Thursday, April 25, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #184: Pair Your Flaws With Strengths

Here’s another rule that I’ve circled around but never given its own piece, but I’ve become increasingly aware of how important it is: The hero’s greatest flaw should be the flipside of his or her greatest strength.  Why should flaws be the flip side of strengths?  Here are five big reasons:
  • Because that’s how life is.
  • Because it’s naturally ironic.
  • Because it will make overcoming those flaws something that’s not just hard to do, but hard to want to do.
  • We’ll be less likely to get exasperated by the flaw, because we see the good side…
  • …And it will makes us worry more about the hero, because we see that even his or her strength is a potential problem.
This is what’s wrong with alcoholism as a flaw: There’s no upside.  The same is true for vanity, racism, and ignorance.  This is also why mental illness doesn’t actually work very well, (unless seeing the world in a different way is their strength, as with Carrie on “Homeland”).  The story is only going to have dramatic tension if the hero is reluctant to overcome the flaw, and the audience must empathize with that reluctance.  We have to see the potential downside of abandoning that flaw.

Let’s start with this excellent list of eleven great flaws (and accompanying examples) that was created by Carson Reeves a few months ago, and look at potential flip-side strengths of those flaws.  Note that two characters with the same basic flaw can have very different flip-side strengths.  A refusal to grow up, for instance, can be either paired with being fun-loving (Knocked Up), or with being sweetly innocent (The 40 Year Old Virgin), but not both.

Flaw: Puts work in front of family and friends  (Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball).
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Hyper-competent, Indefatigable, Loyal to clients, patients, bosses, partners, etc.

Flaw: Won’t let others in (Good Will Hunting, Drive, Up In The Air.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Tough, Honest, Self-deprecating

Flaw: Doesn’t believe in one’s self (Rocky, Luke in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix, King George VI in The King’s Speech).
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Humble, Open-hearted, Careful

Flaw: Doesn’t stand up for one’s self – (Ed Helms’ in The Hangover. Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Marty’s dad in Back To The Future.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Nice, Sweet, Giving, Loyal

Flaw: Too selfish (Liar Liar Han in Star Wars, Murray in Groundhog Day, Zuckerberg in The Social Network)
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Zealous, Hyper-competent, Sarcastic, Funny

Flaw: Won’t grow up (Knocked Up. The 40 Year Old Virgin, Jason Bateman in Juno, the girls of Girls)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Fun-loving. Innocent

Flaw: Too uptight, too careful, too anal (Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Garner in Juno).
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Careful, Hyper-competent

Flaw: Too Reckless  (Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, or Kirk on Star Trek.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Brilliant, Independent thinker, Aggressive, Effective risk-taker

Flaw: Lost faith (Father Karras in The Exorcist Mel Gibson in Signs)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Self-aware, Rational)

Flaw: Pessimism/cynicism (Giammati in Sideways, James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, Edward Norton in Fight Club)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Funny, Bitingly honest

Flaw: Can’t move on (Carl in Up, Jon Favreau in Swingers.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Loyal, Sentimental


Anonymous said...

Now I understand what you mean by that. But shouldn't they have another strength if they have to overcome this one?

Here are some weak arguments for positive flip sides of your bad flaws:

-possibly fun to hang around when they're drunk
-brutal honesty?
-same category as "pessimism/cynicism"?

-you could get treats if you get on their good side
-this is almost the flip side of not standing up to themself - why would I hang out with a doormat?

-relatable to most people (as long as it's not KKK-Material)
-loyal to their own race
-it's basically putting family and friends on front of everyone/thing else, but on a larger scale - nationalists or patriots are often depicted positively, there's barely any difference
-most people are racist by proxy anyway

-relatable to most people (as long as it's not willfull ignorance, but even then a lot of people can relate)
-they're not as likely to be anal
-can almost be put in the same categories as "won't grow up", "too reckless"

Matt Bird said...

Certainly Homer Simpson has all four (depending on the episode) and everybody loves him.

Dan McCoy said...

I think My Favorite Year is a good example of a movie where the alcoholism is a clear flip of the character's exuberant charm and artistic temperament. You could argue he's not the main character, but... who really cares about the other guy?