Figuring Out the Fatal Flaw (And Why Your Character Needs One)
on Monday, February 16, 2015
Updated Wednesday, September 07, 2016
I spent seven years in graduate school earning my Ph.D. in particle physics. I knew early on that I would have to devote most of my time to studying if I would have any hope of surviving.
Many people did not survive. Meanwhile, I learned to forego many of the things in life that most people take for granted.
I learned how to skip parties and go to the office on a Saturday night. I learned how to carry a voice in the back of my head at all times, even at the beach, telling me that I had work to do and that I couldn't fully enjoy myself.
In short, over the space of several years, I learned how to make work the primary focus of my life.
When I left graduate school, I took a job in Los Angeles. For a while, I enjoyed my newfound freedom, the freedom of a 9-to-6 job.
Whether it was hiking, swing dancing, water skiing or going to the gym, I enjoyed an active social life with no thoughts of work unless I was actually at work.
But it was only a matter of time before my old way of thinking came knocking at my door.
I started working on software projects outside of work and found myself coding late into the night. No matter where I was, I couldn't stop thinking about my projects. To this day, I'm driven by what some might say is an obsession with work. Sometimes it's a struggle to maintain a healthy life balance.
This may not be your problem, but in the right circumstance it could be my fatal flaw.
What is a Fatal Flaw
You've probably heard of the term fatal flaw. As a writer, you have probably even thought about your own character's fatal flaw. But what is a fatal flaw, really?
I recently got some feedback on my current novel project indicating that my main character's fatal flaw was not obvious, thus making him a weak and unsympathetic character.
I didn't fully understand this feedback so I did some reading and hit upon a single sentence that allowed everything to fall into place.
The following sentence from author Dara Marks is the best definition of the fatal flaw that I've seen. It makes more sense to me than everything else put together.
"The FATAL FLAW is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness." - Dara Marks
With this definition you can now stop trying to turn your main character into a kleptomaniac, a compulsive hair puller or a closet ax murderer in order to give them a fatal flaw.
Does A Fatal Flaw Have to Be Bad?
As you can see from the above definition, a fatal flaw doesn't have to be bad.
In fact, the fatal flaw is not even harmful in your character's normal life. It's actually a very useful characteristic. But when your story introduces a new situation...a new normal, your character's old way of doing things don't work the same way.
Your character's reluctance or difficulty adapting to a new situation turns what was once a successful survival strategy into a fatal flaw.
Take Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Her fatal flaw is her compulsion to put people she cares about ahead of herself. When her younger sister's name is drawn for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her place, which, of course, is essentially a death sentence.
In the new world of the games, Katniss tries to put her own life ahead of others' so she can survive and get back to her family, but in the end, she is still not willing to sacrifice Peeta. She would rather die herself than NOT protect someone she cares about. During the games she is not just fighting against the other tributes (who are all trying to kill her), but also against her own protective instinct.
Clearly, a protective instinct is a good thing...unless it's not. In Katniss' normal world, being protective is good. In the Hunger Games, it's kill or be killed.
Fatal flaws are often not so noble. In the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter is a serial killer. Dexter lives a fairly normal secret life as a well-disciplined serial killer who only kills bad people, until his sister, a detective, enlists his help in the investigation of a different serial killer.
Dexter enters a new normal. So far he has been able to operate behind the scenes, but the serial killer he is hunting has now made Dexter and his sister targets. Dexter struggles to adapt to this more chaotic environment where something he cares about is threatened.
As you can see, Katniss' flaw was quite noble and Dexter's flaw is reprehensible. If it weren't for his code that restricts him to killing only bad people, Dexter's flaw might be too irredeemable for any reader to empathize with.
These two examples are both extremes: children killing one another and a serial killer.
But a fatal flaw can also be as simple as working too hard, as I mentioned above about myself. In physics graduate school, obsessive work habits support survival and success. But in a family, an obsession with work can cause one to be distant and unavailable. In this context, it can be a fatal flaw.
Why Must Your Character Have a Fatal Flaw
Why should we care whether a character has a fatal flaw?
As you may know, I'm all about breaking the rules, but only after one understands why the rules exist in the first place.
I don't believe a fatal flaw is a requirement for you character. There are many types of fiction and many types of storytelling.
But without a fatal flaw, it becomes more difficult for your reader to relate to your character. Yes, it can be fun to live vicariously through a character who is perfect in every way. Courageous, tolerant, kind, strong, unflappable, etc. But how long does a story last if nothing bad ever happens?
Every good story requires conflict and struggle. In the best stories, characters also grow and overcome, and it is the fatal flaw that defines the trajectory of your character's evolution in a new world where they must learn to adapt.
Don't get too hung up on the fatal flaw, just think of it as the way in which your character is reluctant to adapt to the new situation.