How to Write a Novel: Weaknesses and Need

There is a lot of excitement brewing about the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, and I have to say, I am one of those folks. I am stoked. Mulan was the first movie I saw in theaters when I was seven years old, back in 1998. It was absolutely amazing, and stayed my favorite movie of all time for years. I sang the songs, pretended to do kung fu, and wished I had an imaginary dragon like Mushu. I didn’t just love her, I wanted to be Mulan. And now, after viewing the trailer for the live-action remake, I am reminded of what I loved so much about the original movie.

There is a reason Mulan is in the official lineup of Disney princesses, despite not having ever been a princess. She’s a soldier, a badass warrior, who held her own against a man like Shan-Yu not because she was an especially good fighter, but because she was cunning and resourceful. Mulan got the conversation started about what it meant to be an “action girl,” a conversation sparked anew by the arrival of movies like Captain Marvel and the imminent Black Widow film. Mulan’s story didn’t center around getting the man of her dreams by being pure of heart and rebelling [nominally] against the societal order, then marrying the handsome prince; she rebelled by putting her life on the line, trained to become a soldier and saved her country. The handsome love interest was not the prize at the end of that journey, but someone who eye she caught incidentally by being herself.

She was the very first “strong female character” that I think really spoke to me, and continued to for years. There is so much to love about her story, but it’s her growth as a character that really stands out. For that reason, it’s her powerful story that I will use for this post on designing your character’s weaknesses and needs.

This is the first of John Truby’s seven steps of story structure (if you don’t remember these steps, check out my post: How to Write a Novel: Design Your Central Conflict). Every hero has one or more weaknesses that are holding her back from having a fulfilling life and achieving her desire. These weaknesses tend to be outside forces that are somehow preventing your hero from getting the thing that she wants. Weaknesses are inherently necessary from a storytelling standpoint, because without a weakness, there would be no reason the hero shouldn’t already have the thing they want and removes any conflict from the story.

In the 1998 film, Mulan had many weaknesses holding her back from her desire. For some examples, let’s take a look at the beginning of the story. Mulan lives in a society with many sexist cultural norms, and from the first moment we see her she is preparing to face the matchmaker who will assign her a husband. This custom is based on attractive appearance and being “quiet and demure, graceful, polite, delicate, refined, poised, and punctual” – qualities we learn quickly that Mulan does not have. She is rebuked for speaking out of turn, told that she is “too skinny” to bear healthy sons, and when she fails her matchmaker’s exam, she is told quite forcefully that she will never bring her family honor. Basically, she is made to believe that she is lazy, useless, and an embarrassment to her family.

Later on in the movie, Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to save her infirm veteran father from forced conscription. Here, she is put through boot camp led by Captain Shang. All of the recruits disappoint Shang initially, but Mulan starts out at the bottom of the class. She is weaker than the other soldiers, unskilled, and fails every lesson. Shang and the other men see her as utterly incompetent and borderline insane. Chi Fu, the emperor’s councillor and representative even remarks, “I can see why [Fa Zhou never spoke about him], the boy’s an absolute lunatic!”

Needless to say, all these weaknesses certainly hold Mulan back from a fulfilling life and achieving her desire of saving her father. Now, let’s talk about Mulan’s need. What does she need to overcome in order to have a fulfilling life and be a better person? It sounds like I am talking about her weaknesses again, but there is a difference: a need is what the hero must fulfill within herself. If all the other weaknesses were absent, what would still be holding your hero back on the inside from having a fulfilling life?

For Mulan, it was the belief that she was unworthy. Unworthy of a match in a husband, unworthy of her family’s honor, unworthy to continue training as a soldier, unworthy of breaking that glass ceiling, and unworthy of making her father proud. In order to have a fulfilling life, Mulan needed to believe that she was in fact worthy from the beginning, when she was being herself. This need is what sets up the entire story, and it’s the lesson that Mulan will learn by the end.

This is what is known as a psychological need; in most stories, the hero needs to overcome a serious flaw within themselves that is holding them back, but no one else. Other stories may also have a moral need: a flaw that the hero needs to overcome within themselves that is also harming others. For example, a hero may be misogynistic, greedy, selfish, aggressive, a bully, or bitchy. It’s a moral flaw that they must overcome in a moment of self-revelation not just because it would give them a more fulfilling life, but also because that flaw hurts the people around them. It could be argued that Mulan’s moral flaw is that she is actually pretty lazy; she cheats at her matchmaker’s exam, get’s her dog to help her with her chores, and almost allows Mushu to help her cheat at her training lessons. I would agree that it’s a possibility, but Mulan overcomes that laziness pretty quickly during the training montage. There’s no moment of deep self-revelation, and it’s never referenced again.

It is highly important that your hero, whoever they are, are not aware of their need at the beginning of the story. If they were, then there would be no journey to discover it and the story becomes less satisfying. The hero does not become aware of their need until the moment of self-revelation, at the turning point of the story. It is at that moment that the hero, face-to-face with themselves, must make a decision. Do they overcome their need and rise as a better person, or do they give in to it and fall. This is the crux of the story, the change the happens for your character.

To create a weakness and need for your character, you must dig into the moral argument you wish to make. Ask yourself what lesson you want your hero to learn by the end of the story, or what sort of person you want them to be. By the end of the film, Mulan learned to be confident in herself both as a person and as a leader, and had learned that she was indeed worthy of the respect of her fellow soldiers, her family’s honor, and her father’s affection. Who do you want your hero to be? From that lesson, reverse-engineer a weaknesses that may be holding your hero back. Weaknesses can come built-in to the time period and setting of your story, such as the sexism of ancient China was for Mulan, or they may come from other sources such as family dynamics, physical disabilities, a toxic work environment, or religious practices. Then, give your hero both a moral and a psychological need. Remember the difference: a psychological need affects only the hero; a moral need must be hurting at least one other character in the story.

There are two good ways to develop a moral need: connect it to the psychological weakness, or turn a moral strength into a weakness. For example, if your character is timid, impulsive, easily angered, anxious, reckless, etc., ask yourself what sort of immoral actions could come out of these weaknesses. Perhaps the character may run from danger, even when people need their help, or maybe they might put others down to get ahead, or they might lash out at those around them. There are no shortages of immoral actions that can be natural expressions of a psychological weakness. The moral need, then, would be to recognize those actions and their source.

The second way to develop a moral need is to take a strength and push it into a weakness. Maybe your hero is virtuous, but they are so passionate about that virtue that it becomes toxic and oppressive. Take any value, then find the negative version of that value. Your hero could become self-righteous, puritanical, obedient to a fault, neurotic, shallow, clingy, or a wallflower. All of these faults can be derived from moral values that have been twisted or pushed into being negative. Then the moral need of your hero might be a journey of finding a balance between the good and downsides of those values.

Are you ready to try? Choose either technique that works for you, and come up with a list of possible weaknesses and needs for your hero. This is the first step to building the central conflict and moral lesson that will drive your story.

Wreck-it-Ralph 2 and The Art of Foreshadowing

So, I saw Wreck-it Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet recently. Yeah, I know it’s been out for a while, but I’m slow with these things. Honestly, I just don’t go to the movies very often. Unless it’s a film that everyone’s going to be talking about or that excites me personally, I usually just wait until it’s out on Netflix or Prime. That’s what I did for this one. The trailer really didn’t look very promising, which is kind of sad because I actually enjoyed the first Wreck-it Ralph a lot. It came out in 2012, the same year as the first Avengers movie, Django Unchained, Prometheus, Hunger Games, Les MiserablesMen in Black 3, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Dark Night Rises. Yeah, that was a big year for movies, and I spent a lot of money at theaters, including to see Wreck-it Ralph.

Why? I was so intrigued by the idea presented in Wreck-it Ralph‘s trailer and loved the creative and fantastical way that technology and the worlds within video games were presented. Obviously, none of it was intended to be realistic, but it did follow its own rules consistently throughout the movie. The basic premise of the story is a villain (Ralph) of an 80s-era 8-bit arcade game grows tired of the role he plays in the game Fix-it Felix, Jr. He feels unappreciated and resented as the villain, so he leaves his game with the goal of winning a medal and thereby earning the respect of a hero. Ralph finds this opportunity in Hero’s Duty, a sci-fi game fraught with alien monsters. Ralph unwittingly releases one of these monsters into yet another game, and must work together with various other game characters to stop it before it destroys the entire world of the arcade.

It’s a very simple premise, but I found most of the film fascinating and engaging. And from a writing perspective, there was a lot more to enjoy. The noteworthy use of one specific storytelling tool is what I want to focus on in this post, and is what really sets the first Wreck-it Ralph apart from its sequel. That tool is foreshadowing. The first film does it well; the sequel doesn’t. So, let’s get into it.

Foreshadowing is a literary device used by an author to set the stage for the story to unfold or hint at something soon to come. In Wreck-it Ralph, for example, we have the early mention of Turbo and what “going Turbo” means long before the Big Reveal; the beacon used to lure and destroy the Cy-bugs; Calhoun explaining what could happen if a Cy-bug escapes the game of Hero’s Duty; a very early-on PSA cautioning characters to stay safe outside their games because “if you die outside your game, you die for real;” Fix-it Felix’s ability to fix things, just to name a few. In fact, everything important to the plot was mentioned at some point beforehand in the movie. Writers need to understand this concept and be able to use it well, because it guides the audience/readers to a logical and satisfying conclusion of the story.

As a writer, you want to respect your readers as active participants in the story, not passive recipients. You don’t tell them, “X happened, then Y happened.” Instead, leave them hints; give them information along the way so that they can begin to piece the plot together themselves. Drop X in the story so that when it appears again during Y the audience immediately recognizes its importance to the story. I’m not saying give them everything or let them “see behind the curtain,” but give your readers some credit. A big key to the art of foreshadowing is knowing how much to reveal, and how much to withhold. Your reader might not know why  X has just come into the story yet, but they will know it matters and begin guessing what part it will play in the plot later on.

You can’t talk about foreshadowing without talking about JK Rowling. The Harry Potter series contains so many masterful examples of foreshadowing done well, too many to discuss in one post, so I’ll just use one. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, the stone in question appears long before its importance becomes clear. We first see it when Hagrid fetches it from the vault in Gringotts bank during the first act of the story. We don’t know what it is or what it does, but we know that it’s important because it was locked in a vault and Hagrid was very secretive about it. When Hermione is giving some exposition about Nicolas Flamel and the Elixir of Life, she mentions the Sorcerer’s Stone, which will make the drinker of the elixir immortal. At this point, the reader does not yet have enough information to make a definite connection between the stone from the bank and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but when the characters eventually do and the plot kicks off, the reader feels satisfied, not cheated. For a story to piece together well, each piece should be introduced and be familiar to the reader before the plot demands their use. 

In Wreck-it Ralph, everything important to the climax of the story had been foreshadowed earlier in the film. The danger of the Cy-bugs, the Diet Coke volcano, Turbo’s greed, Vanellope’s teleportation powers – all of it was introduced and addressed in advance so the final conflict feels like a recipe coming together, not a crapshoot. Vanellope’s powers, for instance, play heavily into the main conflict. They are introduced when she meets Ralph, then discussed by King Candy later on when he explains to Ralph what a glitch is and why Vanellope can’t participate in the race. Her powers are implied to be a problem when she practices racing on the makeshift track she and Ralph built, but then prove to be an advantage in the final race. The way her glitching powers can extend to things that she touches is demonstrated in the first act of the film when she touches Taffyta, and this becomes the way that King Candy is revealed as Turbo. The audience is not distracted during the final conflict trying to keep up with all of this information, because it was introduced along the way and digested; all they have to do is enjoy seeing it all unfold.

Now, let’s talk about the sequel.

Ralph Breaks the Internet had a lot of problems; I know most people will talk about how it was just a shameless attempt to grab cash with product placements like Facebook and YouTube, and that might be true, but I won’t get into that. I just want to talk about the film’s climax. The main conflict arises when Ralph is worried that Vanellope will abandon him for the game Slaughter Race, so he decides to release a virus that will slow down the cars so Vanellope will get bored of the game and come home. The idea of a virus being able to slow down a race was introduced exactly once before it became part of the final conflict. When? During the first five minutes of the film, when Ralph and Vanellope are goofing around in Tron. The virus was mentioned in passing by Vanellope, a very forgettable line dropped during the opening montage. When Ralph decides to use a virus to slow down Slaughter Race, maybe some audience members will remember that passing mention, but to most it will feel abrupt, out of left field. Not at all like a logical advancement of the plot. And Ralph doesn’t even use that “type” of virus in the end; when he goes shopping for viruses, he is given a creepy, monster-like insecurity virus that is said to scan, copy, and distribute insecurities, and he is told not to let it escape into the rest of the internet. This is obviously supposed to be bad, but the audience doesn’t know why and can’t guess what will happen if it does. All of this occurs in the last twenty minutes of the film, and the next scene begins the final conflict. The virus begins to wreak havoc, but the audience doesn’t have enough information to understand what is happening or predict how the rest of the plot will play out. This leads to a very unsatisfying resolution that feels disconnected from the previous events of the film.

Foreshadowing, done well, can draw your readers and audience in and encourage them to become active participants in the story. They will seize information and wonder how it will be used to pull the plot together. The final conflict, when it happens, will feel supported on a foundation of established facts, not tossed together like an afterthought. Treat your readers well; they deserve it.

Dr Strange and Character Motivation

If you’re writing a story, you need a premise.

In an earlier post, I discussed how to create and develop a premise for a good story. A premise is basically your story, beginning to end, condensed into one sentence. I used examples from Aquaman, Black Panther, and Star Wars. I also stressed the importance of knowing what your story is really about, which is a separate thing from the premise. The premise is for the reader – a very short synopsis of the tale being told. What it’s really about, the core of the story, is for you the writer. It’s a reminder of the message, the purpose of the story, that will shake your readers and change your life.

Now, we move on to character. Once you know what your story is about, you have to create a character to tell it. Really, you need a hero. Your hero is the most important character of the story, but he is not the only character that matters. All your characters – if they are great characters – help define your hero in some shape or form. They matter. They, through their interactions with the hero, give us a better picture of who the hero is and why he does what he does. This will be discussed more in later posts, so for now we’ll just focus on the hero and how the story is told through him.

There are a lot of facets to a hero that work to help him drive the story. First, he must be relatable and the audience must be able to identify with him. What does that mean? Most writers have a very, very shallow definition of these terms, and think it means that readers must be able to see themselves in the hero. Maybe he looks like they do, or maybe he’s put-upon or has a job or background they might be familiar with. That’s not what those terms mean at all. Art is universal, and those qualities are not. A hero is relatable or can be ‘identified with’ through his wants and needs. What does your hero want, and what does he need? These two things are different, and both work to drive the story.

Your hero begins the story wanting something. As the title of this post suggests, I’ll use the example of Dr. Strange. Our hero in this story, Dr. Stephen Strange, has been in an accident that permanently damages his hands and ends his career as a surgeon. His career was his life and the source of his sense of self, so he spends the first act spiraling into an existential crisis and wants his hands to be restored. That’s really where the story begins, when he sets off to find a way to repair his hands.

The audience, however, has seen who Dr. Strange is at the beginning of the story (through the way he interacts with the other characters), and knows that what Dr. Strange wants isn’t really what he needs. We know that healing his hands isn’t going to fulfill him or make him into the kind of person that the message of the story says he needs to be. The story requires that he become a superhero, a master of magic, a leader and protector of the innocent; healing his hands and resuming his life as a surgeon and egotistical pathological loner certainly isn’t going to accomplish that. So this is the point where the wants and needs of the hero diverge.

When a hero sets off on his journey, he doesn’t know the true reason for doing it. He has a goal that gets him started on his quest, but is generally ignorant of his true motive, the real thing that’s going to make his life better or shape him into the person he must become. A shallow character would be one that wants something, then goes out and gets it. A deep, powerful character with an impact on the story is one that has a need and experiences a character change because of it. The moment where your hero comes face-to-face with his need and abandons his want should result in him taking a new action. The path of the story has changed; now we’re on the real quest. Your character is on the way to becoming a new person.

The path of your hero’s character development reflects a shift from your character chasing his want to accepting his need, then becoming someone fundamentally different because of it. This is not a sudden thing; it’s been taking place throughout the whole story. Let’s look at Dr. Strange again: what was Stephen Strange’s need? Answer: to set aside his ego and learn that winning wasn’t everything. Yeah, really. He had an obsession with winning, remember that? And at the story’s climax he learned that to beat Dormammu he had to lose, again and again and again. He did realize in the end that he was hurting other people because of his ego and pushing away the ones that mattered most to him, and changed in order to be more selfless and help others instead.

Character needs can be moral or psychological. Maybe your hero is shy, cowardly, and finds comfort in mediocrity but they need to become a brave, daring leader. That would be psychological need. Maybe your hero starts off as aloof and miserly and needs to learn generosity and empathy; that could be a moral need. The very best needs are the ones that directly affect other characters; if your character is hurting the people around him because of his need then recognizes and changes it, your character development could be all the more powerful. Dr. Strange experienced both: his psychological need was to get over seeing his damaged hands as an impediment or excuse. His moral need was learning humility. That moment at the climax of the story was defined by Dr. Strange taking a new action; he took charge and became a leader, he shifted the tides of the battle and abandoned his desire for healing his hands altogether.

According to John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, character change occurs when the hero recognizes that their need and want were not the same thing, and this is called self-revelation. Your hero has gained a new understanding of himself. While the character development happens throughout the course of the story, the moment of self-revelation is sudden. It’s dramatic. It’s got maximum emotional impact. It’s new information – your hero is seeing himself in a new light, and maybe feels remorse for how he’s hurt others in the past. He’s seen the truth. And, to change the course of your story, he takes a new action.

To set this up, your hero must be ignorant of his need. He must believe a lie about himself or his world, and it must be hurting himself or others in some very real, tangible way. Dr. Strange believed that his career and winning were everything; this lie hurt him because it prevented him from being a kind and generous person and it hurt others because… well, for the same reason. When the moment of self-revelation happens, it should change the course of the story and cut the hero to his core, creating a burst of emotion as the hero and audience see the lie for what it is.

Your character is not a fixed, flat, complete person (or shouldn’t be), and the scope of change possible is up to you. It can be dramatic or small – you set it up to fit the story you want to tell. The possibilities are endless. But remember, true character change is what drives your story and is a process – not a switch to flip. Your character’s wants and needs work together to move your story to completion and toward a satisfying end.

Aquaman and Knowing What Story You’re Telling

Aquaman could have been awesome… but it wasn’t. From a writing standpoint, it felt like a movie that didn’t really know what story it was trying to tell, and the result was a chaotic, fast-paced, schizophrenic mess.

The story idea itself wasn’t bad; in fact, it was an ancient and iconic one. The Rightful Heir trope has been used and reused again and again throughout story-telling history, from the tales of King Arthur and Hamlet, to The Lord of the Rings and movies like Thor and Black Panther. It’s a very, very old story concept that is common to literally hundreds of fantasy films and books. And the great thing is, it’s withstood the test of time. It’s a really awesome, idealistic, hopeful storytelling concept that many people love, and I’m not here to bash that. The Aquaman film also relied heavily on the Chosen One trope, another classic that comes in many flavors, and this film decided to use all of them. It had “He Will Unite Our Peoples” (like Braveheart), “Only [the Chosen One] Can Wield This Weapon” (King Arthur again) and “This Is a Power Only [the Chosen One] Would Have” (The Matrix). Besides these, we also had a revenge subplot, a scavenger hunt for a magical MacGuffin, and a “pollution is bad” aesop. This movie was trying so hard to hit every subtrope possible that it was actually painful, and the result was a story that was cliche on multiple levels.

The trouble with Aquaman is, again, that it didn’t really know what kind of story it was telling, and I’ll discuss what I mean by that later on. This is a post about writing, and what I want to discuss here is how to avoid the cliche pitfall. How do you use a classic idea without writing a story that comes off as generic or derivative?

To write something truly unique, you must first understand your premise. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby describes a premise as, “Your entire story condensed to a single sentence.” Stripped down to its barest bones, what is your story about? A good premise is crucial because it acts as the baseline, the foundation that everything else is built upon and developed into an actual story. For Aquaman, we could say the premise is this: “The firstborn son of an Atlantean queen raised on land returns to his homeworld to unite his people and prevent a devastating war.” That pretty much sums up the story of this film in a nutshell.

Because the premise is your story, all other ideas for the story must serve the premise. Any time a new idea pops in your head, you must ask yourself “Does this achieve the goal I set out to achieve with this premise?” Let’s take Black Panther as an example. The premise of Black Panther could be stated like this: “When the son of an exiled prince returns to challenge the throne, the current ruler must prove his worthiness by uniting the tribal clans.” If T’Challa at some point learned that he was a wizard and went off to boarding school, that would certainly be interesting and entertaining, but would likely not serve the premise.

You may also note that Black Panther used the classic Rightful Heir trope, but with a twist: the current ruler was doing just fine, all things considered, and the challenger is the story’s antagonist. That kind of spin on an old trope is exactly what you might look for in the next stage of designing your story: finding its core. The core of the story is what makes all the bits and pieces flow together. It’s the internal logic, the steel girders underlying the pretty tapestry that makes up your scenes. Your readers or viewers won’t see it, but it will hold the entire piece together. To find the core of your story, you must take your premise and strip it down even further.

I really cannot stress enough how important this process is for your story. It is what separates a standard, generic story from something truly unique and effective. It’s the essence, the message that shapes the story from start to finish. To find it, ask yourself, “What is my story really about?” For Black Panther, you could say the real story being told was this: “A good king will learn to be a great one when he is dethroned and his nation begins to fall apart.” Now, some might disagree with me and say this is a completely subjective process of interpretation, and they’d be right. The core of your story is what you get to decide as the writer. Indeed, a story’s core is not really for the readers or viewers, but for the writer writing it. Confused? Let me give you another example.

When viewing Star Wars for the first time, you might think it’s the story of a farm boy who learns he’s the son of a legendary member of a mystical order of space knights and sets out to claim his legacy by saving the galaxy, and you’d be correct. But if you were writing Star Wars, you might actually be telling a story like this: “a boy learns what his legendary father’s true legacy is, and sets out not to fulfill it.” Now that sounds like something really compelling, and leaves a lot of room for expansion. How you tell that story is completely up to you – it could be a space opera, a fantasy, the story of a Mafia crime family – in whatever format you choose. When you are telling a story with that core as your guiding inspiration, the particulars don’t really matter so long as they serve that purpose.

So what’s the core of the Aquaman film? What is that movie really about? Is it the story of a man split between two worlds who answers the call to save them both? Is it the quest of a man to uncover a long-lost relic and continue his bloodline’s legacy? Or is it a tale of two estranged brothers learning to set aside their differences and rule a nation peacefully? When I said that Aquaman didn’t know what story it was telling, I really meant that it was trying to tell all of these stories at once. It started off as a classic Rags to Royalty type of plot with a reluctant hero, then introduced a revenge story with Black Manta that was never resolved, and then there was a crazy scavenger hunt across the world to find King Atlan’s trident (Trident of Neptune?) that may or may not have been necessary to unite all the kingdoms of Atlantis and stop a war with the surface-dwellers motivated by… pollution?

And in the middle of all that, what did Arthur really learn? He learned that he was worthy to become king, sure, but what does that mean in the world of this story? Does “being worthy” mean being reluctant, refusing the call at every turn? Does it mean being pure of heart? I mean, Arthur was a drunk and boisterous brawler – does that count? And more importantly, why was Orm not worthy? Because he was sneaky and gave Black Manta a cool suit? Because he disliked pollution? Or maybe it was because he was uptight and not as funny as Arthur? I’m not judging whatever message the movie actually was trying to send, but I am saying that as a writer, you have to know what the core of your story is, and clear away all the distractions; whatever remains should shape your story into a single unit that is both compelling and effective.

The core of your story is for you, and should drive every decision you make as you craft your novel, screenplay, or stage play. With a solid premise as your foundation, everything else in your tale will make sense and your audience will feel both engaged and fulfilled.

Deadpool and the Character of Cowardice

 

Welcome to my writing blog! This will be the first of a series of posts where I use popular films to discuss literary devices. This particular post will be about characterization. As an author, I am always searching for ways to fill out my characters, as characters most often drive the story, and I want to help you develop your own characters in believable ways.

So, here we go.

Deadpool 2 was… disappointing.

I’m not going to touch the over-the-top bathos, irreverent humor, or black comedy gore (definitely don’t take the kids to see this movie).  All of that is pretty standard in a Deadpool story. No, my issue was with Deadpool himself. As a character, I felt that he left much to be desired. He just… well, he didn’t make sense. His motivations were ill-defined and growth was practically non-existent. For a deeply flawed hero, he was seriously lacking in actual character flaws. And, yeah, to some degree, lack of direction is par for the course with Deadpool, the fourth-wall-breaking Merc with the Mouth who’s basically a walking parody. And please don’t misunderstand me – I thoroughly enjoyed Deadpool 1 and his comic appearances. With that said, I think it’s possible to do his character type right, and I would like to explain how. By the end, I’ll even propose how to do his attempted martyrdom in the film’s finale so that it lands with maximum impact.

Now, in this post I am going to talk only about movie Deadpool. I know that comic Deadpool’s character and motivations vary with the writers (and he is hilariously aware of this). I am specifically and only talking about the character portrayed in the movies, who he is and what is motivations are as the movie has portrayed it. Okay? Okay.

First off, every character needs a goal (WHAT do they want?) and a motivation (WHY do they do what they do?)  In his first movie, Deadpool’s motivation was twofold: revenge for what Ajax did to him, and to get his face back. Well, threefold, because he did mention that he also wanted to make sure that no one else became a victim of Ajax’s torture and experiments.

Each character also needs a flaw, something they have to overcome to achieve their goal, learn a lesson or become a better hero – in essence, achieve character growth. In Deadpool 1, it was vanity. Wade was very proud of his looks before Ajax’s experiments heavily scarred his face and he was embarrassed to let his fiancee Vanessa see him with his scars. His goal, then, for the majority of the movie was to force Ajax to fix his face. His flaw (vanity) got in the way of his character growth – he stayed away from Vanessa, failing to warn her about Ajax, and refused to believe that anyone could love him with his new looks. In the end, after learning that Ajax could not fix it, he had to come to terms with his appearance and the fact that Vanessa loves him anyway.

What was his motivation in Deadpool 2? What did he want? Do you know? It actually took me a long time to figure it out, because it was so poorly defined. His goal for the entire movie, stated by him, is that he wants to die to join her in death. He tries numerous times to accomplish this, even to the point of trying to get a child to kill him. Ugh.

So what is his motivation then? WHY did he chase after this goal? You could say love, but love doesn’t drive people to kill themselves. His goal is a selfish one, which is why Vanessa keeps sending him back. Even after he’s done what she asked him to by getting his “heart in the right place,” in the end she still sends him back because he still has work to do, being a hero. His goal to end his life wasn’t driven by his motivation (love), it was driven by his flaw which is… can you guess? It’s fear.

You see, Deadpool is an antihero. Some would call him a Lovable Rogue, a person who breaks the law, but is nice and charming enough that the audience still roots for them. Antiheroes come in a variety of flavors, from mild (some incarnations of Robin Hood), medium (Han Solo, Jack Sparrow) to dark (Deadpool, John Constantine). They might kill people, but certainly not anyone you know or care about, or maybe only bad guys. Wade himself says that he’s not a hero, just a bad guy who gets paid to beat up worse guys. Now, my assessment is that every antihero – every single one of them – is, deep down, a coward. Take Han Solo, for example. At first, he is selfish, has committed numerous acts of theft and fraud, and is interested only in saving his own skin (and Chewie’s) and wants no part in helping Luke stop the Empire. He is neutral for the sake of his own survival. But as the trilogy goes on, he becomes fiercely protective of Luke, even risking his own life to save him, and becomes a pivotal member of the rebellion. What flaw does Han have to overcome? Cowardice. It kept him from becoming his best self, and Luke even calls him out on it. Once he overcame it, he became a true hero.

Wade’s flaw in Deadpool 1 was a weak one. It wasn’t vanity that kept him from going back to Vanessa, it was fear. He was a special ops soldier and mercenary, but deep down he was always a coward. It’s why he was afraid to die of cancer in Deadpool 1 (and subsequently joined Ajax’s experiment), and why he wants to die in Deadpool 2 – he’s afraid of living forever without Vanessa. It’s why he won’t join the X-men and become a fully-fledged superhero. Cowardice (that is, selfish fear, not self-preservation) is the flaw that keeps preventing him from becoming his best self, and what drives him to his goal of ending his life. He may have been motivated by love, but cowardice got in the way. With cowardice as his flaw, it makes complete sense in this instance, from a writing standpoint, for Vanessa to die. Wade hasn’t yet become a hero who relies on his own courage without her, so this is something he must learn to do.

If the writers of Deadpool 1 and 2 had chosen cowardice as Wade’s fundamental flaw, I think both movies could have been so much better. It’s a much deeper and more challenging flaw to overcome, and has a much bigger payoff in the end if the hero does finally overcome it. In addition, more audience members can relate to a hero flawed with fear. Not everyone knows what it’s like to lose your good looks and becoming horrifically scarred (for those that do, I’m sure it’s awful), but fear is something that everyone can relate to. Whether it’s being afraid of living without your loved ones, or being afraid that they won’t love you because of how you’ve changed, or being afraid to reach for your potential, fear is a powerful storytelling tool, and one I wish more writers would reach for.

Now, about that heroic sacrifice in Deadpool 2‘s finale. If cowardice had been Wade’s flaw from the very beginning, and the audience fully understood that he was trying to kill himself not because of some noble(ish) desire to give Vanessa justice, or love, but out of selfish fear – not wanting to continue living because he’s afraid, then the audience will really, really not want him to do it. We’ll know that it’s not the right course of action, that it’s not what Vanessa would want him to do, and we’ll become really concerned and scared when it seems that he’s successful. The audience will breathe a sigh of relief when Cable saves him, because we know that Wade has learned his lesson, but still has growth left to do. He’s got a future, and he’s learning to live it. A two-part character arc from Deadpool 1 would have come full circle.

And in case you’re wondering, no. I would certainly not have brought Vanessa back in the stinger. I’m not saying that I don’t want her to come back, just that I don’t want Wade to be the one to bring her back.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do you think? Let me know in the comments, and if you have any character suggestions for the next post.