D. L. Moody—
“Character is what you are in the dark.”
What do Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, John Edwards, and Nigella Lawson have in common? They’re not exactly who we thought they were. Unmasking imperfection—from Jimmy Swaggart to Paula Deen—still makes headlines. Why? Because—whether we’re jealous and enjoy seeing others fall from grace… or they’d gained our admiration and empathy over the course of their careers… or, even, if we are simply looking for an outlet to exercise our righteous indignation—the truth is that we indentify on some level, deep down at the core of our flawed humanity. After all, to err is human.
Nobody’s perfect. The best among us are pocked with contradictions, anomalies, contingency responses, etc. And as writers attempting to create believable and engaging characters, we need to appreciate what it is to be human. While no parent sets out to raise a flawed person, we need to give our literary babies a healthy dose of imperfection. We need to present them to the world in all their glory, without glossing over those tendencies toward the provisional, unreliable, volatile or erratic, and decidedly unwhole.
Your protagonists shouldn’t be knowable at face value. In other words, he should harbor inconsistencies. When inner and outer life mirror each other, you’ve created a flat and predictable role, a Ken or Barbie endowed with dialogue.
The arrogance of Oedipus, the ambition of Jason, the rage of Achilles—as far back as classical Greek drama, heroes have been afflicted with blindspots that prevented them from seeing the error of their ways. It’s not for nothing that ancient Greek stories are about characters whose fatal flaw brings about their downfall. Even Superman—a one-dimensional character, if ever there was one—can’t withstand the power of Kryptonite. He, too, is vulnerable and has obstacles that could possibly take him down. A fatal flaw demands more of a character and perches his fate on a slippery slope, which tugs at readers who want to know if he will overcome or not.
Flaws Not Faults
The fatal flaw is not a fault. It’s the result of a scar or wound from the past that we try to shield or protect with an ineffective coping mechanism. We have a trait intrinsic to who we are because at some point in our life we experienced an injury, failure, or unmet need that colored our world view and shaped who we are.
The stubbornness of Scarlett O’Hara can be traced to her temperamental father who mounts a horse, chases after the Yankees, tries to jump a fence and is killed. In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, Mrs. Alving must live with the sins of her husband—a son going insane from syphilis, and an illegitimate daughter. Heathcliff would be an amoral sociopath without our understanding of his abusive childhood. Dr. Frankenstein is a run-on-the-mill mad genius without his passion to ‘banish disease from the human frame. ” Gatsby could be another spoilt millionaire except that we know his past poverty and discipline which earned him his fortune and gives the reader insight into his present actions. Regardless of what story the writer might choose to tell, this flawed protagonist adds depth to the plot.
We must change to realize our full potentials, yet most of us cling to obsolete survival systems because they are familiar, seem safer, make us feel less alone, isolated, fearful, unappreciated, and unloved. We reason that it’s easier to cope with what we know than with what don’t. As a result, most of us fight to sustain destructive relationships, unchallenging jobs, unproductive work, harmful addictions, unhealthy environments, and immature behavior.
The fatal flaw generates a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness, as well as generating difficulties with others and with achieving his goals.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey has committed himself to a survival system that operates under the assumption that if he takes care of everyone else his own needs somehow will be met to the process. There was a time in his life when developing his ability to care about the needs of others helped George grow into a more loving and less self-serving person. Powerful feelings of self-worth accompanied these actions. He felt good about himself because he was getting as much as he was giving. His life had a balance to it. But there came a point of diminishing returns when the value of what was coming in no longer equaled what was going out. As George continued to put the needs of family and community above his own, his identity as a caretaker became fixed and his personal needs and dreams suppressed. The proof that he was spending himself on his esteem show in the mounting anger and resentment he began to carry. And though he felt unhappy and unfulfilled, George continued to spend himself until there was nothing left to spend. That was the day he decided to jump off a bridge.
The flaw in George’s limited perception of his own identity was about to prove fatal. Therefore, the real drama of the story centered on his ability to expand this self-perception by reclaiming his greater value before it was too late.
Identifying and utilizing the fatal flaw is one of the most powerful tools a writer can develop. It distinguishes an aspect of character that not only determines behavior, but also establishes the internal conflict that drives the story. George’s fatal flaw, his inability to fulfill his needs, is expressed in his behavior by portraying him as someone who takes care of everyone else at the expense of himself. The interior conflict that results in suicidal desperation is not a random choice made by the writer. It is a logical consequence of George’s flawed perception that he no longer has value.
A fatal flaw does not always relate directly to a physical death. It may foreshadow a more metaphorical death, a killing of dreams, desires, passion, identity, or any other aspect of the self that would open up to a greater, more expansive view of the character’s whole nature.
Most importantly, a fatal flaw is not a judgment that a writer places on a character. For example, if a sixteen-year-old has sex or gets drunk, it doesn’t mean he or she is doomed. The fatal effect occurs when life stops, when growth and change are held back. Look to the winter of a character’s growth cycle and ask what has become exhausted in terms of self-perception. A sixteen-year-old who is completely dependent on his parents to make decisions might be in more jeopardy than a teen who experiments with sex and alcohol.
For the writer, identifying the fatal flaw clarifies what the hero’s internal journey will be, and once the writer is clear about the hero’s needs, in terms of internal growth, the external conflict becomes clear. The physical challenges in the plot serve to push the protagonist to grow past old boundaries that define him that he can become someone more evolved by the end of the story.
Choosing a Fatal Flaw
If the fatal flaw is determined by guesswork or by trial and error until something feels right, the substructure of the story will follow arbitrary choices. The results, of course, will be random and meaningless. To define the fatal flaw organically, so that it rises to meet the writer’s intentions, it must reflect theme.
Because the fatal flaw reveals an aspect of character that can potentially destroy the opportunity for growth, it is always created around a value that opposes the theme and the internal goal for the protagonist.
- The fatal flaw represents the opposite value of the theme.
- The fatal flaw is determined by inverting (finding the opposite value of) the internal goal of the theme.
In Dead Poets Society, the theme of seize the day sets up as an internal goal for the protagonists (the need to be true to their own natures). Their fatal flaws, therefore, must be something in their character that betrays their true nature.
If this were our project, though we wouldn’t yet know how our co-protagonists will behave, we know that they will be false to their nature and that gives us an enormous amount of information to work with.
Without a struggle to be true to their nature, there’d be no conflict, and hence, no story. Therefore, when we first meet the boys in the setup of Dead Poets Society, it must be apparent that they’re struggling. Once the fatal flaw is defined, it begins to provoke questions. Why would someone struggle against being true to their nature? What does being false to one’s true nature mean (living a lie, hiding from himself, hiding from others, living in fear, not being authentic, denying his or her own needs, and so on)? And is it really possible to be false to one’s nature?
From the first frame of in Dead Poets Society, the audience is shown a pretentious and controlled atmosphere that surrounds the students, who themselves seem constrained and guarded. This behavior is highlighted further when the boys find a moment to themselves and they become more relaxed and confident. The focus on the contrast in their behavior signals to the source of their problems. The boys do not behave naturally in the open, only in private where they feel safe. It portrays them as deceptive and insecure. One of the students even has difficulty acting naturally among his peers. He seems not only to be withdrawn but out of touch with what feels natural to him. Further, as the story develops, the effect of not expressing their true nature destabilizes one of the boys to the point of self-destruction.
Here is what the thematic scheme of Dead Poets Society looks like once we add the character traits that were determined through the fatal flaw of character.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
- Subject of theme: Manhood
- Thematic point of view: Carpe diem—Seize the day
- Subplot: (internal goal): Be true to your nature
- Fatal flaw: Being false to your nature
- Character traits: Deceptive, Insecure, Withdrawn, Unstable
While there are more details and complexities to be filled in, this breakdown shows that there is a direct and authentic way to arrive at story choices that will support the writer’s vision and keep it focused on what he or she values.
When a story lacks a fatal flaw of character that is connected to the thematic spine of a story, the development of character traits for the protagonist often serves other agendas, such as making a character likeable, memorable, or politically correct. These types of choices seldom connect with a writer’s thematic objectives and will render a story shallow and ineffective. Without a technique to evaluate choices, writers can’t know what’s motivating them.