take on a movie is this: A person with a problem – and a flaw of character that stops them from solving this problem.
        Overcome the flaw = solve the problem.

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          Well said. I do not disagree. Been so long since I’ve seen it that I didn’t remember any of that (though I do recall the “think, think” moment now that you mentioned it). Totally forgot about him killing a brother of one guy.

        • GeneralChaos

          He overcame his flaw when he asked the cop (if he didn’t make it) to tell his wife that he was wrong.

          • Paul Clarke

            That’s right. I couldn’t remember all the details.

    • drifting in space

      His flaw is that they’ve squeezed too many movies out of this franchise.

    • GeneralChaos

      Indy had a flaw, too. His flaw was his lack of faith, which he demonstrated during his explanation of the Ark to the agents – ”Wrath of God, if you believe in that sort of thing.” He overcame that when he told Marion to close her eyes to avoid from God’s wrath when the Ark was finally opened.

  • ripleyy

    Even though I can’t add anything else to this (because the article is just that great as always), I do think Mannerisms, Quirks and Habits are bonus points.

    Another tip I learned which I thought was interesting was aligning your character to a starsign. For example, Ashley may be a Cancer, in which case you base her traits off how a Cancer would act. I don’t really do it but I thought it was good.

    Also, “Fondest Memories”. You will never use it, but having a fond memory – mostly from childhood – is a good way of understanding character. A sunset, the way their first kiss went, the first time they felt themselves fall in love, these are fond memories that bring a smile onto a character’s face.

    If you really think about it, there are so many tiny things that can make a character even though Carson’s article details the major things.

    You don’t need to do any of these things, though, if you don’t want to, but at the very least add a character flaw if you want to separate yourself from the boys (or girls).

    • AJ

      This makes me think of The Town where the lead woman tells Ben Affleck about her “sunny days”. This stuck out to me in the script for a good reason and it was because 99% of people will say “oh, a sunny day. I’m having fun”. But her sunny days meant dread and sadness, which told us a lot about her emotionally and her big heart. I felt it was solid and a great pay off, and maybe even gave Ben some depth when it was used as a code at the end.

      • NajlaAnn

        I’ll need to watch The Town. I heard it’s a pretty good movie.

        • Mike.H

          by chance, I rented it from local library for free last night and a copy sitting at my desk. Beware of Boston accents and Irish names.

  • Citizen M

    Another thing that adds depth is when a character gives the impression of having a life apart from his or her role in the script. And they have their own take on the world. They are not there just to advance the plot. They are there to contribute something of themselves.

    The best example I can think of is Saving Mr Banks. Even the most minor character seemed to be a rounded, three-dimensional person, and that was without overt flaws or fears or vices. I’m not sure how the writer achieved the effect, but it worked.

  • RafaelSilvaeSouza

    What a great article. Thanks, Carson!

  • jeanrobie

    I don’t think Ripley’s flaw is a lack of trust. She’s been traumatized. Newt inspires her maternal instinct and forces her to face her fears and in the process, she conquers them and can sleep again without nightmares.

    And I really have to disagree with your reading of Travis Bickle. He isn’t conflicted about good and evil–he’s a sociopath. He doesn’t know or understand the difference between good and evil. He just wants to kill somebody–anybody–so when he’s unable to kill the politician, it’s all the same to him to kill a couple pimps. At the end, ironically, he’s hailed as a hero and the point of the movie, I think, is to question all the other people with guns–gangsters, the gunfighters of the old West–we celebrate as heroes but who are just as likely to be sociopaths.

  • Poe_Serling

    Thanks for another timely and informative article, Carson.

    Here’s a bit of additional advice from Stephen King regarding character development, which is thought-provoking… at least to me. ;-)

    ‘Characters: nobody is the ‘bad-guy’ … The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see. It’s also important to remember that no one is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the best friend’ … in real life; in real life … each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us , baby.

    If you can bring this attitude into your ‘writing,’ you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.’

    • drifting in space

      Once again, Poe, you’ve nailed it. Love this.

      • Poe_Serling

        Mr. King gets all the credit here… just sharing his insights. ;-)

        • drifting in space

          I agree, 100%. On my script, I pretty much finished through the vomit draft and had ZERO of this quality (among other things…). Took a few days away from it and now I am finding all kinds of ways to give my minor characters reasons to show up on the page, all while interacting with the main character AND driving the story forward.

          I’ve had to change the story slightly, but it still flows without a hitch and now I’ve got that added layer. Hopefully it reads that way. I’m itching to get it submitted but at the same time, I want a polished final product.

          On the other hand, this is the first screenplay I’ve ever written, so… it is probably still a heap of garbage! Ha! But this insight is invaluable.

          • Trek

            Congrats on edging that first screenplay closer to completion!

            First screenplays are notoriously difficult, so here’s some quick advice from my own experience: really, truly focus on your characters. This was always a difficult concept for me to grasp and understand, but I’ve learned that characters are, without exception, the life blood of your script. You could have a weak story, but if you have amazing characters that fly right off the page, you’re on the right track to making a great screenplay.

          • drifting in space

            Thank you! This is why I love this community.

            I’m finding what you say to be quite true. I feel my story has really developed because of the effort I’m putting into the characters. They are almost shaping it for me. I hope to keep true to this as I go through a few re-writes.

    • K.B. Houston

      That’s from On Writing, correct? Everybody who writes should read that book — scriptwriters especially! One of the biggest problems I see with amateur scripts on this site is an inability to write. Sure, people can come up with dynamic storylines and plot twists, but not many can describe them well. Gotta write before you can tell a story.

  • NajlaAnn

    Creating 3-d characters is a huge challenge for me. This article helps a lot – THANKS!

  • MayfieldLake

    Ferris Bueller’s flaw is being too awesome.

    • RafaelSilvaeSouza

      That’s not his flaw. It’s his vice.

      • drifting in space

        Would be a pretty sweet vice to have.

  • Avishai

    I vaguely remember somebody who was interviewed on this site saying that the protagonist’s flaw is the opposite of theme, because watching a character overcome his/her flaw solidifies what the story is about.

    A good example would be The Woman In Black, an underrated horror movie. The theme is letting go, moving on. So, of course, Daniel Radcliffe’s character Arthur Kipps is hindered by an inability to move on past the death of his wife. The antagonist, the titular Woman In Black, has the same flaw: She can’t get over the loss of her son. The difference is, she deals by killing children. The conflict between the two forces Arthur to overcome his flaw and establish the theme.

    This might not be the best example, but it’s the one that comes to mind.

    Totally unrelated: I learned this year that in Hebrew, the word for character is feminine, so when you refer to a character in Hebrew, you say “Her”, “She” etc. regardless of the character’s gender. No real reason to bring this up. Just thought it was funny.

  • Bfied

    Just watched “Sideways” last night and noticed how well the subtext of Miles’ inner conflict was buried within the story; he never truly comes out and states the things that are tearing him apart inside (at least to my knowledge), rather, it’s shown through the other characters various relationships and actions and more importantly, what everyone else has that Miles does not.

    I’d say Miles’ inner conflict, simply put, is that he wants what he can’t have.

    And I’d say if Miles did have a flaw, it would be that he needs to be accepted by others (although I’d say this is less of a driving force than his inner conflict).

    He wants a loving, meaning, and romantic relationship with someone he truly cares about and who can love him back unconditionally. Yes, he wants his novel published too, but that’s less important and really pertains to his want/need of being accepted.

    They demonstrate Miles’ inner conflict in a number of ways…

    I) He doesn’t have his marriage anymore with his ex-wife, and now since she’s re-married, her mystery husband, KEN, has exactly what he wants — his wife back. Again, Miles wants what he can’t have.

    II) Miles’ deep desire for a meaning relationship (and lack thereof) is also shown through his best friend, JACK, who has exactly what Miles wants (a wife who loves him unconditionally) and a soon-to-be fulfilling marriage… Yet, Jack takes what he has for granted and is willing to cheat on his loving wife with little afterthought and even potentially throw it all away for a girl he just met, STEPHANIE… Again, this tears Miles apart internally because he sees Jack’s irresponsibility and willingness to give up his potential marriage and fiancee who loves him, when Miles can’t even achieve these things in the first place, let alone give them up.

    III) Miles wants MAYA, a girl he falls for on the road trip and thinks she could love him back unconditionally. However, even Maya isn’t “easy” for him to attain, and there’s always the constant driving question of whether they’ll get together (and after they hook up) whether or not they’ll get back together and eventually stay together.

    IV) Miles desire for his book to be published shows his want/need to be accepted by others. At the end, when his book is rejected to be published/sold and he’s teaching it in his 8th grade class, it’s almost as if he’s overcome his “flaw” to need to be regarded or accepted as somebody important, and he can go on with his life without the need for others approval.

    Again, although there’s some subtext in the dialogue to Miles’ inner conflict (very little I’m aware of), it’s really found in the relationships and actions of the other characters by showing what they have, and more importantly, what Miles is lacking…

    • MaliboJackk

      There’s a quiet moment where Maya asks Miles why he likes Pinot Noir.
      And Miles answers with a long, morose reply about the care needed and how difficult the grapes are to grow.

      But what he’s really saying is this — You wouldn’t want me. I’m too much trouble.

      It’s a great scene.

  • fragglewriter

    Great article.

    I was telling my friend this morning about my protagonist. I know the ending of the movie, but had to stop writing the script as he was becoming cliche. This article hit the nail on the head as to why my protagonist was not popping for me, which means it will not pop for anyone who reads my script.

  • Cambias

    Any “flaw” or “conflict” can be generalized to: “a motive which may interfere with the character’s ostensible goal.” In other words, a reason for the character to fail.

    This explains why so many action heroes have exceedingly lame character flaws: at no point do we actually believe this stated “flaw” will actually interfere with the character’s ability to be a stupendous badass. Sure, Indiana Jones is scared of snakes, but even when he’s sealed into a tomb full of cobras he’s too busy working out a way to escape to be bothered by the snakes. If he wasn’t afraid of snakes, he’d be doing exactly the same thing, so his fear of snakes is a pointless flaw.

    Contrast the character flaw of John Wayne’s character in “The Searchers” — he follows an old-fashioned code of honor and believes that his missing niece has been so “dishonored” by her Indian captors that killing her is the best outcome for all concerned. Because that code is what motivates him to hunt her across the West for years, there’s genuine tension. Will he kill her? Will his nephew have to kill him to save her? We honestly don’t know.

  • Writer451

    Indiana Jones (stubborn, “It belongs in a museum!” and emotionally guarded) and John McClane (a reckless and stubborn alcoholic) have flaws. I think what those guys meant was that Jones and McClane don’t have arcs — like James Bond.

    • Jerry Salvaderi

      Going by Carson’s definition above, I wouldn’t really call those flaws. Were McClane’s recklessness and stubbornness the things that were holding him back? Sure, they helped with the deterioration of his marriage, but I wouldn’t say they were really holding him back per se.

      Put another way, did overcoming these “flaws” help him achieve his goal? Not really. He was reckless until the very end (leaping off the building with the fire-hose safety harness, the postal tape/pistol gambit); if anything, it helped him achieve his goals (defeat Hans, rescue Holly).

  • Trek

    I wouldn’t call it too simplistic, per say.

    Each of those examples would be considered manifestations of either a character’s flaw or their inner conflict. Showing a manifestation can be a good device for presenting those flaws and conflicts though.

    • Jonathan Soens

      It usually doesn’t take too long to figure out if the writer wrote it that way because he’s adding layers to the characters, or if he’s just trying to lend his characters quirk or humor.

      • drifting in space

        Like in Where Angels Die… no offense to the writer, but he only dealt with OCD like, twice in that script maybe? Then the rest was pure action and it never came up again.

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          Indeed. Good example of a character with a vice where the writer didn’t commit. As one commenter said back then on that script, the main character “goes home, has some OCD.” It happens maybe three times. It’s like a character having some alcoholism a couple times in a script.

          Contrast that to films like As Good As It Gets or Matchstick Men, which 100% fully commit to the OCD.

        • MaliboJackk

          He was cured.

        • Awescillot

          Yeah, quite some people noticed. If the writer takes those notes into consideration and evens things out along the script, I think the OCD really has some added value. But then again, if the OCD would be overly present (fully committed to it), I think it wouldn’t help the script that much either. I guess you have to just add the right dosage, ha.

          • drifting in space

            I think the alcoholism would be the stronger path. An alcoholic social worker ends up making an irrational decision leading him down a path of destruction, both emotionally and perhaps redemption?

            Would be bittersweet to have him die but save the mom and her child without having ever truly been romantically connected. We’d be rooting for him to get over his addiction, get with her and save the day as we watch it unfold.

            Just my two cents. The OCD thing just never felt right in that script.

          • Awescillot

            I did however enjoy reading that one scene, where he goes crazy over his stapler having been used by a co-worker. Having said that, it’s the only OCD related scene that popped out (with none following). Whether it feels right to leave it in the script, might be up for debate, but then again it’s just a matter of personal taste so I can totally understand why you would feel that way. Either some sort of continuation of the OCD, or leave it all together, perhaps.

            I like your ‘bittersweet’ pitch there. In the script he and the woman (the mom) have sex in his car, without there being that much of a steady buildup to it. So if the writer could create some more intensity, or some sort of steady romantic aspiration throughout the story, the ending would have had more depth. In stead of – just – saving her, there’d be this added tension towards the end (“will she finally go for him”). The alcohol would’ve been there in the first place for some reason, but his addiction would’ve been maintained by the incertitude of him actually being able to be with her in the end. If getting rid of his addiction would be the way out.. Then we’d be rooting for him, as you said. So I can only agree with you on that one.

  • gazrow

    “Hey, Ferris Bueller didn’t have a character flaw” – Good point and maybe the reason I hate his character and the film!

    He was a smug, arrogant, overly confident prick!

    May the down votes begin! :-)

    • Poe_Serling

      lol. The black hat is back on and let the twirling of the handlebar mustache
      begin anew.

      • gazrow

        Lol. Brought my six-shooter too. Think I’m gonna need it! Expecting a lot of down arrows coming my way! :)

    • drifting in space

      I guess that flaw tests his friendship with Cameron. Ferris tries to accept blame for the car thing (overcoming the flaw, perhaps?). It is a bit of a stretch, but it is KINDA there.

      • gazrow

        I love nearly everything the late, great, John Hughes did – All except Ferris!

        I hate it with a passion, mostly because of the main character! Sorry. :-)

      • Brian Lastname

        For a long time, I tried really hard not to believe the following “argument,” but as a screenwriter, I finally caved. For conversation’s sake, I’m just gonna throw it out there: FBDO is really Cameron’s movie.

        ** Obviously, if you are to argue this, you must come to this conclusion by adhering to the belief that a film’s protag/main character has to have a flaw, a problem; he has to TRANSFORM **

        So yes, since Cameron is the only major (Ferris’ sister has problems, too. But she doesn’t resolve them if I’m remembering correctly) character with a “real” problem to overcome, it can be argued that HE, not Ferris, is the film’s main character, the protag — and a very reluctant one, at that.

        Cameron takes the hero’s journey as he overcomes the whole fiasco with his father and that damn car, which we witness from thesis to synthesis. Yes, Ferris undoubtedly garners the lion’s share of screen time and is the film’s true “star,” but he’s really just the vehicle that is used to push Cameron to said synthesis.

        Ferris’ girlfriend, Mia Sara — see, I can’t even remember her character’s name she was so thin! — didn’t transform, and neither did Ferris. (edit: it’s Sloane.)

        Now, some people (not you, Drifting in Space, just people in general) say it was an oversight on Hughes’ part, or that it was lazy and incompetent to have such a flat protagonist (Ferris), but personally… I think it was genius… I think Hughes did it intentionally; he smiled and winked at you and tricked you into believing it was Ferris’ movie… While in reality the protagonist is really his glorified sidekick.

        Either way you cut it, people still can’t quite figure it out. And whether intentional on Hughes’ part or not, I believe the Ferris vs. Cameron debate is why FBDO is lauded as one of the all-time greats.

        • MaliboJackk

          My guess — it’s a great movie because its original, funny and clever.

          I think what you’re doing is having an intellectual argument with yourself. And you’re not alone. I’ve heard others make similar arguments.
          First you define what you think a protag is — and then you conclude that people who don’t fit your description are not protags.
          In such cases, you can never be wrong.

          But does this mean that John Wayne is not the protag of his own movies? The Searches is the only movie that I remember where he had a flaw and an arc.

          How does a dictionary define a protagonist?

          • Brian Lastname

            All very true and good points. I understand that there’s no real answer to the question/position I outlined, as a protagonist can be defined in a variety of different ways. I was just posing the argument for argument’s sake, really – from the “traditional” standpoint of what a protagonist is, if you will. And the funny and clever part doesn’t hurt, either, lol.

          • MaliboJackk

            Was only concerned that you were buying into the argument that all great movies need a protag with a flaw.

            In such a case, HAL would be the protag of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

        • drifting in space

          I love this point of view. It kind of sums up why, during the movie, we laugh along with Ferris but our real connection is with Cameron.

          Sure, Ferris is “sick” and everyone loves him so he gets sympathy, but I think we all cringed the most when that car goes through the glass.

          And the debate goes on!

    • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

      Ferris Bueller’s Day off is absurdly overrated.

      • gazrow

        Couldn’t agree more!

  • jridge32

    Carson, what’s the best example of a character with all four of these?

  • carsonreeves1

    ooh, I like this term. :)

  • Auckland Guy

    Great article Carson. I like how you’ve distinguished between a flaw and an inner conflict, it’s an important distinction to make.

    I have to agree with Grendl that fear can be a major revealer of character too, not a minor one. I think the examples you give are of minor fears but there good examples of some pretty major ones and you mention Brody from Jaws. I think fear does add a lot of depth to his character. His fear of the water and his fear for the safety of his children…

    Like others have said too, I think John McClane does have a flaw – he puts his work over his relationships. During the course of the movies his family gets to see the good side of his action man persona though, and his stubbornness and appreciate it more. Particularly so in Die Hard 4 with his daughter.

  • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

    Yes this is very common in the most well written characters. As McKee says “dimension means contradiction.” He cites Hamlet as the most complex character ever written. “He’s loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. …. cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash.”

  • peisley

    Also agree. Ripley is, perhaps, one of the most nearly perfect characters. She’s rightfully distrustful of those around her because of their fear and lack of experience, but I don’t believe her true fault is a lack of trust in general. All I can come up with as a fault in her may be her deep sense of duty overrides personal happiness. This is a universal theme, especially when applied to serving in the military or any high risk profession. There are hints of a family left behind due to her job. This “fault,” however, is what keeps her alive. She’s not cold, though, or emotionally shallow. In fact, she’s probably what’s referred to as gifted with emotional intelligence, along with a razor sharp brain and amazing survival skills. I hated to see them cloning her with the alien later. Wtf? The woman we loved became a total enigma. Shameful end to a fascinating character.

  • K.B. Houston

    This is probably my favorite article I’ve ever read here.

    Look at all four of the above. What do they have in common? Negativity. All four are traits we tend to label as negative aspects of our life, yet Carson (and the entire movie business) is sitting here telling you, “No! This is what makes a great character and a great film!” It’s just funny, that’s all. In society we’re taught to hide all these parts of our personality, yet place us in a dark theater where you don’t know anybody and the one thing we can’t go without are vices, fears, inner turmoil, etc. These are the elements that make us human! We know this, yet for whatever reason we’re taught to ignore these innate characteristics, brush them under the rug. Well, Hollywood is proving this notion erroneous, and for that, I’m happy to say I’m at least somewhat a part of it.

    A few things:

    I’m a firm believer in inner conflict. The other three can work if you’re a good writer, but none can go as deep as inner conflict. With inner conflict you get at the bare bones of fear, vices and flaws, which is personal struggle. That’s what we’re really getting at with any type of inner problem you’re examining. For example, take a vice like drugs. Let’s say you’re main character is a coke addict. Next, ask yourself this: Why is she/he a coke addict? THAT’S where you’ll start to get somewhere. That’s where the inner conflict resides. That’s where you’re depth will manifest itself and where storylines can begin to form. Trust me, when it comes to problems, always ask why. Why, why, why. You’ll then start to dig into your characters past, their DNA, their decision making, and your depth will unwrap itself right before your very eyes.

    This is why I’ve always like Scorsese. His main characters are always just that: characters. There’s always something going on beneath the surface. There’s always a massive personal struggle and often a downward spiral that you just can’t look away from. Raging Bull is perhaps my favorite film for this very reason. Watching Jake LaMotta slowly unwind from world champ to paranoid comedy hack is pure cinema bliss, in my opinion. It’s just so real, so lifelike. No matter who you are or what you’ve been through, when you watch Raging Bull or Taxi Driver you can relate to those characters on a human level. That’s what cinema is all about.

  • K.B. Houston

    I strongly agree with this statement. I’ve always just referred to it as contrast but I like your term better! Strong contrast in character traits can add HUGE depth. I’ve always loved these types of character studies because they create inner turmoil in such an original manner. I have a story idea I’m considering about a pharmacist who refuses to take medication for her mental issues. Just an idea, but a fair example of your theory.

  • Awescillot

    Great article. Clear overview, which makes it ridicilously easy to read/apply.

    One thing though, inner conflict, flaws.. Why hasn’t anybody mentioned In Bruges yet?

    • Nate

      I really do think Carson should do In Bruges for his Tuesday article. I think there’s a lot we could learn from that one.

      • Awescillot

        I totally agree with you, I’d love to know what his thoughts on it are.

        I wondered, though, if Carson might not already have posted an article about In Bruges, so I googled it.

        He didn’t write an article about it, but he has mentioned it. Apparently, he just doesn’t like the film: “As much as this will piss everyone off, I never understood the love for In Bruges, ”

        ( scriptshadow.blogspot.com/2011/07/scriptshadow-reader-top-25-and-amateur.html )

        So I’m guessing it’s probably not on the top of his to do list. Ah well..

  • blueiis0112

    I think the fear factor worked really well in “Aliens” because Ripley was just full of fear. The rest of the characters took a while to catch up, but very quickly they starting feel the same fear. The only other aspect of this movie was what little we know about the queen. Very little about her abilities, biology or origin have been explored. She inspires fear because we don’t know enough to really control her. I wish someone would go into that direction for a franchise.