This gets a little tricky. So, pay close attention.

The protagonist must be flawed. I know, she’s the hero. How can she be flawed? It is important to remember: the protagonist doesn’t not start out a hero. The protagonist becomes a hero over the course of her journey.

What's a flaw?

In Up, Carl is a curmudgeon. He doesn’t like anyone. He barely speaks to people. When he does, he yells at them. So, when a sweet little boy comes to his door, Carl slams the door in the kid’s face.

Carl’s flaw? He hates people. All of this is established near the end of Act One, after Ellie has passed away.

Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz) has a fairly minor flaw. She doesn’t appreciate what she has: a loving aunt and uncle–who are raising her–and three loving friends. Dorothy is so unappreciative that she runs away from home.

Rick (from Casablanca) says it bluntly: “I stick myself out for no one.” In fact, he says it three times in Act One. His flaw? Rick’s out for Rick. He cares for no one but Rick.

Okay, I think we can agree that those are flaws. And none of the characters are aware of their flaws (even Rick, who seems to wear it like a badge of honor).

Remember:

  • More often than not, the protagonist is unaware of her flaw.
  • Correcting the flaw is the entire point of the story. (More on that later.)

What’s the resolution?

Resolution is correction of the protagonist’s flaw. This happens when the protagonist has nearly completed her journey. The resolution is a result of what the protagonist has learned along the way.

Flaw and resolution work together, hand in hand. The flaw is established in Act One. Resolution takes place in Act Three.

So, what’s this look like?

As the writer, you chose the protagonist’s flaw. As with all decisions, this should be made with care. You must know what you want the protagonist’s outcome or resolution to be. The flaw and resolution are opposite sides of the same coin. 

Examples:

  • Flaw: Arrogance
  • Resolution: Humility
  • Flaw: Hatred
  • Resolution: Love
  • Flaw: Ignorance
  • Resolution: Wisdom
  • Flaw: Selfish
  • Resolution: Selfless

A good way to check your flaw/resolution is to review them back-to-front: do Act Three and the resolution mirror the Act One flaw? If not, rethink.

What does the resolution look like in action?We’ll go with the usual suspects.

The last scene of Up shows Carl and Russell sitting together, eating ice cream.  Carl, no longer mean spirited, has become Russell’s surrogate father.

Dorothy’s last three lines are “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”  She now appreciates what she has.

Rick gives up Ilsa, his bar, and his livelihood. He sacrifices everything because “the problem of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans.” No longer selfish, he has returned to the fight.

Film suggestion! In the Heat of the Night is a brilliant film. Carol O’Connor plays a racist sheriff. Sidney Poitier plays a cop from “up North” who happens through this small Alabama town and helps solve a murder case. By the end of the film, O’Connor’s character has realized the error of his ways.

What’s an inner need?

The protagonist has an inner need, which is generally connected to the flaw. And, as is true of the flaw, the protagonist is unaware of the inner need.

The inner need should not be confused with the objective. This is a mistake that young writers make all too often. I hear things like, “Her objective is to save the world,” “Her objective is to be independent,” or “Her objective is self-confidence or self-respect.”

All of the above are inner needs, not objectives.

How can you tell the difference? The inner need is intangible and, again, unknown to the protagonist. The objective is tangible and clearly identified by the protagonist: “I’m going to Paradise Falls.”

The inner need is intangible and unknown to the protagonist

On a similar note, the objective is clear to the audience. The inner need is usually hidden from the audience.  They won’t know or see the protagonist’s change until act three. Here are examples with our usual suspects:

Carl’s inner need to bond with someone and establish a close relationship. He fulfills this need with the least likely candidate, Russell. But it is important to remember that Carl doesn’t set out to be a surrogate father. His objective is Paradise Falls, not a father-son relationship.

Dorothy is not on a quest to fully appreciate the love she has at home, with her aunt, uncle, and friends. No, her objective is home/Kansas. It is only when she wakes up in her own bed, after a long dream, that she understands her inner need, which is to fully appreciate all that she has.

Rick has no intention of being a better man. On the contrary, he’s very pleased with himself and his cynical attitude. His objective is Ilsa, not selflessness. That’s why the Act Three works so well. Rick surprises everyone, including Ilsa, when he does the right thing.

ACTION STEPS

The Take-Away

  1. Your protagonist must be flawed—the protagonist does not start out a hero.
  2. More often than not, the protagonist is unaware of her flaw.
  3. Correcting the flaw is the entire point of the story.
  4. A protagonist resolves their flaw in the resolution.
  5. The inner need is intangible and unknown to the protagonist.
  6. The objective is tangible and clearly identified by the protagonist.

Ready for the next lesson? Jump over to Lesson 7: Mentor and False Mentor!