Cinematic Convolutions: Character Flaws

(CC Wikipedia 2015)

In 1989, Marty McFly taught us all that he’s no chicken.

In the 1980’s trilogy of Back to the Future, a little cocky, tad bit foul mouthed, but charismatic with a heart of gold, Marty McFly had it all:

-A sweet, nice girlfriend he’d eventually marry.

-A sick Toyota truck with floodlights to match.

-Musical talent, inspiring love and a little intrigue with his guitar.

But yet, despite all that he has, and all that he will have, Marty McFly cannot, will not, and refuses to let ANYONE call him a chicken.

His obsession with maintaining the image of courage and bravery is completely illogical and all consuming. No matter what he’s doing or if he can come out of the situation successfully, hearing the word “chicken” throws him into action.

But this reactionary defense of his character destroys Marty’s life, as he’s baited into a street race that leads to the accident that ends his musical career. And later, he’s baited into a shady business deal that gets him fired. Both because he couldn’t let anyone call him chicken.

Its really tragic and sad to watch Marty’s life fall apart, especially after getting to know him throughout the films. He’s just a good person, that fell because of his character flaws. But that in lies the point, it was his flaw that doomed him.

Character flaws are one of the many ways that we can relate to characters. They humanize them, and add to them levels of personality and uniqueness specific to that specific flaw. There is no “perfect” human being, and we ourselves have all made mistakes in life, and watching characters make mistakes helps us understand them, as we understand their adversity even if their mistakes were different than ours. Only individuals will understand their specific problems, but everyone appreciates struggle; it is universal.

There are three different types of Character Flaws:

1. Minor Flaw

Minor flaws are exactly as they sound: Minor. They don’t impact the character or the plot of the story, but instead  create individuality for the character, separating them from others. These flaws are typically physical in nature like a habit of cracking their fingers, an accent, or a physical deformity, like Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar. Good main characters have multiple minor flaws because, just like in real life, real people don’t just have on unique, difference, but are made of differences. All of these minor flaws come together to add substance and depth to a character that we call personality.

2. Major Flaw

But much like real people, not all of our flaws are just minor idiosyncrasies. We all have those dark flaws within us. Major flaws are deeper failures of character. They, in some way, restrict or burden the character and can heavily impact the plot or the story. These restrictions could be physical, mental, or emotional in nature and in some cases aren’t actually negative, like Batman’s refusal to kill any of the criminal scum he meets in the streets of Gotham. You might place Marty’s “chicken” flaw under this category, but actually, it falls under a much darker area.

3. Tragic Flaws

There exists within each of us a demon. This demon lives in the very depths of our souls, and it haunts us each and everyday. Allowed to fester, this demon will one day consume us and lead us down a dark path through life. This demon is the tragic flaw or named the “Hamartia”. Tragic flaws are singular, because they are that one dark, awful character flaw that has the ability to defeat us, to ruin us, and even kill us.They don’t just play an important part of the plot, at times they lead it, guiding the character downward. It is this category that McFly’s “chicken” flaw stands because it does lead him down a dark path, ultimately ruining his life.

Flaws serve as a common point that connect us to characters, no matter what type they are. But flaws serve as another goal for characters. Many times in movies we only see characters battle external obstacles. But every character has to struggle externally, but really, we as humans want to see our characters defeat a bigger, much more devastating enemy: themselves. We want to see our characters succeed despite their major flaws, and to struggle through adversity with personality. Eventually, we want to see them battle their demon and to reach deep within their own soul to rip it out of their chest to strike it down, coming into their own person.

It is that process of battling themselves that characters find out who they are. And by relating or not relating to those characters is how we find ourselves in them. So when you are writing characters, don’t be chicken to let them struggle; to give them flaws and make mistakes. It doesn’t make your characters weak or lame. It makes them human. Struggle is a part of human existence, and it should be the basis of the existence of your characters.

Marty McFly had to fight to fix his own reality, to restore himself to his own timeline. He had to battle the scumbag Tannen family, the nature of time, and keep his own family history alive throughout three different centuries. But his biggest victory was when he defeated the enemy that followed him throughout space and time: Marty McFly.

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