Even the modern day messiah, Barack Obama, has a character flaw – he smokes. So when you’re writing your breakout novel, screenplay or short story, make sure to give your character a few flaws that they can wrestle with and, hopefully, overcome through adversity.
Some of the best examples of this writing tactic tie subtle (or glaringly obvious) plot points to the character’s own psychological and emotional growth.
Here are a few examples:
- Our protagonist begins the film as a rising star in the Los Angeles legal community. He’s about to leave the D.A.’s office for a high-paying job at one of the most prestigious firms in the country, when he’s dragged into a seemingly slam-dunk case. The problem is, he’s cocky, overly focused on making money, and doesn’t seem to have a soul.
- After losing the case and seeing his client die at the hands of a sociopath, our hero eats a big plate full of humble pie, managing to find his soul in the process. He quits the high-powered firm, goes back to work at the D.A.’s office, and finds a way to solve the highly complex case and retry the villain on different charges.
- The movie closes with the protagonist preparing to argue his case alone, a phalanx of high-powered attorneys prepared to argue against him. But we’re sure that this time, he’s going to win … because his heart and head are finally in the right place.
- The motley group of folks in this film each have some major flaw: Grandpa is a heroin addict. Dad is a failed motivational speaker and life coach who is overly concerned with success and appearances. Mom is in a seemingly loveless marriage and is alone. Uncle Frank, the #2 Proust scholar in the country, has just tried to commit suicide. Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force academy, so that he can escape the drudgery of his home life. And then there’s Olive – an unathletic but cheery kid with horrible fashion sense who wants to be a beauty queen.
- When Olive learns that she’s been accepted into the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, the whole fam–damily piles into a VW bus and takes a road trip to California. Along the way: Grandpa dies, Mom becomes more frustrated with her family, Dwayne learns that his poor vision will get him rejected from the Air Force Academy, Dad’s mentor turns out to be a con artist, Uncle Frank reveals that his lover left him for the #1 Proust scholar in the country, and Olive begins to doubt whether she has the talent to win the competition.
- The movie ends with Olive’s horrible performance at the competition, a combination burlesque show and pilates act performed to the song “Superfreak“. We learn that Grandpa taught her the dance (humanizing the dead heroin addict) and watch as the whole family comes together to support Olive, who is hands down the most interesting little girl at the competition. Dad is no longer concerned what the audience thinks about him and his family, because finally … after a long road trip in a packed bus … the family is truly together.
So before you send in the manuscript to your agent or editor, ask yourself this … do you like these characters? If the answer is a resounding “YES!” – you might have some more work to do. Make the reader have to work to like the character, and make the character earn that respect.
Here’s a clip of Olive’s dance from the last few moments of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Perfect.