Strength in Weakness: 5 Flaws that Actually Make Characters Better

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

When we create characters, we’re often looking to add qualities that make them strong or interesting. However, asking where your character is weak can be an even greater way to make a protagonist compelling. A character’s weakness should cloud their better judgment. It should cause them to take actions they might not normally take. Here are five flaws that can actually strengthen your character.

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1. A Weakness for Family

A staple of mob stories and gangster epics has become to make the hardened criminal a big softie when it comes to his family. We’ve seen this in the Godfather trilogy, The Sopranos, and most recently in Black Mass. Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger has a heart of stone when it comes to everyone on the planet, except his mother and his son. When these people mean so much to a character like Jimmy, we know the biggest conflict we can create will be to take them away from him.

This same weakness allows Solomon Northup to endure unspeakable pain in 12 Years A Slave. His wife means more to him than anything. When she is taken away, his weakness for her drives the rest of the film’s storyline. Even comedic characters fall for the weakness of family. Daniel Hillard takes on the personae of an old British nannie in Mrs. Doubtfire just so he can be around his children. The weakness of family works as a story element because so many of us can relate to its power.

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2. A Weakness for Love

Most of us have made a poor decision motivated by matters of the heart. Love can cause us to betray all reason, go on dangerous adventures, and sacrifice all we have spent years building. In The American President, Andrew Shepherd risks the prestige of the most powerful position in the world, just so he can pursue a woman who captures his interest and eventually his heart. Lloyd Christmas leaves all he knows and loves to travel across the country to return a brief case to a woman he fell in love with instantly in Dumb and Dumber. And in Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis gives up his reputation, money, and long-time business partner to be with a woman of ill repute. No one ever faults the lengths a character is willing to go to in a story for love. We all understand and may have been there ourselves.

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3. A Weakness for Acceptance

It’s the thing that drives us to cheer on a playground bully even when we know how wrong he is – acceptance. Our need to feel admired, revered, or even just a part of the group can drive us to the edges of sanity. In Whiplash, Andrew is literally willing to lay down his life and relationships to gain the respect of a revered teacher. William Miller leaves his life, home, and family to pursue the acceptance of the coolest rock stars on the planet in Almost Famous. But the lengths Max Fischer is willing to go to in Rushmore in order to be seen and accepted sets a standard few characters can live up to. The lesson and theme in nearly all stories of this sort is that we must first learn to accept ourselves before anyone else will consider that an option.

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4. A Weakness for the Truth

A search for the truth has been the driving force of many great characters over the centuries of storytelling. Those who are willing to sacrifice in order to see and say things as they are will always gain the respect of the audience. In Dead Poets Society, John Keating is willing to lose his prestigious job in order to declare the truth before young men who will be forever impacted by his bravery. Truman Burbank gives up literally everything in his world in order to know who he really is and the truth about his environment in The Truman Show. Martin Sixsmith is so driven by the truth surrounding his new friend’s child that he gives up the harshest part of his own identity in Philomena. Jack Nicholson famously uttered that we can’t handle the truth in A Few Good Men, but that will never keep us from going after it, and holding those who do in great esteem.

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5. A Weakness for Justice

Those who have stood up for justice throughout history have often paid a dear price for it. Some of the most moving stories ever told center on people who laid down their lives in order to speak up against laws, systems, and individuals who would deny equality to all peoples. Kate Macer puts her life on the line day after day in an attempt to stop evil drug cartels that murder and destabilize innocent people in Mexico in Sicario. Using photos on the wall of a pizzeria as a metaphor for a much larger injustice, Mookie battles against a system that has refused to recognize African Americans in Do The Right Thing. In one of the most iconic roles of all time, Jefferson Smith stands up for the little guy until he collapses on the floor of Congress in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Seeing those who would defend the powerless empowers us to stand against the injustices, both small and great, that we see in our own lives.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

3 thoughts on “Strength in Weakness: 5 Flaws that Actually Make Characters Better

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  1. I get why the article is worded the way it is and I’m not a recognized expert, but respectfully, I think “weakness” should be replaced with “need” in at least the last two of the above-referenced cases and that need isn’t necessarily a bad thing either to the story/structure or the character. However, a character’s true weakness could be associated with the need, yet be more psychologically basic. The need or pursuit of truth and justice is connected to GOALS. Goals are usually good things that propel characters to action, not inhibit or weaken them. How they go about achieving the goals is what usually reveals weakness. Look at a character like Agent Fox Mulder in “X-Files.” His so-called “weakness for the truth” is literally part of the brand as much as it is the fabric of the narrative, but that need or desire for truth is his goal. Were it his weakness, then overcoming it would remove said goal and either change the premise of the show or bring the whole thing to a screeching halt!

    Mulder’s weakness, if anything, is OBSESSION – and, perhaps, a single-minded inability to see beyond his own theories which, of course, is why he needs the more pragmatic Dr. Scully as it is something that can keep him from discovering the truth he seeks. It isn’t always “truth” that he’s after, either. It’s validation. Otherwise, he’d rarely if ever be wrong and if he’s never wrong, then there’s no journey and no real character development. He may not know exactly what the truth is that he seeks, but he has those preconceptions about what the truth’s nature MUST be. That means that nine times out of ten, he BELIEVES there’s a conspiracy and/or that aliens are either on Earth or coming and involved somehow. Even when he tries not to, he can’t help it. That’s really the whole show. Those and other beliefs are part of his obsession. Even the poster on his wall, and subtitle of the second movie, says, “I Want To Believe.” That obsession sometimes BLINDS him to crucial pieces of the puzzle if they don’t conform to the shape of the hole in which he thinks they should fit. He struggles accepting explanations and even some facts that don’t necessarily point to a conspiracy or cover-up or supernatural explanation.

    To me, most of these “weaknesses” are really NEEDS and GOALS, the pursuit of which should reveal the real weakness of the character which threatens to keep them from achieving those goals and getting what they need. Conversely, perhaps, you make sure the character has opportunity to turn his or her weakness into an advantage in achieving the goal – like, say, Mulder’s obsession being what also keeps him from giving up and maybe allows him to save someone in the end. I’d also replace “family” with “sentiment,” “truth” with “validation,” and though this isn’t quite the best wording, “justice” with “conformity.” Why? Whether we’re right or wrong, the pursuit of justice is really the pursuit of conformity to our set of values, etc. – either as individuals or a society. After all, punishing murderers supposedly renders justice, but it doesn’t bring the dead back to life and it doesn’t make anyone safer from anything except the person being punished, so why punish and/or imprison them at all? Because you want to eliminate any and all dangers and/or threats, of course, but also because you want your values to be enforced and conformed to – or the society’s values, which is why you leave it up to a jury of peers. That, of course, goes to the issue of fairness, something else we need which is not only a concept of our own design, by and large, but also one that has varied from era to era and even culture to culture.

  2. Thanks, John Bucher, for a terrific post. Easy read, deep insight. Also appreciate Jd Moores’s comment… get where he’s coming from too, why he’s got a different slant.

    I find the concept of “Strength in Weakness” practical and pleasing—and the types and examples enlightening. Weakness not in the sense of a fault or defect: Negative Weakness. But Positive Weakness. Weakness in the sense of something you value so much and want so much that you’re unable to say no. Ideally a virtue that operates in you whose power you can’t deny. A worthy ideal. A goal. A call to adventure a hero cannot resist.

    And I take John’s concept of “Strength in Weakness” as elastic. Stretchy enough to embrace some of Jd’s pushback. (For example, Jd prefers to see what John calls a character’s “weakness” as actually a character’s goal. No rub there when we define weakness in the positive sense. Though a different story when we define weakness in the negative sense, which I’ll get to.) And also stretchy enough to invite expansion of the starter menu of five types of “Strength in Weakness.” I already added a sixth type–to classify characters like Steve Prefontaine in Invincible: A Weakness for Excellence.

    I feel a step farther along the storyline of my own life in my double-quest (a subset of my Master Quest) to KNOW THYSELF and KNOW OTHERS, including friends, family, coworkers, and the characters in screenplays I read or write.

    My “weakness”? My Positive Weakness? In other words, my strength? Thanks to John, I now see it way more clearly. Not Justice, even though my desire runs deep for equality and human rights and a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—not of the powerful and wealthy, by the powerful and wealthy, for the powerful and wealthy. A society not shaped by Might Makes Right, but by Right Makes Might. And I have a weakness for stories/movies that champion this outlook. But thanks to John’s post, I see that my “Weakness for Justice” operates as my left hand. And I’m right-handed.

    So my right hand? The soft spot where my heart lies, the motivating force that shapes my character, my dominant drive, the worthy ideal and goal to which I can’t say no? What I value so much that I must pursue it? The call to adventure I’m unable to resist? A Weakness for the Truth.

    (Makes sense, right? Even if all you knew about me was my double-quest to Know Myself and Know Others.)

    But that does bring me to the helpful consideration that Jd raises as to what weakness—defined as a fault or defect—menaces my character as I thread through the labyrinth of life on my quest for Truth? What Negative Weakness hobbles my summoning the wherewithal to brave the adventure? What blind spot, incapacity, defect, or fear stands between me and Truth triumphant? Ditto for everyone relative to their core strength, the dominant irresistible force that currents through their soul.

    What Vice stands in the way of a character’s Virtue? What types of Inner Adversaries would try to take someone down? What Negative Weakness undercuts a hero’s Positive Weakness? Her Strength?

    That’s for another post.

  3. oops… I meant Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits—not in Invincible (a movie about Vince Papale… whose “weakness as strength” could be Acceptance, but strikes me as more likely Family: which we could boil down to Philadelphia—both his tight-knit Philadelphia family of brothers, father, budding love interest, and tackle-football bar buddies AND the Philadelphia Eagles).

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