Finding Fatal Flaws with the Vertical Arrow Technique

It’s a given that characters need flaws, both to make them more relatable and to give them a satisfying character arc. Sometimes writers struggle with finding suitable faults, leading to the plague of heroines with fatal flaws like “being pathetically clumsy” or “having eyes that are far too big for her face.” But by looking within yourself, you can unearth hundreds of real flaws that can influence a character’s behavior, making them relatable and all too human. You’ll be able to write those flaws in a meaningful, honest way because you’ll know exactly how they make you feel and act, and this honesty will resonate with your readers because they’ll recognize your characters in themselves. Best of all, coming up with these flaws can bring to light the unconscious rules you live by, ultimately improving your own mental health.

Take a moment to read this excellent article by Lisa Cron, the writer of the books Wired for Story and Story Genius. The upshot is that characters are driven by negative, unconscious beliefs about the world, and the events of a story force them to examine those beliefs, find out how they first internalized them, and finally let go of them. The example given is that of a character who came to believe that love is a source of weakness after seeing her friend’s heart broken by the death of her father, and avoided deep connections with other people ever since. This insulated her from grief and emotional pain, but also deprived her of love and deep relationships. The events of the story tested this belief, forcing her to see the negative side of the rule that kept her emotionally stable, but also limited her growth and happiness.

So to create a character who comes across as flawed but understandable, find this sort of deep-seated negative belief, imagine how it drives their behavior, then put them in a situation in which it’s proved to be a limitation which they need to outgrow. Any negative belief could be the source of a relatable character flaw and a satisfying arc that helps the character grow, no matter what genre or setting you prefer.

The good news is that you have a nearly limitless source of these negative beliefs in your own head. One tenet of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is that people internalize and are governed by unconscious rules such as “I should be able to please everybody,” “If someone I care about rejects me, it means there’s something wrong with me,” or “It is shameful for a person to display their weaknesses.” They’re called “silent assumptions” and they’re like lines of code in your head that were programmed by family, friends, the events of your childhood, society and culture. 

Silent assumptions are rules that help us survive, but also often hold us back. After all, many of them are impossible to live up to, so when you inevitably break your own rules you feel guilt and shame which can be unbearable — all the more so because these rules are largely unconscious. Plus, they also tend to isolate us from other people. At least one of them is at the core of every distorted negative thought that hijacks your thought processes and causes depression. 

To pull them out, pin them down and start turning them into healthier, more reasonable rules that serve you, try the “vertical arrow technique.” It’s a more advanced CBT approach, and it works best after the initial depression is alleviated and you’re better able to examine your thought processes from a place of calmness and acceptance. This is because once you know through practice that your negative thoughts are often distorted and misleading, you have the mental distance to imagine how it would feel if they were true, without causing yourself more distress.

Let’s take another look at part of the CBT worksheet I posted recently.

The initial thought that bothered me
People in my real life will think badly of me for being depressed and writing fanfics and writing honestly about it

If this was actually true, what would it mean to me? Why would it be upsetting to me?
I will be mocked and privately judged by people whose good opinion I’d like to have, or people around whom I feel self-conscious already

If this was actually true, what would it mean to me? Why would it be upsetting to me?
I fear other people’s negative judgments and would rather hide myself than undergo them

If this was actually true, what would it mean to me? Why would it be upsetting to me?
I assume that people like me better when they don’t know the truth of who I am

If this was actually true, what would it mean to me? Why would it be upsetting to me?
The person I actually am is unlikable

What’s the silent assumption affecting this thought?
If I want to be accepted, I have to hide who I am

What value is this statement trying to add to my life?
It’s trying to make me more acceptable to people so that I’m more likely to fit in

Rewrite the silent assumption affecting this thought
If I want to be accepted, I have to hide who I am => I attract the people I want in my life when I’m true to myself.

As you see, all I’m doing is facing down a deep fear and asking “Why? Why? Why?” like any self-respecting four-year old. The key is repeating it over and over, calming my mind and freewriting until a flash of intuition turns an unconscious rule into a pithy sentence. In this case, I got it after four repetitions, but some times it takes considerably more to nail down the real problem and turn it into a rule.

Once I know what the rule is, I consider what it adds to my life. I often think about depression as my brain’s way of keeping my world small and safe, and you can see how this rule does exactly that. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” didn’t become a saying because humans are just so darn welcoming towards differences, after all. My rule for myself harms me and holds me back, but it’s also based in a grain of truth, and the first step in growing past it is to recognize that truth.

Finally, I turn it around and create an affirmation for myself. Now, I’m the kind of person who looks askance at words like “affirmation,” but the fact is, I already have one. “Hide your true self” is the rule my brain tells itself I must follow to survive, and I’ve been unconsciously affirming it to myself all my life, with negative results. All I’m doing is bringing that old affirmation to the front of my consciousness, examining it and understanding it, then replacing it with a new rule that serves me.

That unconscious rule – “If I want to be accepted, I have to hide who I am” — could serve a character perfectly well as what David Freeman calls the FLBW (fear, loss, block or wound). You might also call it their “fatal flaw” — basically, something that’s holding the character back. If I was writing up a list of character traits, I might phrase it as “They fear being themselves in most situations because they’re terrified of rejection.” It might manifest as a double life, an offputtingly phony facade, or increasing misery as the character tries to mold themselves to the demands of a group or please someone in their life.

What could make a character internalize this rule? I probably acquired it because I was an intense, awkward, chubby little kid and didn’t fit in well with the other children. Maybe a character with a similar rule for themselves didn’t fit in with their family as a kid?  Maybe they could only be accepted by a particular person when they buried their individuality? Maybe it was literally a survival tactic? A kid with unusual magic or an appearance that attracted unwanted attention might have learned early on to squelch or disguise these aspects of themselves.

This flaw could then form the basis of a lovely character arc, or the change in a character over the course of the story. I’m a big fan of the dramatic poles Robin D. Laws introduces in Beating The Story as a tool to depict a character’s primary conflicting impulses. Off the top of my head, I can come up with three pairs of poles that could work, depending on the character and the story you want to tell: openness versus secrecy, individuality versus conformity, or honesty versus phoniness. Through the course of the story, the character would be pulled toward one pole, then the other, as if the story is debating with itself about which side is better. This struggle tests them, brings to light the silent assumption that they’ve been living by, and forces them to examine it. Finally, one pole wins out at the end. Provided we’re writing a story with a happy ending, they’d be pulled to the positive pole once and for all, and they’d learn their lesson: that they fit in perfectly well with the people that matter to them, as long as they’re true to themselves.

Can you think of silent assumptions that famous characters carry in their heads, and how they affect their behavior? 

• Lyra Belacqua started off the His Dark Materials trilogy thinking “I can’t trust anyone but myself,” leading to her habit of lying.
• Harry Potter was saddled with a similar one: “No one is going to watch out for me but me,” so why bother confiding in adults?
• Bella Swan believed “I’m nothing if the person I love doesn’t return my feelings,” leading to intense depression and risky behavior when Edward leaves her in New Moon.
• Katniss Everdeen might think “My worth as a human comes from protecting my family,” which could be part of her extraordinary sacrifice for her sister’s sake. (I’m qualifying this one because rules like this motivate a character through fear, but I think it likely that she was also motivated by love, meaning that both the negative and positive impulses led to her nearly unconscious decision.)
• How about Elsa? She brings us full circle to “If I want to be accepted, I have to hide who I am,” leading to abdication and withdrawal from her life when she couldn’t cope with her secret being revealed.  Frozen floundered in development for the longest time, because no one knew how to handle the character of the Snow Queen. But her fatal flaw gave the movie its heart — and made bank for Disney.

Try it yourself! If you feel up to it, pick out a thought that troubles you like “I’m a bad mother,” “No one cares about me,” “I’m a complete failure” or so on. If you don’t feel like you’re in a place where you can pick apart some of your deepest fears, try imagining the negative thoughts that might plague a character of yours, or a character from a book you like. Then haul out your inner four-year old and start asking “Why? Why? Why?” Finally, imagine the silent assumption you unearth as a character flaw. Why would someone start believing it? How has it helped them so far? And what sort of situation could test it and help them grow past it?

Characters tend to have one major fatal flaw, because they’re representations of humanity. Me? Since I started using the vertical arrow technique, I’ve come up with 34 of them, each one of which could be the basis of a great character flaw, and I’ve got plenty more to go. Sounds like my head is a mess, right? But I believe that a person’s greatest weakness is often also their greatest strength. In Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee writes that the root of all fine character writing is self-knowledge: we all share the same crucial human experiences, so the more you learn about your own humanity and understand yourself, the better able you are to understand others. So those of us who deal with depression and anxiety are uniquely motivated to examine our own emotions and fears, in a way that someone who doesn’t suffer as much might not be. We can then put part of our flawed hearts into our characters, then send them out into the world. Once they’re out there, they resonate with people who are starved for stories. Why? Because each story helps chip away at the silent assumptions plaguing their own souls. 

Your brain might feel like your own worst enemy, but those very same thoughts and feelings that cause you distress can also lead to extraordinary insight about human nature and an infinite amount of stories. Plus, if you take up CBT and unearth some of the silent assumptions that affect your thinking, you won’t have to go through the events of a story to learn a life lesson — you’ll just have to do a worksheet.

Just to be clear, I’m not a therapist — I’m just someone with depression who all but memorized Feeling Good, the CBT handbook by David Burns. If any of this resonates, I’m all for you finding help with whatever resources are available to you.

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