Last night, in the writers group I participate in, one of the writers had a great window into his main character’s flaw. The only problem was that this window came on about page 45 of his script when we should have already started getting a whiff of it on pages 1-5.
This writer’s main character flaw was that the protagonist was a petulant, self-centered spoiled brat, who jumped into action impulsively without thinking because he had grown up rich and therefore thought he ruled the world.
He was also a very “wounded child”, meaning his father had abandoned him at a young age, but still demanded that the son oversee the family’s wealth as the son was a businessman. The character had a lot of issues about his father, as any of us would. But sometimes he was just a bit too precious.
While I was commenting on this fact, the writer asked me what my recommendations were for showing this flaw in the earlier scenes of his script. I tried to brainstorm a few methods on the spot, but didn't think of one great way to give insight into what a character is all about until this morning, as I sit here, slogging through a rewrite of my own work.
Provide insight into who your character is by showing how they perform mundane tasks.
Many screenplays and other stories begin with the main character waking up in the morning. While this might seem rote to some, one of the uses of this technique is in demonstrating how characters react to the mundane details of their life.
For example: A very uptight person is going to clean up his breakfast plates in a very different way than a slovenly, rather “liberal” person might, who might not even bother cleaning up his breakfast plates at all.
And what if these two different characters happen to drop a glass on the floor? They are both going to have a very different reaction.
The uptight character might overreact to the glass breaking, while the more slovenly person might under-react and perhaps not clean up the broken shards all that well. Then he ends up stepping on one of the shards later, lodging it in his foot, his penance for being such a slob.
You as the writer can then bring in other characters to these mundane situations. The uptight character, who perhaps is already late for work, might lose his stack the second his wife walks in the room, misdirecting his anger at himself for breaking a glass against her.
The slovenly guy, on the other hand, perhaps tries to shirk responsibility for his own accident, seeing if his wife can clean up the mess for him.
Both instances are both flaws that a character would have to confront during the course of his journey.
This is a great way to show character, instead of telling.