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.