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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.