THE NUMBER ONE WAY FOR WRITERS TO RUIN THEIR STORYMar 30, 2023
I keep harping on this idea that we ought to be writing stories with “heroes-in-the-making,” and heroes-in-the-making are characters who possess selflessness from the very beginning. While your MC must grow and change over the course of the story to become the hero they were always meant to be, they still ought to embody the right qualities from the start -- the kind that make them uniquely suited to lead and mark them as different from the other emerging leaders. In other words, the number one quality that readers want to see in a character is selflessness, which means that the number one way for writers to ruin their story is to make their main character selfish.
The number one way to ruin a story is to make the main character selfish.
Think about it. There is nothing likable about a selfish person. Nothing noble or good. Selfishness is the root of all sorts of sins: bitterness, resentment, jealousy, covetousness, greed, pride, arrogance, selfish ambition, and more. The Apostle Paul warns us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
Instead of being driven by some kind of innately selfish goal (i.e., a desire to get something that only benefits them), heroic characters must be driven to pursue their goal for some kind of selfless reason. It seems so simple, and yet so few projects of late have gotten it right. Perhaps we’ve been so influenced by culture that we’re no longer able to discern between selfless and selfish behavior. Whatever the case, I continue to read stories with so-called heroic characters who are not, in fact, heroic, but rather, who possess character qualities that make them fundamentally despicable.
One of the first markers of a “good” or “heroic” person is this determination to look out not only for your own interests, but also for the interests of others. Selfish people are unwilling to do this. They’re incapable of it because all they care about is themselves. Selfishness is a trait that we revile in real life almost above all others. So why on earth do so many writers insist on giving this quality to their main characters?
Writers don’t understand what it means to have a flawed character
The prevalence of the anti-hero archetype in culture has given writers a misguided notion of what it means to construct a flawed character. Most writers equate being “flawed” with being morally defective. Thus, they assign morally heinous traits to their characters, like selfishness, knowing full well it’s “bad,” but which they intend to redeem over the course of the story. The problem is that true selfishness is seldom overcome (in real life or in story) because the selfish person necessarily starts out as evil. We have difficulty admitting this because this trait has become so normalized in culture. Nevertheless, selfishness is evil, which makes it difficult for your character to overcome it in a way that the audience both believes and accepts. There are ways, of course, to accomplish this, which we’ll look at shortly. But first, perhaps we should rethink our notion of what it means to construct a flawed character.
Your character’s flaw is that which trips him up repeatedly
Instead of thinking about the character’s fatal flaw as some kind of moral deficiency, think instead about how your character’s personality traits, even noble ones, trip him up over and over again throughout the story. They keep getting him into trouble, which is why it’s so “fatal”.
For example, in the film Serpico, Al Pacino plays an honest cop who won’t take bribes. He refuses to participate in the department-wide corruption. But nor does he turn his fellows in. Nevertheless, they hate him. He’s ostracized by them. They don’t trust him. And ultimately, they set him up to be killed, all because he’s honest. Serpico’s fatal flaw is not some kind of moral deficiency on his part. It’s his refusal to participate in corruption that ultimately brings him down. As the tagline for the film says, “There’s nothing more dangerous than an honest cop.”
The only antidote to selfishness is humility
The reason there’s nothing desirable about a selfish person is because they lack the one characteristic that could redeem them: humility. It, therefore, stands to reason that you either make your MC humble from the start, or you cause something to happen over the course of the telling that will radically humble them and cause change.
The Bible talks a lot about being humbled. Humility was the characteristic God looked for when deciding how to deal with His people in the Old Testament. When they sinned against Him, He declared, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Time and time again, God gives us the prescription for redemption. All that’s required is that we humble ourselves.
If you insist on writing a selfish character, then you must do something to bring them to their knees. As it is in real life, the only way to redeem a truly selfish character is to humble them completely.
Characters who only appear selfish must show signs of being at war with themselves.
The only other option is to construct a character who only appears to be selfish. If this is the case, there should be “evidence” of sorts. At the very least, we should see a character at war with himself. This is the character who lives in such a dark world that it’s all man for himself. Perhaps this character continually tries to push people away. You can’t get close to anyone in a world where you might have to leave them behind. But a heroic figure would not be able to wholly do this. Try as they may, they can’t help but to care, and it’s killing them internally.
In other words, we’ll see visible markers of their internal struggle. They want to be selfish, but they are not, in fact, capable of it. If they must leave someone behind, they’re shredded over it. If they witness something horrible or unjust, they’re compelled to act even to their own detriment. If they fail to save that person, it wrecks them. We should see them struggling internally with mounting pressure. As the hard choices and the failures add up, we see them crumbling under the weight of it all. What starts out as simple hesitation quickly becomes depression, agitation, and self-loathing, and blossoms into rage. We see them berating themselves in private, and snapping at others in public, all because they hate the person they’ve become. They’ll find it increasingly difficult to live with themselves because of the ugly choices they’ve made. They’ll be haunted by these choices and their anger at the establishment will grow. And grow and grow some more, until finally, they can’t take it anymore. They’re finally pushed to the brink. They can’t deny their true nature anymore. If it means death, so be it, but they will no longer live this way because it’s wrong, and they must fight, regardless of what it means for them. They make peace with their internal nature and step into the hero they were always meant to become. But it’s not by suddenly becoming selfless where before they were selfish. Rather, they’re throwing off the false selfishness that they were trying to embody in favor of embracing their true nature at last.
No other trait is more riddled with problems than the characteristic of selfishness. This is the worst possible trait you can give to a character that you want the audience to love. If you can’t create a character who cares about others from the beginning, then be prepared to radically humble your selfish character. Or create a world where selfishness seems to be the only logical way to survive. But then show us a character who can’t live up to that ideal. Who is impacted by the horrors and sufferings she sees, and who’s ultimately compelled to act because she can’t help but to care.