Sometimes, when learning how to write, it’s good to learn through comparison. that is, comparing something that handles a trope well with something that fails horribly with it, and exactly why each comes out the way they do.
In this series of posts, I want to look into this, by taking a trope or cliche, and comparing a work that handles it well and a work that really really doesn’t.
So, let’s start with a very important part of any story: the main character’s main flaw.
The main protagonist of a story always needs some form of critical character flaw, both to prevent them from being perfect to the point of being unlikable, and to drive conflict in the story. No one wants to watch an infallible character.
Ideally, a flaw should be balanced out with the positive traits of a character, and at some point in the story, should act as an obstacle for the character to overcome. If the character is more flawed than good, they might become hard to root for. If a character’s flaw barely surfaces during the story, then they’re still going to come across as infallible, and unlikeable.
For this trope’s positive example, I’ve decided to look at a character whose arc fittingly revolves around learning that flaws and negativity are a necessary part of life: Joy, from Inside Out.
As a character Joy is literally the embodiment of happiness and joyfulness. As such, it’s very easy to like her upon first meeting her in the movie. So what could the personification of Joy possibly have as a flaw? Simple, she is constantly pushing for happiness, and can’t grasp why sadness (the feeling and the character) is important.
Wanting the person you care about to constantly be happy doesn’t seem like that big of a flaw, right? Except, throughout the movie, we’re shown exactly why this is a big flaw. It’s one of the main driving conflicts. Joy’s refusal to accept negativity results in her repeated attempts to shut out Sadness; the emotion who, had Joy simply known the necessity of expressing sadness, could have prevented Riley’s depression from the very beginning.
So, why exactly is Joy’s main flaw expressed well? Multiple reasons. For starters, while Joy’s refusal to accept negativity is a problem for Riley and the others, it clearly does come from a place of caring. Joy isn’t being malicious so much as she’s being ignorant. When a character is doing something wrong as a result of their character flaw, preventing them from becoming unlikable can be achieved by either: A) showing how much they regret what they’re doing, or B) show that they well and truly believe they’re doing the right thing.
Secondly, we do see Joy facing the obstacles her flaw provides throughout the film. When imaginary friend Bing Bong mourns for his forgotten rocket van, Joy’s attempts at lightening the mood (in order to get to the train of though station) all fail. It’s only when Sadness expresses her empathy and gives him a shoulder to cry on that he recovers from his miserable state. This begins Joy’s realisation that perhaps her methods of achieving happiness are wrong.
This newfound realisation is what sets her off on her development to overcome her flaw. It is when Joy is at her absolute low point that she truly realises her problem. She trapped in the memory dump away from her true home, n a situation mirroring Riley’s. When she looks at one of the core memories, and sees Riley’s sadness gained her care and empathy from others, she realises the importance of Sadness that she’d been ignoring all this time. Finally, once she and Sadness escape and return home, without speaking, she admits her wrongdoings and lets Sadness take the situation.The outcome of the situation is Sadness and Joy creating a new memory together; one that is a balance of sadness and joy.
For the example of how not to write a character flaw, I am going to have to pluck one of the lowest hanging fruits in terms of bad writing: Twilight. Specifically Bella Swan
As a flawed character, Bella fails on multiple levels. If I were to describe this character in detail, anyone would automatically think she’s too flawed to be likeable. She’s incredibly;y shallow, given how much her internal monologue focuses on Edward’s appearance as opposed to actual personality; she’s very stuck up, given how she seems to reject all the kind and welcoming humans at her school (and her lovely father) and seems to give of the vibe that she considers them inferior; she’s reckless to ridiculous degree and lacks common sense; and despite having a life with very few problems, she constantly whines.
So, that’s a flawed character, right? Well, the series doesn’t seem to think so!
One of the worst things you can do with a character is constantly tell the audience that they’re X, when all the audience sees is that they’re Y. The narrative, and the characters, are all under the impression that Bella is a selfless, intelligent, mature girl who’s only real flaws are clumsiness and self esteem issues. Yet constantly, we see little to no acts of selflessness, and a whole lot of acts of foolishness.
Let’s focus on New Moon, given just how awful Bella was proven to be as a character in that instalment. After Edward leaves her, Bella slumps into a deep depression and tries to endanger herself. Now, in any other story, this would be focusing on the character’s flaw that they are far too dependent, and their development would need to revolve around becoming stronger and realise they are more than just “somebody’s love interest”. Bella does not do that. At the end of New Moon, she is basically the same character as she was in the beginning. She’s still co-dependent, and she’s still unhealthily obsessed with her boyfriend.
An important part of a character flaw is whether or not they can get past it, and the trials they face in order to get past it. This can end with either the character finally overcoming their problem, or failing to do so and facing the consequences.
Bella does not do either of these things. By the end of the books, she has barely changed at all as a person, and she’s gained everything she could have ever wanted. The foolish decisions she makes like, say, getting married at the age of seventeen despite regularly being shown to be overly reckless and prone to getting herself into trouble due to poor decision making, are not shown to hold many consequences at all.
Throughout the story, the flaws that the narrative tells us Bella has (that being clumsiness and self esteem issues) rarely even come into play. Bella’s clumsiness is rarely shown to be problematic (showing clumsiness as a quirk, rather than a flaw is quite a common pitfall it seems) because most of the injuries she sustains are injuries she actively brought upon herself. Her self esteem issue also come across as more of a superiority complex. We’re expected to pity poor Bella for feeling low in comparison to vampires, when all the story implies is she wants to be a vampire because in her mind vampires are automatically superior to the inferior humans she belittles through interior monologues. Worst of all, Bella doesn’t get past this flaw, and come to understand her own worth. Instead, she just becomes a vampire, and is immediately satisfied with how much better she is now.
Comparisons and Conlusions
A character needs to be flawed in order to gain audience support. But those flaws need to be well written and well balanced. You will fail if you try to give your character no flaws. You will fail if you don’t bother to show the flaws. And you will fail if you give them too many.
Bella as a character shows us exactly what not to do. She is presented in the narrative as beloved and virtually flawless, even if she shows a mountain of flaws within the subtext. Her actual flaws make her impossible to like, given she has so few positive traits to balance them out. And she does not overcome any of her flaws.
Compare Bella to Joy. Joy may be flawed, but a lot of that flaw relates to a desire to keep Riley happy; even when doing morally questionable actions like trying to escape without Sadness. Bella’s flaws do not come from a good place. Her shallowness and stupidity is given little to no explanation, as the story wants us to believe she is neither of those things.
Now compare Joy at the end of Inside Out, to Bella at the end of New Moon. Joy has come to terms with the fact that Riley can’t always be happy-and that’s a good thing, because Sadness allows other to empathise with her and care for her in her hours of need. Now, she and Sadness have found a new relationship of teamwork; symbolised by the yellow and blue core memory. Bella on the other hand, learns virtually nothing outside of the fact that she might be attracted to Jacob too. Her relationship with Edward is unchanged. She’s still obsessed and he’s still obsessed and neither is a stronger person after what happened.
Inside Out is a movie that teaches us that striving for perfection is not a healthy goal, and that sometimes watching someone fail can help us empathise with them. Twilight on the other hand is a series that seems to say “yes, some people out there are perfect, and you can be too, no matter how much of a whiny brat you’ll be throughout your journey”. And while Twilight is hardly a box office flop, it is remembered only for being badly written, badly acted, and having an uncomfortable amount of unfortunate implications; while Inside Out is largely considered one of Pixar’s best efforts to date.
When writing a character, consider their personality, and consider things from their perspective. Nobody wants a perfect protagonist, and nobody wants an irredeemable protagonist. There are many methods when it comes to finding the flaw that completes them as a character, but consider this: what is their reasoning behind this flaw. What led them to be this way? If the reasoning comes from a good, or at the very least understandable place (like wanting to protect the person they care about and hoping the ends justify the means), then keep this in mind and give it a shot. And when you’re writing, consider your character’s actions. If what they’re doing is morally dubious, consider why that is, and you can either change it, or work with it.