Recently I posted an article on 12 Cliches storytellers should avoid.
The list garnered positive feedback, as well as requests for in-depth discussion on how to “bust” these clichés in an actual story.
Each week, for the next twelve, I’m addressing one cliché and giving tips on how to build a better story without it.
Today’s cliché is . . .
Much has been made of the infamous “character flaw” that resides deep within heroes, setting them up to fail a quest before it even begins. Aristotle called this hubris. Often translated as “pride,” it is possibly more akin to narcissism. Dramatists since have called it the “tragic flaw.”
By any name, your hero’s flaw is a crucial aspect of your story.
Possibly even its linchpin.
After all, Story is about somebody who wants something and is having trouble getting it. Where does the trouble come from? The hero’s flaw is one primary source.
Obviously, the overarching conflict in his/her world (war, famine, a presidential election) may not be the result of a personal flaw. But how s/he reacts to that conflict, and the decisions s/he makes within it, are very much influenced by the flaw. Plus, the hero’s flaw determines what Act Three action s/he needs to take to solve the problem. (Something the flaw prevented him/her from doing back in Act One!)
If a character’s flaw is weak—or worse, completely unrelated to the plot—the story itself falters.
So why is it that so many writers play safe?
As the name of this cliché suggests, alcoholism is a common generic flaw chosen by writers. Make no mistake, addiction of any kind is a terrible monster that destroys lives. But inside Hollywood (and outside as well) this particular addiction show up again and again and again as the hero’s primary (or most visible) flaw.
I don’t know about you, but most of my friends who drink are not alcoholics.
There are a whole lot more vices out there that easily ensnare humans: false humility, for example, that ensnares us in pride. Naivete that traps us in a controlling relationship. How about perfectionism, or even fear? Some of these appear so “acceptable” that we hardly consider them flaws, yet they have the potential to destroy our real-life transformative journeys.
So where are those vices not present in your heroes?
Have you run to the old “alcohol trick” just because you’ve seen it in so many other stories?
My point here is not to get you to remove your hero’s alcoholism, if his/her addiction is crucial to the arc of growth. But do take a close look at your story. Might you have thrown in a common vice that doesn’t quite fit the tale? Ideally it should hinder his/her journey through Act 2 in the most dramatic way possible. Overcoming it in Act 3 should test everything s/he’s got.
If you find you’re letting your hero “off too easy” with a generic flaw . . . it’s time to change that.
Here are a few tips:
There’s nothing like real life for livening up stories. Make a list of everyone you’ve ever known whose personality or life story remind you of your hero. What flaws did you observe in each person’s life? Are there patterns? This is not an exercise in judgment or criticism; rather, it should be an exercise in psychology. If one flaw consistently recurs on your list, it might be the perfect “tragic weakness” to threaten your hero’s attainment of his/her quest.
Our medieval forefathers were notorious for cataloging, categorizing, and cross-examining every virtue and vice you can imagine. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but the Seven Deadly Sins (and its companion) the Seven Cardinal Virtues are a solid source of classic options. There is also a more extensive Tree of Virtues and a Tree of Vices that might prove inspirational.
Sometimes it helps to start with visuals. What primary action encapsulates your character’s worst side? Identify the root cause behind that behavior, and you may very well find your flaw. For example: in a script I’m working on, I knew early on that my heroine was obsessed with order, perfection and risk-minimization in every aspect of her life. From her behavior, I deduced that her root flaw was obsession with control. Armed with that understanding, I created a world that spins wildly out of control, forcing her to confront and deal with her vice.
“Eeney, meeney, miney, moe” is not just for children. If you’re starting out with a story that’s not fully formed, study up on your vices from #1 or #2 and then pick one. Craft a journey (as I did in #3) around that vice. It’s really okay; you’re the author. You get to decide what the character does—not the other way around.
Overall, “heroic vice” is a tricky topic, and not the most pleasant to consider. But every journey has a substantial dark side, and every memorable hero must battle the monsters inside him/herself as well as those they meet along the path.
Isn’t that the way life works?
Choose your hero’s vice well, and not only will your story be stronger, but your audience will identify more powerfully with the character and his/her journey.
Perhaps, in some way, their own lives might even be transformed.