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Transformational Character Arcs: Part 7 - The Protagonist's Fatal Flaw

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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The Protagonist's Fatal Flaw

Let’s talk about the fatal flaw. If you do some research on it, you'll find that it comes up a lot in "tragic hero" discussions i.e., the fatal flaw of the Protagonist ultimately leads to his or her demise. So while this is obviously true, let's take the fatal flaw a little further. If the fatal flaw can be used to lead your Protagonist to his or her ultimate demise then maybe... just maybe, your Protagonist's fatal flaw can lead your Protagonist (as well as other supporting characters) through the cycle of his or her character arc.

Sound plausible?

Remember, a tragic hero story is one where the Protagonist usually dies or at least has pretty much of a downer ending but not all of us are writing screenplays with downer endings are we? And, if we're not writing downer endings, we must be writing endings where the Protagonist wins SOMETHING at least on some level, correct?

So if that's true, do you want a Protagonist that learns something about themselves and GROWS or do you just want a Protagonist that reacts to things and wins because he or she was always just a really cool character all the way through the story and never changed at all?

If you're in the "really cool character that never changes" group, you may want to STOP reading now and get back to your really cool character. The rest of us will discuss the Protagonist's fatal flaw.

If we take the premise of the Protagonist's fatal flaw in a tragic hero story and know that his or her fatal flaw eventually leads to his or her ruination, then at some point, we want to flip the table on that premise and use the Protagonist's fatal flaw to create his or her transformational character arc.

Your Protagonist's fatal flaw is simply his or her way of doing things, i.e., their way of tackling the obstacles that you keep throwing in front of them throughout your story. Where we will now part ways with the tragic hero story is that at some point in YOUR story, YOUR Protagonist learns from his or her mistakes. Those mistakes are the residual effect of your Protagonist's usual way of doing things, i.e., tackling the obstacles that you keep throwing at them.

At some point, your Protagonist should begin to realize that his or her USUAL way of doing things just doesn't work anymore and because the usual way of doing things doesn't work anymore, he or she needs to adopt a new way of doing things or they will surely perish in some way, shape, or form.

This is WHY I've added this discussion of the Protagonist's fatal flaw AFTER the Protagonist's Emotional Reaction to Action. In discussions of the Protagonist's transformational character arc, I think it's better to know that the Protagonist will at some point have to start considering the idea that their usual way of making decisions has been basically SUCKING for quite a while now and hence, begin to REALIZE that maybe a different strategy (emotional reaction to action) is NOW in order.

It's this consideration that is the basis of growth for your Protagonist. It's that seed that germinates and sinks its roots into the ground.

Going back to the tragic hero story...

It's just the opposite. The Protagonist's usual way of doing things never changes. They continuously fail to understand that their way of tackling the obstacles just sinks them DEEPER into trouble. Which is why, in the tragic hero story, that the Protagonist ultimately encounters a tragic demise, i.e., they experience NEGATIVE GROWTH.

That brings up another good point... GROWTH.

Let's check out the definition...

--from Unabridged (v 1.1)

growth: [grohth] --noun
  1. the act or process, or a manner of growing; development; gradual increase.
  2. size or stage of development: It hasn't yet reached its full growth.
  3. completed development.
  4. development from a simpler to a more complex stage: the growth of ritual forms.
  5. development from another but related form or stage: the growth of the nation state.
  6. something that has grown or developed by or as if by a natural process: a growth of stubborn weeds.
  7. Pathology. an abnormal increase in a mass of tissue, as a tumor.
  8. origin; source; production: onions of English growth.
  1. of or denoting a business, industry, or equity security that grows or is expected to grow in value over a long period of time: a growth industry; a growth stock.
--from The American Heritage Science Dictionary

growth: (groth)

An increase in the size of an organism or part of an organism, usually as a result of an increase in the number of cells. Growth of an organism may stop at maturity, as in the case of humans and other mammals, or it may continue throughout life, as in many plants. In humans, certain body parts, like hair and nails, continue to grow throughout life.

--from American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

growth: (groth) --n.
  1. The process of growing.
  2. Full development; maturity.
  3. An increase, as in size, number, value, or strength.
  4. Something that grows or has grown.
  5. An abnormal mass of tissue, such as a tumor, growing in or on an organism.
Need we go on?

The Transformational Character Arc is CHARACTER GROWTH.

In a tragic hero story, there is no character growth as defined above; although you could say that there is "negative character growth."

I guess we could also surmise from the above that:


Whereas LIFE or DEATH can be literal or symbolic.

Does that make sense?

So WHY would a character HOLD ON to a philosophy of doing things in a way where they cease to experience growth?


Why do people stay in abusive relationships? Why do people stay at a job until retirement? Why do people drink, gamble, and cheat on each other? Because it's SAFE. Because it's what they know. Because it's EASY. Because they think, feel, and or know that it's the way to be thus, one ceases to GROW.

That's not to say that one cannot grow in other ways but I point that out just to give you something to think about when it comes to WHY a character might hold on to their philosophy. Basically speaking, people the world over are RESISTANT TO CHANGE. So the Protagonist's aversion to do things differently, i.e., grow and change, is their fatal flaw but when writing a screenplay, you gotta go deeper. At some point during your multiple drafts, you've got to pinpoint that fatal flaw because by doing so, you also figure out your Protagonist's transformational character arc.

The final stage of a character's transformational character arc is usually diametrically opposite from that same character's fatal flaw. Once you know your Protagonist's fatal flaw and the final stage of his or her transformational character arc, you are now hopefully armed with enough knowledge to start tweaking the story so that it resonates the peeling back of your Protagonist's layers of character traits.

By now you should have an idea of your Protagonist's personality type. Take that personality type and figure out those character traits that make that personality type tick and be the quintessential type of character they are in your screenplay. It could very well be that one of those character traits ends up being your Protagonist's fatal flaw but there's no rule so you may come up with something new and different but consider making your Protagonist's fatal flaw commensurate with the kind of personality type he or she is.

Once you know your Protagonist’s fatal flaw and assuming you are going to have your Protagonist TRANSFORM, i.e., develop and grow, you are now armed with an END RESULT of CHARACTER. When you know the end result of your Protagonist's character (for your current screenplay), i.e., his or her transformational character arc, you can now go back to each and every obstacle that you've thrown in front of your Protagonist and tweak his or her emotional reaction to action so that as he or she tackles each obstacle, it peels back yet another layer of their growth.

By tweaking, we are of course talking about your Protagonist's action and dialogue so that it results in the following:
  1. Shows us your Protagonist's ORIGINAL philosophy or how he or she handles the obstacles you throw at him or her, i.e., his or her emotional reaction to action which is their decision making process in the beginning of your story.
  2. Shows us how your Protagonist learns about himself or herself and how the above decision making process isn't working for them in this particular story.
  3. Shows us how your Protagonist takes what he or she has learned and BEGINS to reveal a slightly new philosophy, i.e., his or her emotional reaction to action changes. The things your Protagonist valued BEFORE are becoming less valuable to him or her in your current story. He or she is beginning to shed that old skin and grow new skin.
  4. Shows us how your Protagonist continues to develop and grow and in effect, the obstacles that you placed in front of him or her AND his or her emotional reaction to action are now tweaked so that when combined, they now BUILD and develop on his or her new philosophy.
  5. Shows us how your Protagonist LEARNS from applying these new decisions (emotional reaction to action) even when he or she FAILS with these new decisions.
  6. Shows us your Protagonist's END RESULT of CHARACTER. A new person of some sort. Growth. Life. Transformation.
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About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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