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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

We are Miners

A little Cowboy Junkies ref for those closest to the Wave-inatrix's cupcake heart.

When we think about the flaws of our main characters - the flaw that will be changed or resolved at the end of their character arc, we have to be sure that the flaw is an active one. In other words being "shy" as a flaw doesn't connote much in the way of this character driving the action because of it. Your character's flaw should be something that affects every aspect of his or her life so that because of this flaw, stuff keeps raining down on the character's head in such a way that he/she cannot deal with it effectively. Until the lightbulb goes off over the character's head.

Writing good characters is all about digging deeper. Mining for the details.

Being vain is a flaw. But it's not a really good flaw until we know WHY your character is vain. Or why your character is a bully. Or a doormat. Or has anger management issues. Why, why, why? Therein lies the answer to creating a really active, interesting flaw.

I like to get to the flaw like this: I ask a client what the flaw is and they usually say something like "he wants his father's approval." Nnnnnot really working. It's not specific enough. So then I ask - why? What is the backstory to that flaw? Well, his father was distant and distracted growing up. Okay, so he didn't get the attention he wanted and you've sketched out what that arises from. Still not a flaw. It's a need. His father's attention and approval.

So let's try this: What does the character overtly WANT in his life? To be wealthy and respected. No - what does the character WANT right now, in this moment in time? To cut a deal and sell 10 Lamborghinis. Okay. But what does the character NEED?

To feel respected and loved by his father. Nnnooo....actually, digging deeper, he needs a sense of self-worth. So - the character cannot get what he wants until he gets what he needs. Car sale, i.e., money and success ain't gonna happen until he has a sense of self-worth.

And how is this character going to find a sense of self-worth over the course of your story? Ohhh how about by finding out he has a mentally deficient brother tucked away in a home? How about the bright idea of kidnapping that brother in order to share the inheritance more fairly? But what happens on that memorable road trip in THE RAIN MAN? Tom Cruise learns more about himself through his brother than at any other time in his life. So by the end of the story - the money and the success - this no longer is Cruise's goal. It's hanging onto the brother he never knew he had.

All character flaws are rooted in some kind psychic wound. A lot like life, right? Something messed with your character's head earlier in life. But here's the thing - just like us 3-d people, characters will do anything rather than just plain face that psychic wound. Often, we can't even really articulate it. But as a screenwriter, you get to be the Universe (g-d, Yahweh, Spirit...) You get to deal the psychic wound, you get to decide in what way your character acts that wound up via flaw and you get to decide what the real NEED of your character is.

Because wanting a father's respect is not the healthy answer to the psychic wound. It's about self-respect. You've been to therapy, Wavers. The thing is never the thing.

So do this exercise:

What is your character's flaw?
What psychic wound does it stem from?
What is your character's want/goal at the beginning of the story?
How does that want unconsciously relate to the healing of the psychic wound?
What does your character really need, then?
So again, what is the flaw? How is it a lame, sideways way of having the psychic wound healed?

NOW you have arrived at the actual, interesting, active flaw. A good character arc is like therapy writ large.

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Anthony Peterson said...

Thats gold! Thank you.

Tyler said...

Great post... I've heard the general concept you were touching on with the "psychic wound" part a lot before, but you rephrased it and actually made the concept of a void in a character's lif ea little clearer to me. Thanks!

Laura Reyna said...

Yeah, very good post.

I don't use the term "flaw". I simply think of it in terms of emotional need. I ask myself, what is his char's *emotional need*?

Emotions are the fuel that drive the engine.

And the more I study this stuff, the more I'm seeing stories that come down to self worth & self esteem issues. Even something as movie-ish as say robbing a bank often comes down to "proving something".

Julie Gray said...

Hi Laura - the reason I like to distinguish between the emotional need and the flaw is that the flaw is then an enactment of getting that need filled. Sometimes the flaw is absolutely counter-intuitive to the need. A person who needs his father's respect might actually try to get that in a totally backwards way by completely rebelling and doing the opposite of what his father wants him to do. At the Writer's Boot Camp, the flaw is actually called the "misbehavior" - in some ways a more appropriate term.