I read a horror feature screenplay last night called MARY.
Among many problems with the script the core problem that I kept coming back to was that none of the characters had a flaw.
Why is this so important I hear you ask?
There's essentially two levels to any feature screenplay. There is the OUTER JOURNEY - the things that happen to the hero & characters and the things that they do.
Then there is the INNER JOURNEY. This is the battle within that the HERO and hopefully other characters will go through over the course of the story.
When you write a story where the Hero and the other main players don't have any inner conflict going on, you're basically only allowing yourself to write HALF a story.
Everything that happens to the characters will be external. Events that may seem really cool and interesting will not resonate on any level other than spectacle.
Why is it that a TV series like MADMEN can be so engaging and successful yet have so little going on by way of external events?
The answer is simple - because each and every character in that show has a deeper level to them. They all have internal conflict. They all have widely varying flaws.
When Madmen was new to the world and had its initial buzz going, I heard a radio presenter refer to it as 'that show where nothing happens, but you can't stop watching.'
That presenter didn't understand that there was a LOT HAPPENING, it was just all inner journey.
Most people, when asked to summarise a film they saw will repeat the external events...'X went to this country and kidnapped this person, but that person turned out to be the wrong person, and they ended up working together to catch the right person...' etc... etc... you get the idea.
For what ever reason, we don't summarise the inner conflict of the characters in a film, even though it is the inner journey with which we resonate the most.
The inner journey is what we connect to on a human level. Spectacle will only keep us engaged for a certain period of time. Watching a cold CIA operative go to a country, kidnap someone, then interrogate them will only be engaging for so long. It's the inner journey of the CIA agent that will really keep us glued to the story.
To create a truly successful screenplay, you must create a connection between the watcher and the characters on screen. There needs to be a VICARIOUS connection.
There are two KEY ways to create this connection. The first - simplest way - is to endear us toward your character - make us like them. That's simply called empathy.
Make your hero (and other characters you want the audience to like) DO things that will make us like them.
This is a HUGE mistake I see in a lot of screenplays. There is this notion, that just because YOU the WRITER created this character your audience will fall in love with them in the same way you have?
Characters you create are like your babies. You love them because they are a part of you. Others that are close to you (friends, family) will love your characters but to a lesser degree, simply because you created them. This is why it's not a good idea to get friends and family to review your screenplays - no matter what they say - they are bias.
A complete stranger will look at your characters in a completely different light. Like all people we meet in real life, we judge them by the content of their character - meaning - we judge them by the way they act, the things they say and the things they do, and also the things they don't do.
As for real life, the same is true for the fictional world of screenplays. You must make your characters say, act, and do things that will make your audience like them.
Now the second main way to create that all-important vicarious connection between audience and film character, is through the flaw.
Everyone in real life has a flaw.
Many, many people would argue that they don't. But think of the hubris of that statement. To argue you have NO FLAW is to argue that you are a perfect human being.
Would you ever argue that about yourself in all sincerity?
Perhaps a better test would be, to think of all the people you know and ask, are any of those people absolutely perfect human beings.
There will be people who have larger more obvious flaws, certainly, but I doubt there will be people who are without flaw.
Having a flaw is what makes us human. This is why we identify with characters who have flaws. To write a character that doesn't have a flaw, makes them un-human.
A very important aspect of the flaw is RELIABILITY.
A character with the flaw of a phobia of flying bricks, is going to be more difficult to relate to than a person who is fearful of change.
The latter flaw is shared by far more people than the former.
The flaw doesn't have to be singular. It's fine to give your characters multiple flaws. Many people in real life suffer from many micro flaws.
Another important thing about the flaw to note, is that it's important to give all of your main characters flaws. I often read screenplays where the hero has a good flaw, but the ancillary characters have none. These kind of scripts read as un-true for obvious reasons.
There is also the problem of the over-pronounced flaw. Be carful of overstating your characters' flaws.
The late, famous, Blake Snyder said that within the first 5 pages of your screenplay you should have a character openly state what your hero's flaw is.
While that advice might have stood up 10-15 years ago, the movie going public, and film making people are all too aware of the importance of the flaw. To over state it as Snyder suggests is too obtuse these days. Subtly is important in the delivery of the flaw.
So now that we've established the importance of the flaw, let's look at how that flaw relates to the structure of your screenplay.
Here we find your hero living their life as per normal. They don't achieve their full potential BECAUSE their flaw holds them back. OR their flaw is causing their problems.
THE INCITING INCIDENT --
You will often hear people describe the inciting incident as an event that shakes up the hero's world and sends them on a journey. That's only HALF true.
What an inciting incident does is it TESTS the hero's flaw. If the inciting indent has nothing to do with the hero's flaw, then the story will be disjointed.
The reason the inciting incident is so important to the hero is that it highlights the inner problem your hero has been ignoring, UNTIL NOW.
Just a quick story structure note - there's a lot of confusion regarding the INCITING INCIDENT and the CALL TO ADVENTURE. There is a common misnomer that they are the same thing.
They are not the same thing.
The very simplest way to define their differences is...
The INCITING INCIDENT is the EVENT that happens that WILL change the hero's life and test their flaw.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE is when the hero LEARNS of the INCITING INCIDENT.
Let's look at Jaws really quickly. The Inciting Incident is the shark attack in the opening scene.
The call to adventure is when Brody finds out about the death.
They are two very different moments.
The II and the CTA can happen simultaneously say - if Brody had witnessed the girl be eaten in the opening scene.
YOU GET THE DIFFERENCE?
Good... moving on...
THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL
The hero refuses the call - BECAUSE it tests their flaw. Until now, their way of dealing with their flaw has been to ignore it... try to pretend it doesn't exist.
This is the second inciting incident, that second major event early on that forces the hero to accept the journey. Again, it tests the hero's flaw, this time to a much stronger degree than the first test. This time, the hero can not ignore the adventure.
This is the first moment that their inner journey begins. They do something they haven't done before. Until now, their flaw has been controlling them, they now confront their flaw, and go outside their comfort zone. This is the first step on their inner journey of confronting and ultimately resolving their flaw.
In Star Wars, the catalyst is when Luke comes home to find his uncle and aunt and his home have been destroyed. He now has no choice but to go on his adventure...
THE FIRST ACT TURN...
The hero now begins their adventure...
They move into a new world that is alien to them. This new world can be an entirely new environment, OR it can be a change of circumstances in their existing world.
This new environment, or this new set of circumstances is difficult for the hero because it tests their flaw. There are decisions they must make that normally their flaw would force them to ignore.
SECOND ACT 1st MAJOR EVENT
SECOND ACT 2nd MAJOR EVENT
Two major events occur on the hero's journey. Each event is a test of the hero's flaw. In the first case, the hero reacts in a completely flawed manner and something detrimental happens.
Then in the second event, there is another test of the hero's flaw, and while they don't react in the same way as the first event, they do still act in a flawed way. Again, the result is detrimental.
Here the hero faces a LARGE TEST of their flaw. This is often a life or death situation. They react in a flawed way, but because of the close call, they are now consciously aware of their flaw. They can see that continuing on this flawed path will end in a really bad way. Very often death for them or a loved one.
There are many other things that happen at the mid point, but I'm only focusing on the hero's journey as it pertains to the FLAW for this article.
APPRAOCH TO THE CAVE
The hero makes a major attempt to change their ways, to resolve their flaw, but it's a case of too little too late, and they are pushed toward...
This is the lowest point in the film. Lower than the mid point. The hero will find themselves in a place where there is seemingly no escape.
It is here they look back on why-and-how they arrived at this awful juncture in their life. They truly realise and accept that it is their flaw that brought them here. If they hadn't been flawed, if they hadn't made all these bad decisions, they would not have ended up here.
This is known as the CONFESSION.
The hero as good as states their flaw. NOW, in keeping with the rule of subtly, I'd actually advise against having the hero say out loud verbatim - 'my flaw is X and if I didn't do X I wouldn't be here.' That's far too on the nose. Have this beat occur in a subtle way.
Because the hero has now confessed to their flaw. they are REWARDED in some way that allows them to get out of their predicament. Now that they are no longer flawed, they start to think in a new way, act in a new way, this change of character allows them to break free from the shackles of the past and forge forward.
The hero has now completely resolved their flaw. They are no longer the broken person they once were. They have now in fact shape-shifted into a MENTOR - someone who can help guide others on their journeys.
Because your hero is no longer flawed - they confront their nemesis - the SHADOW and defeat them. During the conflict, there is a test of their flaw - but now they are no longer flawed - they make the right decision - which allows them to overcome the shadow.
The hero returns to their ordinary world a changed person.
They are again confronted with a test - often the exact same test we saw in the opening scene, but they now react in an unflawed manner. We now see that they have learned from their journey and most importantly they have CHANGED.
There... you have it... the importance of the flaw.
I hope it helps you with your current/next screenplay.