Good characters are often broken characters. They’ve been wounded, and the last thing they want is to be hurt in that particular way again, so they adopt new behaviors—emotional shielding—that are meant to protect them. They believe this shielding will keep them from harm, but these new habits and beliefs are usually dysfunctional, compounding the fallout and keeping them from achieving the things they desperately need.
This is Character Arc 101; for a character to complete their arc, they have to eventually see that their emotional shielding is actually false shielding, that they must stop sabotaging themselves and start making changes if they want to win at life. And the only way they can do that is to recognize and renounce their fatal flaw. This is a critical piece of the character arc puzzle that you, the author, must know. So how do you figure that out?
First, the obligatory definition:
THE FATAL FLAW is your character’s antiquated and ineffective approach to dealing with life that must be adapted or cast aside to make room for successful methods.
No matter how the character tries to better themselves and their situation, the fatal flaw, which manifests as emotional shielding, is a constant obstacle to success. It’s what the character will have to recognize and overcome if they’re going to achieve the story goal and find fulfillment.
If you’re writing a character with a change arc, it’s crucial to know their fatal flaw so you can get them to the point of addressing it. (This is just as important in a failed arc, but instead of overcoming the fatal flaw, the character will succumb to it, resigning themselves to a tragedy ending.)
To clarify things, let me show you how this works with a familiar example: Finding Nemo. Despite the title, this movie isn’t about Nemo at all. It’s Marlin’s story, chronicling the journey of a father to overcome fear and connect with his son. When Marlin’s wife and children were killed (the wounding event), a lie unfurled in his mind: the world is a dangerous and deadly place. That belief led him to adopt certain unhealthy behaviors, which I’ve explored using the One Stop for Writers Character Builder:
All of this emotional shielding is meant to keep Nemo safe, but Marlin’s extreme helicopter parenting has driven a wedge between him and his son. His dysfunctional behavior, meant to keep Nemo close, is actually pushing him away.
Step 1: Determine your Character’s Emotional Shielding
Because your character’s fatal flaw is part of their emotional shielding, you have to first identify those shielding behaviors. Start by making a list of habits, beliefs, and ideas that were birthed in the aftermath of the character’s wounding event and the lie that was born from it. Here are some questions to move you in the right direction:
- What is my character’s defining flaw?
- What behaviors do they exhibit because of that flaw?
- Who is your character biased against because of that wounding event from the past?
- What lie(s) do they believe about themselves, certain people groups, or the world at large?
- What behaviors do they exhibit based on those lies?
With a little digging, you should end up with a list of emotional shielding behaviors and ideas that are contributing to your character’s stagnation.
Step 2: Zero In On the Fatal Flaw
Somewhere in that list is your character’s fatal flaw. It’s a form of emotional shielding and is two-pronged, consisting of a cognitive and a behavioral component.
The cognitive component of the fatal flaw is the mental piece—a bias, mindset, attitude, or disempowering belief—that keeps the character from achieving the story goal. Just like in real life, the character’s thoughts will determine their actions, leading to a behavioral component in the form of an unproductive and/or dysfunctional trait or behavior that must be rejected in order for them to find success.
For Marlin, the mental component is his belief that the world is inherently dangerous. We see this guiding every decision he makes before Nemo is stolen away, and it’s the main reason he sets off on the journey to find his son.
This belief, combined with his unmet Love and Belonging need, has led him to smother Nemo, denying him the space and freedom that would be appropriate for a growing boy. This is the behavioral component of his fatal flaw. His tendency to control Nemo is pushing his son away and contributing to his own unmet need.
To find the two components of your character’s fatal flaw, examine their emotional shielding. Do you already know which of those behaviors is constantly tripping them up? Then start there and work backward, looking for the mental component at the root of that habit. Alternatively, if you know the cognitive component that’s driving their behavior, you can identify that first then turn your focus to the behavioral piece. Once you’ve identified these two components, you’ll have a much better idea of how to resolve their arc.
In Marlin’s case, it takes many opportunities for him to recognize his fatal flaw as the root of his problem with Nemo. Along his journey, he meets friendly and helpful strangers who challenge his belief that others can’t be trusted. Through his encounter with Crush, he sees an example of healthy parenting based on trust and respect.
By the end of the story, Marlin has learned his lesson. He sees that the dangerous world he inhabits is also a beautiful and exciting place that, with sensible precautions, can safely be explored. And when Dori needs saving, Marlin is able to loosen his stranglehold on Nemo by recognizing his capability and allowing him to take responsible risks. This new, healthy dynamic strengthens their relationship, filling Marlin’s love and belonging void and allowing him to live a full life that’s free of fear.
I know I’ve thrown a lot of information at you here, so let me summarize the main steps to finding your character’s fatal flaw:
- Identify your character’s emotional wound
- Figure out what lie has grown out of it
- Make a list of all the emotional shielding (dysfunctional behaviors, biases, and negative ideas) that the character has adopted to keep them from being hurt again
- From that list, find the one cognitive component (a bias, mindset, attitude, or disempowering belief) that’s keeping them from succeeding at their story goal
- Identify the one behavioral component (a dysfunctional trait, habit, or behavior) that hampers the character throughout the story
With the fatal flaw piece of the puzzle solved, you’ll have a better idea of the scenarios you’ll want to provide for the character—chances for failure (so they can start seeing a pattern to their behavior), and small wins that will allow them to take baby steps toward recognizing the truth about their fatal flaw and renouncing it in favor of healthier responses.
For more character arc help, check out these useful resources at One Stop for Writers.
The Character Builder at One Stop for Writers
Reverse Backstory Tool
Character Arc Progression Tool
Once you’ve figured out the two components to your character’s fatal flaw, tell me about them in the comments. I love seeing how all the pieces come together :).
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Yes it is a useful piece on developing characters with their fatal flaws .Character without a flaw wouldn’t make a good story .
Andrew Gaetz says
Can it go the other way, with a character starting in a reasonably normal, well rounded spot. But as the story unfolds, they develop a fatal flaw that continues to grow until it consumes them at the end of the story?
BECCA PUGLISI says
Great question! What you’re referencing is a failed arc, or negative/tragedy arc as others might call it. There are quite a few structures you can use for this type of story. The character might start out in a bad place and never rise out of it, despite them wanting and trying to. They might start out great but devolve into a bad internal place that they’re never able to completely escape.
My only caveat to what you’ve suggested is that the wounding event should already have occurred before the story starts. Things may (and should) happen to the character throughout your story that cause the fatal flaw to bloom and grow, but the seed of that flaw should already be there at the story’s start. Maybe it’s completely dormant, just waiting to be triggered; more likely, it’s quiet but not silent, and readers see a hint of it here and there before it bursts out and becomes super obvious.
The reason for this is that the wounding event is almost always a past event; it’s not part of the character’s current story. The current story is about the character trying to meet an unmet need by pursuing a story goal, but them being stymied by their fatal flaw, and them eventually recognizing this and trying to overcome it. THAT’s the current story. The wounding event that laid the foundation for the fatal flaw is absolutely going to impact the character and influence them in the current story, but the event itself is part of the past, and for most stories, it should stay there.
The failed arc is a huge topic, but Katie Weiland covers it beautifully in this post. And while you’re at her blog, check out all the other amazing information she has there. Thanks for reading, Andrew!