Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip side of a great strength we admire?

Writers usually give their heroes too many flaws and not enough strengths. In all the ways adding flaws makes your work easier, adding strengths can make your work harder. 
  • Strengths decrease conflict: Fewer things are a challenge to the hero. 
  • Strengths decrease motivation: The hero has less reason to want to change. 
  • Strengths decrease sympathy: It’s harder to root for an over-dog. 
  • Strengths decrease identification: Deep down, few people think of themselves as strong. 
It’s tempting to give your hero a lot of flaws and no strengths, but you should resist that urge because flaws only generate pathos in contrast to strengths. You need to keep the flaws to a manageable number and ensure each one is the flip side of a great strength because:
  • It’s realistic. 
  • It’s naturally ironic. 
  • It will make overcoming those flaws something that’s not just hard to do but hard to want to do. Your hero will be reluctant to overcome that flaw for fear of losing the accompanying strength. 
  • We’ll be less likely to get exasperated by the flaw because we see the good side. 
  • It will make us worry more about the hero, since the strength is a potential problem. 
  • We will be more sympathetic to the flaw if we see it as a result of too much of a good thing. 
Your heroes’ internal struggles are only going to have dramatic tension if they’re reluctant to overcome the flaw, and we must empathize with that reluctance. We need to see the potential downside of abandoning that flaw.

Rourke’s main flaw in The Wrestler is irresponsibility, but this is the flip side of his strength: He loves having a good time and makes sure everyone else in the room has a good time, whether it’s the fans at his wrestling matches or the customers at his deli counter. We want him to become more responsible, but we don’t want him to stop lighting up the room.

Flaws need to have an upside, which is why some just don’t work very well. One of the most overused flaws is alcoholism, but it’s not as compelling as some writers think because there’s very little upside. It’s hard to overcome, but only because it’s a chemical addiction. There’s never any good reason to be an alcoholic. We’ll never identify with a character’s desire to keep drinking destructively.

The same is true for other less-than-compelling flaws, such as vanity, bigotry, and ignorance. This is also why mental illness doesn’t actually work very well, unless seeing the world in a different way is the character's strength, as with the CIA analyst Claire Danes plays on Homeland. Danes is reluctant to overcome her bipolar disorder because she suspects that she does her best thinking when she’s manic, and even though we see her suffer, the audience feels the same way. In other words, her flaws come with some strengths on the flip side.

The indefatigable writing guru Carson Reeves came up with a pretty good list of ten common flaws found in heroes. Let’s start with his list and then look at how to generate a strength that is inextricably paired with each flaw. As we do so, note that two characters with the same basic flaw can have very different flip-side strengths. You could pair refusal to grow up, for instance, with being fun loving (Knocked Up) or sweetly innocent (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) but not both.
  • Flaw: Puts work in front of family and friends 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Hypercompetent, indefatigable, loyal to clients, patients, bosses, partners, etc. 
  • Flaw: Won’t let others in 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Tough, honest, self-deprecating 
  • Flaw: Doesn’t believe in one’s self 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Humble, openhearted, careful 
  • Flaw: Doesn’t stand up for one’s self 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Nice, sweet, giving, loyal 
  • Flaw: Too selfish 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Zealous, hypercompetent, sarcastically witty 
  • Flaw: Won’t grow up 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Fun loving or (alternately) innocent 
  • Flaw: Uptight, risk averse, anal 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Careful, hypercompetent 
  • Flaw: Reckless 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Brilliant, independent thinker, aggressive, effective risk-taker 
  • Flaw: Lost faith 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Self-aware, rational, sarcastically witty 
  • Flaw: Pessimistic/cynical 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Funny, bitingly honest 
  • Flaw: Can’t move on 
  • Possible flip-side strengths: Loyal, sentimental 
One of the most entertaining “flaw/strength” scenes of all time appears in Larry Gelbart’s wonderful script for Tootsie. Michael Dorsey’s exasperated agent explains that nobody will hire Michael because he’s too intense:
  • Agent: You played a tomato for thirty seconds—they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down. 
  • Michael: Of course not, it was illogical: If he can't move, how's he gonna sit down? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber ... I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass! 
Casting directors may not want to hire Michael, but we are more than willing to hire him to be our hero. We sympathize with his flaw, even though we hope that he will eventually overcome it. We can work with this guy, because he’s well worth rooting for.
Rulebook Casefile: Hidden Flip-Side-Strengths in Sideways

Sideways is one of those movies that writers might cite when insisting that they don’t need to create “sympathetic protagonists.” Miles does a lot of truly loathsome stuff, over and above being an angry drunk: he steals the money for the trip from his not-well-off mom, he reads “Barely Legal” porn, and Jack mentions in passing that Miles actually cheated on that ex-wife he’s been pining for all movie!

(And let’s face it, a handsome Clooney-ish rakishly-handsome guy might be able to pull some of this stuff off, but Miles is very... Giamatti-ish. That makes misbehavior a lot less charming onscreen.)

So does this prove that heroes can just be a big bag of flaws, with no mitigating strengths? No, it doesn’t. On first glance, it’s easy to spot Miles’s flaws and hard to find any strengths, but they’re there, and they’re not inconsiderable. I would say that Miles’s biggest flaw is that he’s hostile. Is there a  flip-side of that? There certainly is: Miles is passionate. And that passion is attractive.

 The most obvious example is the double-date scene. Jack is capable of picking up a wine merchant in ten minutes flat, which Miles could never pull off, but as soon as the actual date begins, everything flips: Jack is stuck asking Stephanie about what her routine is when she closes up the vineyard, while Miles is instantly able to fully engage with Maya because of their shared passion for wine and his smart opinions on the topic. Of course, he gets too drunk and almost botches it, but that great start ultimately sustains him throughout.

And once you see it, you realize that Miles’s conversational skills are actually everywhere in the movie. One example: When Miles shows up late and hungover to pick up Jack from his in-laws, they’re all glad to see him and get his opinion on which wedding cake they should get.

Later, Miles is stuck spending an afternoon at a bowling alley with Jack, his fling, her kid and her mom. We know that this is excruciating for him, but at the end, we hear the mom say “It was really great to meet you, Miles,” and we believe it.

I myself have some of the same flaws and strengths as Miles. I mentioned before that I had an unusual friendship with an aging millionaire named Lewis King, even though we clearly had little in common. Why? One time he joked he’d invited me along to a lunch because, “It’s always good to have a content provider.” Miles and I have a lot of flaws, but, for better or for worse, we’re both content providers, and that can get you pretty far in this world. For Miles, that’s the one great strength that saves him from his horribleness. It’s the flip side to more than one of his great flaws.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  He’s kind.


YES. We don’t notice at first, but we gradually realize that she has certain key strengths: from the beginning, only she is equally at home on the bridge and in the hold and only she tries to maintain quarantine.  She’s the canny one.

An Education

YES. Intellectual ambition, biting wit, tolerance

The Babadook

YES. Perseverance.  The resentment comes out of intense love that he cannot fully return (and vice versa)

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s charming, funny, and bold.

Blue Velvet

YES. he’s curious, charming, and a great improviser

The Bourne Identity

YES. he’s a living weapon, and he’s trying to become more human.


YES. The flip side of all three: She’s funny in a self-deprecating way, a good improviser, and loyal. 


YES. he’s cool and in control. 


YES. Coolly analytical and effectively deceptive. A great detective.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he’s the perfect infiltrator because he’s totally dedicated to it.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Funny, empathetic to everyone, laid-back, a good lover.

The Farewell

YES. … and that her strength was her willingness to knuckle under (which we had perceived to be a flaw)

The Fighter

YES. He’s loyal to and trusts all of those he loves.


YES. Hope, pluck, positivity

The Fugitive

YES. And the flip side of that is that he’s self-sacrificing: three times, he puts himself in danger to save others. Ironically, because his true (unforseen) goal is to convince Gerard of his righteousness, he actually helps his question by helping others in ways that seems to damage his quest.  

Get Out

YES. His ability to passively observe makes him a great street photographer.  He’s got a great eye.  (I guess you could say that another flaw/strenth pair is flaw: he’s not paranoid enough and strength: he’s a peace-maker, but that, too, turns out to be a flaw.  In 2017, the country agreed on one thing: The time for peace-making had passed)

Groundhog Day

YES. Sarcasm, wit, entertaining onscreen presense.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He’s compassionate, smart and perceptive.

In a Lonely Place

YES. he’s brutally honest and a great writer.

Iron Man

YES. He’s brilliant, charming, ultimately principled.

Lady Bird

YES. She’s self-confident and goes for what she wants.

Raising Arizona

YES. Not really the flip side: he’s loving and totally dedicated to Ed’s happiness.


YES. He’s romantic and enthusiastic. 


YES. The adultery isn’t really the flip side of a great stength (he believes in outreach?)  The possible over-reticence is certainly the flip side of his ability to channel the movement in a non-violent path that can win whites over.

The Shining

NO. Jack has no strengths.  Danny has the ability to sense evil spirits.


YES. though it’s not immediately obvious. He’s a great conversationalist, when he puts his mind to it (even when he’s forced to spend the evening with his friend’s girlfriend’s mother, she says “It was really great talking with you!”)  He’s also a good writer, and therefore a good observer of people.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She listens and looks closely, thinks in new ways.

Star Wars

YES. Idealistic and eager.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he has a devastating cynical wit, and a little writing ability. 

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