A Character’s Fatal Flaw – What Does it Mean?
In good stories, as in life, one of the most important aspects is the search for growth and the striving for change. Sometimes, the best screenplays knowingly complicate this journey by introducing a character with a major fatal flaw.
- A fatal flaw has great potential for creating richer characters, bigger odds, more tension, and more connection between character and audience.
What exactly is a fatal flaw though and why should you use it? What’s the point and how should you craft it?
Furthermore, what are some examples of character flaws? How have other filmmakers and show creators used them? Read on to learn more.
What is a Fatal Flaw?
A fatal flaw (also known as a ‘tragic flaw’ or ‘hamartia’) is a writing device that can be defined as a trait that ultimately leads to a character’s downfall or potentially even their death.
In more modern uses of the term, this could potentially be extended to include a trait that leads to the downfall of the character or of those around them.
- Oftentimes, a character’s fatal flaw is originally acquired as a positive survival tool, but eventually morphs into a destructive trait if it overstays its usefulness.
Tragic flaws are traditionally held by Aristotelian-style tragic heroes and antagonists/villains, however, can be used in practically any tragic context.
It’s important to note that many often misunderstand what a fatal flaw really is. Take note that it doesn’t necessarily point to any moral failing in a character.
- The thing that truly makes a trait a fatal flaw is that it leads a character to make decisions that will lead to a tragic outcome.
- In other words, courage can just as likely be a tragic flaw as can hubris or anxiety.
In some films and TV series, this trait can even be the hero’s greatest strength taken to an extreme, effectively turning it from a help to a hindrance.
Benefits and Disadvantages
All screenplays can benefit from having well-rounded characters with plenty of strengths and flaws alike.
Fatal flaws are just one aspect of this and (like any other writing device!) have their own drawbacks and advantages.
Here’s some points to consider when considering a fatal flaw:
One of the major benefits to giving characters fatal flaws is that it lends them a certain level of both complexity and realism.
- All to often, it can be tempting to write characters as either good or bad, friend or villain, just or unjust.
- By giving your characters fatal flaws, you actively resist this.
- Tragic flaws at their core disallow for this aforementioned black and white thinking.
Why? Well, a fatal flaw typically falls into one of two categories.
- It either is a traditionally positive trait that goes askew due to bad circumstances
- or it’s a traditionally negative trait that arises from bad circumstances.
Regardless of which category it falls into, a fatal flaw recognises and echoes the complexity found in these circumstances.
- The good is taken too far or used against the character, turning it bad.
- Meanwhile, the bad is displayed as a protective response to other bad or arising from necessity.
This shows a lot of character complexity just through one flaw and shows that dark and light can coexist.
Fatal flaws often have the bonus of increasing the likability of a character.
- Audiences tend to feel drawn towards characters who feel relatable or more realistic.
- They actively seek characters who have had more genuinely human experiences.
- Audiences also tend to like tragic heroes and those with with a fatal flaw because they connect to them on a sympathetic and empathetic level.
Something to keep in mind while deciding to include a fatal flaw or not: it can box your narrative opportunities in.
- Fatal flaws are such because they lead to downfall of some sort.
- This means your plot and characterisation will heavily emphasise this.
- There can only be so much of a positive ending. There can only be so much good arising from tragedy.
One of the other main problems with a fatal flaw is that it sometimes comes off as cliched.
- We all know that story of the character so terrified that they make for an easy kill.
- Try to stay more original or put a spin on the expected.
A good starting point is to give the protagonist a fatal flaw rather than the antagonist. This gives the villain the upper hand and effectively flips the script.
Tips for Writing a Fatal Flaw
Choose a fatal flaw that naturally leads to the internal journey you want for your character. Your character arc is naturally connected to where the character begins.
- Their fatal flaw is a major player in how they develop as a character.
- If you are clear on what growth or consequences you want to see by the end of the screenplay, you’ll know the conflict they need within themselves to get there.
A fatal flaw should not be a moral judgement.
- Don’t just punish a “bad” character by giving them an insurmountable flaw.
- Despite the fact they cause some kind of tragedy in a character’s life, a fatal flaw is not necessarily always about forcing a character to “lose.”
- A fatal flaw should rather be used as an obstacle and a complicating factor between the character and meaningful growth.
- In some ways it is inherently destructive but it is also inherently generative.
- As such, it should be viewed less punitively and more as an opportunity for change.
Don’t overuse the device!
- Unless you are writing a traditional tragedy, it’s ineffective having numerous characters with these flaws.
- All that does is make your story overly busy, confusing, and over-complicated.
- Instead, focus on writing one or two characters with these flaws and explore them on a deeper level.
If you’re having trouble determining what a character’s major flaw should be, keep in mind that it oftentimes represents the opposite of the theme!
- For example, if your theme is about living in the moment, your character'(s) fatal flaw will present a major barrier to this.
Fatal Flaw Examples in Film and TV
Movies and TV shows have endless examples of tragic heroes and fatal flaws. Here’s just a short list of a few you might recognize.
Desire for Reality – Inception
In Inception, Cobb has a fatal flaw that not only harms himself, but those around him.
- Through Cobb’s decision to become a dream extractor, he becomes obsessed with living in reality.
- While this isn’t a tragic flaw in of itself, it brings himself unnecessary pain and grief and pushes him to escape limbo despite the relative perfection he found there.
Ultimately, Cobb’s desire to live in reality leads to him being framed for murder. On top of this, it also causes his wife’s death and separation from his children.
Devotion/Love – Harry Potter
Love is a powerful motivator, but it can also end up as a destructive force. Severus Snape in Harry Potter is an excellent example of this.
- Anybody who has read the books or watched the films knows of Severus Snape’s complete devotion/obsession with Harry’s mother.
- This devotion ultimately puts him in harms way as he attempts to honour Lily by protecting Harry at all costs.
In the end, Snape’s labor of love ends up costing him his life. He does manage to “win” the day by keeping Harry alive, although he ends up losing his own life as a result.
Fear of Death – Harry Potter
Another example present in Harry Potter, Tom Riddle/Voldemort eventually loses and dies because of this flaw.
- At his core, Voldemort has one major human fear: death.
- He’s simultaneously afraid of it and ashamed of it.
- He finds the act of dying shameful because it shows that absolute power still can’t achieve everything.
- There are still vulnerabilities. Likewise, he’s ashamed of his fear of death because it shows he still has some human weaknesses that can be used against him.
This fear of death (along with his arrogance) motivates him to try and live forever in various different ways, placing his soul in horcruxes, for example.
- This fear of death and quest for immortality eventually leads to his downfall.
Those fighting against the dark lord are willing to die as long as they’re able to defeat him. Thus, they’re able to put it all on the line with no consideration of the consequences, something Voldermort cannot do.
Fear of Change – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton’s tragic flaw revolves around his fear of the new.
- Rick’s entire goal is about trying to continue or revitalize his slowing acting career.
- He fears he’s aging out and he fears he doesn’t have a place in the emerging “new” Hollywood.
However, his want for things to remain the same is exactly what holds him back.
- Instead of accepting the new way of things, he insists on sticking with the same parts, plots, and company that has effectively led to his stagnation.
By the final act of the film, Rick’s career as an actor is effectively over, ironically, because he couldn’t let the past go.
- His very fear of change and attachment to the past disallows him from reaching his former glory.
- The film puts a mind-bending final twist on this flaw however.
- This finale defies logic and reality and gives Rick the end he would wish for rather the one closest to reality.
Vanity & Insecurity – Requiem for a Dream
In Requiem for a Dream, Sara Goldfarb’s vanity and insecurity is her fatal flaw.
- One of Sara’s biggest goals is to lose weight and be on TV.
- Sara then tries to achieve this goal by reaching out to a doctor, who prescribes stimulants to help her shed the weight.
- Sara becomes addicted to the pills and goes through stimulant psychosis.
- Eventually, she ends up alone in a mental hospital.
Rather than helping her, her vanity and insecurity alienates her and forces her away from her child.