To build a strong character arc, the writer sets up the Hero’s flaw early on. A flaw is a weakness for the Hero but a strength to the story. However, not EVERY flaw works.
Some hero flaws can sink your script – and your movie.
Before we dive into these murky waters, let’s start with a major disclaimer. Since Mystery Man gloriously won his Case Against Character Arcs, we know you don’t necessarily need a transforming character to write a great story. That said, the majority of high-performing movies still have Heroes with arcs.
THE SELF-DESTRUCTIVE HERO
Our most primary instinct is survival.
A hero with a death wish is not a good idea, simply because an audience typically doesn’t seem to empathise with characters displaying behaviour that goes against our primal instincts. As a result, films such as LEAVING LAS VEGAS and even THE WRESTLER have only limited appeal.
THE DUMB HERO
Except in horror and comedy, the hero does not act stupid.
The Hero shows intelligence and initiative. Audiences usually wonder “What would I do under the circumstances?” You must get the obvious answers out of the way. In DIE HARD, the first thing John McClane does to attract the attention of the outside world is trigger the fire alarm.
THE UNRELIABLE HERO
Heroes may lie to their fellow characters on screen but they must share with us their thoughts and emotions or we cannot fully empathise with them. Director David Cronenberg has made the Unreliable Hero his trademark. In EXISTENZ, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES the Hero keeps a secret from us. They’re all relatively small films.
THE CRAZY HERO
Unreliability – and unpredictability – can be caused by a mental disability.
Characters with a mental disability usually don’t make for good Heroes. The film PERFECT STRANGERS was a failure, as both the Hero and the antagonist are shown to be increasingly insane. Note how in THE SIXTH SENSE, RAIN MAN and MERCURY RISING the Hero is ‘normal’.
The exception is the Genius Hero, such as in SHINE or A BEAUTIFUL MIND.
At the Mid Point of A BEAUTIFUL MIND we seem to have evidence that John Nash (Russell Crowe) has gone completely mad. At this very point in the movie, the POV shifts away from the Hero and temporarily we experience the story from the character of the wife (Jennifer Connelly). Once John is aware of his condition and tries hard to manage it, the POV moves back to his character.
Do you know of any more examples or exceptions? Please tell us in the comments!
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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17 thoughts on “Four flaws that kill your Hero.”
what about revenge tragedy?
Good question, Steve.
I believe in a revenge tragedy, the Hero’s desire to avenge the injustice may be stronger than his desire to live.
However, the Hero will TRY to stay alive. The goal is to harm or kill the antagonist, not to BE killed or harmed in the first place.
“Director David Cronenberg has made the Unreliable Hero his trademark. In EXISTENZ, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES the Hero keeps a secret from us. They’re all relatively small films.”
But they’ve all become cult movies with a strong fanbase and David Cronenberg is one of the most admired movie directors on the planet. Not to mention that Eastern Promises resulted in a first Academy Award nomination for Viggo Mortensen. So I guess using the “unreliable hero” isn’t such a bad idea after all, huh?
Will Smith’s Seven pounds…Self destructive Hero or Hero with a secret. Can both really work together?
I didn’t think “Beautiful Mind” worked as well as it could have; I knew that Nash suffered mental illness, but it wasn’t clear at what point his delusions began. (I’m STILL not sure.) The ’empty drop box’ was a long time to wait for the real retrospective sting. But did he do ANY work for the military? Ever? Maybe that’s not important, but something didn’t quite work. It goes to ‘keeping too MANY secrets from your audience’; you can’t feel irony if you’re not sure it’s tragic. (I’m not saying it should be ‘spelled out’). Would’ve liked more on ‘stable equilibria’ too, but as usual ..’dumb it down’. btw sorry this isn’t about ‘hero types’. Good website. : >
Andrew: Thank you. I still need to watch SEVEN POUNDS.
Mike: Thank you so much for this comment. You may have nailed the reason why I didn’t initially buy into BEAUTIFUL MIND.
Storydude, I wonder why you’ve seen fit to reply to the two lauditroy replies and not to Desi’s entirely reasonable and accurate argument? I also see that the entire slant of your article is not to teach how to write well, but to teach how to write something commericially viable. It is the advice of one businessman to another, not the advice of a cultured expert to inquisitive young artists, and frankly I think this kind of advice stunts people’s potential for artistry. Why, for instance, are you advising quite explicitly that it’s a bad idea to be like Leaving Las Vegas and The Wrestler, two beautiful, critically lauded, Oscar winning dramas? Are the reasons purely monetary? That’s what you seem to suggest when you say they have “limited appeal”. What are you adivising your readers on? How best to make money?
Thank you for your comments. I should have responded to Desi and I will now.
But first: my only criteria can be commercial success. If I don’t look at this, everything will end up being a matter of taste, right?
After all: EVERYTHING WORKS FOR SOMEBODY.
Every principle ever discovered has been successfully broken in countless films. So yes, you can also successfully break every rule of screenwriting.
But if you go by this, we should all stop writing about the craft and we’ll each have to re-invent the wheel.
I want my readers, my clients and my students to be successful. Although this industry is gruesomely tough, it is clear that those who understand the techniques and principles, stand a better chance of surviving. Those equipped with more and better tools will understand better why some aspects of their own writing work and others don’t.
On top of that (not in stead of it), they will need to apply their own genius and artistic talent to make their writing stand out.
So in order to give an aspiring writer the best chance, I aim to show them what has worked in the past. Of course there is no guarantee that they like it, nor is there any guarantee it will work in the future.
But it is the only info they can go by, apart from their gut.
And I cannot tell them what their gut says.
Over to Desi:
“cult movies with a strong fanbase”
Most aspiring screenwriters cannot afford to aim only at a small audience. “Cult” by definition means: small. Today it also invariably means: not commercially viable.
I should have noted that Cronenberg worked with 3 different writers on the works cited. It is also good to note that Cronenberg had done some pretty successful low budget formulaic stuff early in his career. Check out “Fast Company” (1979) and even the horror “Scanners” (1981). Check your stopwatch and you’ll see the beats fall where Syd Field wanted them.
Finally: the industry has changed MASSIVELY since the days guys like Cronenberg entered the scene. Today, even established arthouse filmmakers barely survive. Indie films have never had it so tough. So if you want to work and live as a writer, it is smart to look at TV and Hollywood.
If you don’t know the principles of screenwriting, you’ll have to be pretty damn lucky to break in.
That said, it is possible.
It’s also possible to win the lotto tomorrow.
PS: I recently wrote something titled “IS IT LEARNABLE”, which deals with roughly the same discussion.
But to what end do you want your students to break in? To make a living? To be well paid? Or to help them find a platform for their artistic voice? I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, and yet the whole slant of your article screams that they are. Look again at your opening paragraph – you say quite explicitly, DON’T be like the Oscar winning artists, be like the guys who make money. Be like the guys who make lots and lots of money – that’s the only way to be safe. Don’t take risks. And that’s an outrageous message to pass on to impressionable aspiring writers.
Scanners is indeed a terrific low budget indie horror, working within a relatively generic framework, and exploitation cinema using well trodden generic models can be a great place for cinematic artists to start. But I don’t think you’d ever hear David Cronenberg or any other director or writer worth their salt advising writers not to take risks.
As for “EVERYTHING WORKS FOR SOMEBODY”? No. You’re an informed viewer, presenting yourself as an expert. You, of all people, just like a film critic like Pauline Kael or an academic like Andre Bazin or a seasoned writer like William Goldman, you are in a position to state what works and what doesn’t and to support your position with evidence. You are short-changing yourself and your students if you do not.
And a footnote: the statement that you can only teach craft by the measure of commercial success is madness. By your measure then, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is a better film than Citizen Kane.
“I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive”
I wholeheartedly concur.
But who am I to give anyone advise on which artistic expression is worth expressing? And how?
See my post titled “IS IT LEARNABLE”, which deals with this discussion.
My point is that these successful filmmakers only started taking serious risks once they had managed to pay the bills.
From personal experience and that of many people I know in the industry, I believe this is a wise approach.
Although I greatly admire CITIZEN KANE I would surely not recommend young screenwriters to model their writing after it but instead look at more recent examples.
I haven’t seen TRANSFORMERS 2, so I cannot comment on that.
Well, the point behind Kane as an example was not to do with it being appropriate or not as a teaching model, but rather with your assertion that commercial success is the only variable you can use to analyse the merits of a screenplay. If you’ve not seen Transformers 2, how about the first Transformers, or Mamma Mia, or Saw III, or Twilight? They’ve all been more commerically successful than Kane, or, say, Goodfellas, or Annie Hall. Are they better films? If your answer is not a straight-forward and definite “yes”, then how can you stand by your argument that you can only teach the craft of screenwriting by using commerical success as a measurement of quality? And if this is your only measurement of quality, then surely you do not even need to see Transformers 2 or Mamma Mia to make a judgement, but simply read how much money they have taken?
This is a worryingly reductive discussion. Instead of picking a fight with Karel, why not take what is useful in what he says (and there’s a LOT) and use it – or not – as you wish. No one’s got a gun to your head screaming (your word) that this is the only way. Karel does great work assisting serious screenwriters communicate what they care about to an audience, in order to make them care about it too. Grow up.
How about an article on flaws that work for a hero?
That’s actually a really good suggestion. Thanks Kurt, I will start thinking about this one.
Do you have any suggestions?
Often the flaw has to do with a certain immoral behavior that is fueled by a lack of self-esteem as a result of a traumatic event (‘wound’) that happened in the Hero’s past.
Can you think of any movies you know that fit this description?
Forrest Gump! Dah!
Dumb, but true to himself , nobel, true friend, man who pursue his one and only true love….. Really GOOD guy, but dumb (smarter at the end of the movie though, and smart in his relationships) Actually, sometimes his life choices is smarter than all choices of other people around him. He is probably a really wise character wearing a mask of an idiot.
Still, It is the Oscar winning epic about an idiot.
Where do you think Guy Pearce’s character in Memento fall in this?