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.