Fatal Flaws and Character Arcs
Back in high school and college, friends sometimes set me up on blind dates. Nice guys all, but nothing clicked. How, as a writer, can I set up an enjoyable blind date between reader and character? They’ve never met before the reader picks up the book. My hope is to craft a character with whom readers will click.
Writing advice is clear and consistent: A relatable character needs strengths, quirks, and one fatal flaw. The narrative must carry the main character through an arc of personal growth that involves facing the flaw head-on and overcoming it to do what must be done, revealing a theme in the process. All without coming across as formulaic.
I get it, or think I do, up to the moment I sit down to write. Then the questions bubble up: Who among us has one and only one significant bad habit? What’s the flaw for Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache to overcome, kindness? In an ongoing series, does character arc mean conquest of the same flaw again and again, like Sisyphus’s stone rolling back down the hill?
Script consultant Dara Marks defines fatal flaw as “a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness.” Going back to my novel-in-progress, I’ll try stepping away from moral judgments or bad habits to ask what old way of being no longer works in my character’s new situation. Perhaps I might even step away from fiction to ask the same question of myself.
10/14/2019 09:14:17 am
wow, you have the essence of Yom Kippur.
10/14/2019 11:43:32 am
Wow, Rich, thanks for making this connection! Didn't realize this post was so nearly timely. I've been finding the Dara Marks quote thought-provoking as a personal question. Could be valuable to have an annual practice to reconsider it, given that current circumstances change from year to year.
This is interesting to think of, since I'm a memoir writer and the tragic flaw is in myself. I think I have more than one, however ; ) They are both related to a fear of scarcity - money, and good candidates to date. I tend to overspend cash, and my attentions. -Rebecca
For a memoir, the central question might be, what did being thrust into this new situation require me to learn, overcome, or do differently? Not a fixed negative trait so much as the starting point for the character arc. How did I grow, and what old ways (flaw) did the growth require me to leave behind?
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.