Most stories can be boiled down to this basic recipe: a protagonist wants something and needs to overcome a series of external and internal obstacles in order to get it.
The external obstacles are the easy part—the car crashes, tornadoes, broken ankles, and missed flights that throw a wrench in our protagonists’ plans. But what about the internal obstacles—the “fatal flaws” that keep our protagonists from achieving their dreams until they finally change their ways?
This week, I’ll talk about how to identify your main character’s fatal flaw and use it to create or strengthen their character arc.
Find your magic word
Have you ever taken a personality test and found out that—according to the test, at least—your life has been a quest for “trust,” “freedom,” or a similar word? It can be fun to analyze your life in terms of a single word and discover all the ways that word has shaped you as a person.
Imagine your main character is taking a personality test. What single word best describes your main character’s deepest desires, fears, and motivations? Is forgiveness a big deal in your character’s life? What about ambition? Self-control?
Try a few different words on for size. If you’ve already written your novel or memoir and are revising it, read through your pages to see if this word fits well with the conflicts your main character experiences. Does your character constantly get into trouble over her unwillingness to forgive others? Forgiveness might be her magic word—the fatal flaw causing her problems, and the key to overcoming them.
Using your magic word to strengthen conflict
Once you’ve found your magic word, write that word on a card and prop it up next to your computer. Whenever you work on your manuscript, keep this word in the back of your mind. When revising scenes that contain conflict, ask yourself “How did my character’s ambition (or stubbornness, or independence, etc.) help create this problem?” Then highlight those elements in the scene.
As your novel progresses, your character should be challenged to change her ways. Gradually, she will test out other attitudes towards her magic word. An unforgiving character will experiment with forgiveness. An independent character will experiment with relying on others. Your character might not succeed right away—in fact, it’s probably better if she doesn’t. The important thing is that we see her trying to change.
Getting to Point B
You’ll know you’ve reached Point B (the end of your character arc) when your character’s attitude towards her magic word has changed completely—when a trusting character has learned to think for herself or a stubborn character has learned to value other peoples’ opinions.
Just as a character needs to overcome car crashes and missed planes to achieve her external goals, she also needs to change her attitude about something in order to achieve wisdom and personal growth. With the help of a magic word, this inner journey can be just as exciting as the external one.