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You Can’t Have a Character Arc Without a Character Flaw

It’s fairly universally understood these days that your protagonist, and probably a few major characters as well, MUST have a character arc in your story. So much so we deduct 20% from that section at the screenplay evaluation company I work for if an arc isn’t readily apparent.

Personally, I don’t really totally agree with these draconian rules. I mean, pretty much every character Clint Eastwood played throughout the 70-80s was exactly the same at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. Same with my favorite barbarian Conan – he’s entirely unchanged at the end of each of Howard’s stories as he was at the beginning (I just looked it up, and apparently I’ve made this argument before in a footnote). Neither of Tom Cruise’s franchises of Mission Impossible or Jack Reacher are really known for their character changing at all over the course of each movie.

I take it as a personal challenge to see how many times I can reuse this image, apparently.

But I believe that has a lot to do with those stories being episodic rather than serial. In effect, those are all plot based stories that can be read/ viewed out of order. As such, they need a constant to anchor the audience, which is the protagonist.

So, if you’re writing an episodic anything, you probably don’t need a character arc (though you still should have a character flaw, though that’s a discussion for another day).

But if you’re writing a series, you’re pretty much 99% going to want a character that arcs. Because an arc shows that the character has learned something of import over the course of your story. And if your character can’t even scrounge the effort to find this journey important enough to learn from, how is your audience going to find it important?

And, as my title so subtly hinted, to have an arc you need to start from a point of weakness. Now this is not to say you need a winey little baby as your protagonist, nor a bumbling fool (to this day I still HATE Confederacy of Dunces with a burning passion); rather your protagonist must have something that holds him/ her back in some way, something that keeps them from being a fully rounded individual.

A character flaw, if you will.

One of the most popular arcs, especially within the fantasy genre, is the farm boy/ orphan to savior. This one is particularly beloved among authors because it allows the protagonist to be ignorant of the wide world around them, thus making them a proxy for the audience to be spoon fed all the worldbuilding (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Neo, Aang, Wonder Woman, WIll Turner, Frodo, Bilbo… and that’s just off the top of my head), but that’s also probably another blog someday. But the protagonist clearly starts off with a weakness/ flaw in their ignorance, which they have overcome by the end when they hold the fate of the world in their hand and make that hard, right decision based upon their gained knowledge.

Apparently I reference these films/ books a lot judging by my recycled images since I'm too lazy to go download more.

The scoundrel/ anti-hero to hero is also a great arc, eg Han Solo in all his former glory. The coward kid learning courage is also pretty common in pretty much every kid’s movie since the birth of kid’s movies.

Sometimes that flaw is a physical one that must be overcome, but honestly I can’t think of any examples at the moment (Rudy maybe? I’ve never seen it). However, 99.9% of the time it’s a mental or moral flaw or weakness. It is also something that keeps getting in the way of the protagonist on his/ her journey. The Sheriff in Jaws is a perfect example in that he was afraid of water. This obviously complicated his duty as the guardian of the area to hunt down and rid the townspeople of the massive menace.

Again, the flaw MUST hold the protagonist back from making the easy decision. It MUST get in the way of the physical victory by creating a moral/ emotional dilemma the protagonist must wrestle with when making his/ her choices throughout the journey.

It’s this dilemma that constitutes the INNER CONFLICT that will come to bear in the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, which then ties in both my previous articles on the three types of conflict and three different articles on structure. Which means that this flaw should be pretty intrinsic from the conceptual phase. One might even say from as early as CREATING THE LOGLINE since it’s meant to run contrary to the events of the story as a whole.

Because, believe me, nothing is worse than an arc that’s shoehorned in because the author knew the protagonist needed one but didn’t consider it when conceptualizing the protagonist. In these cases, the weakness and arc are tacked on last, and we savvy professional readers can smell them a mile away because the arc in question has nothing thematically to do with the story. No one cares about a gambler afraid of heights who has to pull off the game of the century with his ex-wife as his partner. The fear of heights he gets over by the end of the story has nothing to do with the core external conflict of having to deal again with his ex-wife. No, they care more about the gambler who has given up on love who has to pull off the game of a century with his ex-wife as his partner because that inner conflict (given up on love) is in direct opposition to the external conflict of the partnership.

We’ve now unfortunately stumbled into the chicken/ egg paradox where it’s impossible to say if you need to create your protagonist first, complete with character flaw that will impede him/ her over the course of the story, or the plot first to then insert a flaw into your protagonist to contrast where you want him/ her to end up.

But either way, you need to keep your character flaw in mind from the very beginning to create that character arc.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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