Narrative Analysis: The Basics
To create a compelling character, writers must give the character wants and needs to drive them forward, along with as virtues and vices. Their virtues are the qualities that compel audiences to root for them; their vices are the qualities that make them human: their flaws. According to Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, authors of “The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws,” character flaws are “…traits that damage or minimize relationships and do not take into account the well-being of others.”1 Some flaws have more of an impact on a character’s journey than others. While minor flaws (idiosyncrasies and quirks) typically don’t create lasting problems for the character, major flaws act as obstacles for the character to overcome. Those characters who overcome them typically follow Positive Character Arcs, while those who succumb to those flaws follow Negative Arcs.
Both major and minor character flaws come in many different flavors. Forgetfulness, anger, gullibility, and impulsiveness are just a few of the countless traits that can hinder a character’s growth. What unites these traits beyond their impact on the character’s life is their source: trauma in the past. According to Ackerman and Puglisi, “Specific events and long-term exposure to unhealthy ideas, behavioral patterns, and relationships can hamstring a character…Old hurts can have a huge impact on our characters, influencing their current behavior.”2 Many stories about characters overcoming their flaws are actually about characters coming to terms with those old hurts, allowing themselves to be vulnerable again. The exact nature of the injury and the subsequent flaw is irrelevant: what matters is if they face it and how they change.
Video game characters are no different from characters in other media forms; to be well-rounded, they must have flaws. Whether they overcome their flaws or succumb to them defines their character arc, often reinforcing their role as protagonist or antagonist in the process. While protagonists can succumb to their weaknesses as easily as antagonists can overcome theirs, the most basic stories are framed around the protagonist’s growth. Since overcoming flaws is a central component of growth, most video game protagonists end up facing their flaws head-on, along with the emotional wounds that caused them.
Flaws and Character Arcs
Game Discussed: God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018), Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010)
Characters that overcome their flaws are characters who grow, which mirrors the Positive Character Arc. Positive Character Arcs are arcs where characters overcome both internal and external challenges to change for the better. Ackerman and Puglisi frame this change in terms of the character’s fears, saying: “As the character strives to overcome an antagonist or challenge, so must he overcome himself and his greatest fears. Throughout the arc, the damaged character must face himself and his shortcomings.”3 By facing those shortcomings, the characters complete their arcs. By extension, video game characters who follow Positive Arcs will also confront their flaws, allowing them to grow as people. While they may not always find the happy ending they envisioned, they will always learn something important about themselves.
2018’s God of War (Santa Monica Studios), the popular action-adventure game based in Norse Mythology, features a protagonist who overcomes his flaws through a Positive Arc. In God of War, players control Kratos, a once-wrathful god who has turned his back on his dark past to raise his son, Atreus. While Kratos has several flaws, including a powerful temper, the flaw that has the biggest impact on his journey in the 2018 story is his overprotective nature. Like most flaws, this flaw comes from a past trauma: Kratos murdered his former wife and child while under the influence of the Greek god Ares. This trauma leads Kratos to fear that Atreus could suffer an equally gruesome fate, and as a result, he becomes overprotective of Atreus. While Kratos’s flaw is understandable, it’s also a source of friction between him and his son, as well as the driving force behind his character arc. Kratos can only grow as a person when he overcomes his fears and allows Atreus the freedom to make his own mistakes. As a result, Kratos strengthens his bond with Atreus, and both characters are happier than they were when they began.
While characters who overcome their flaws follow Positive Arcs, this does not always guarantee a positive outcome. The supernatural action-adventure game Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010) rewards its protagonist’s growth with a bittersweet ending. In Alan Wake, players take the role of the eponymous Alan Wake, a horror writer whose ongoing writer’s block has caused him almost as much trouble as his temper. It’s that temper that kicks the story’s events into motion when Alan walks out on his wife during a fight, only to learn she’s been kidnapped in his absence. From there, Alan’s life takes a supernatural turn that mirrors his work, and he must overcome his anger and selfishness to put other people first. These lessons lead to a decidedly bittersweet ending where Alan sacrifices himself to save his wife, taking her place in the supernatural limbo. While the existence of both DLC and a direct sequel (Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, Remedy Entertainment, 2012) add to his story, the original narrative still serves as an example of a narrative where a protagonist’s ability to overcome their flaws doesn’t guarantee them everything they want.
Succumbing to Flaws
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 1997), Injustice: Gods Among Us (NetherRealm Studios, 2013)
Not every character with a flaw rises above it. Instead, some choose to ignore or embrace their flaws, stalling the growth that could lead to happiness. Antagonists are particularly prone to this line of thinking, as they often serve as dark parallels to the protagonist. “Broken in some deep and defining way,” write Ackerman and Puglisi, “[the antagonist] believes that his goals will bring him closer to feeling complete, not understanding how his flaws and skewed view of the world are the very things holding him back from true happiness.”4 Instead of rising above their flaws like protagonists, antagonists either refuse to acknowledge their flaws or view them as positive traits that don’t need to be overcome. When the antagonist is as well-rounded as the protagonist, their reluctance to overcome their flaw comes from their trauma, and they’re unwilling to revisit it because it’s too painful to acknowledge. While one-dimensional antagonists lack this additional degree of complexity, they still have flaws that drive them, and their inability to overcome them is what leads to their downfall.
When a character starts in a positive place only to succumb to their flaws, this is known as a Corruption Arc. The comic-based fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us (NetherRealm Studios, 2013) features a version of Superman whose flaws are used against him to turn him into an antagonist. When Injustice: Gods Among Us begins, Superman has already been forcibly thrust into his Corruption Arc by the Joker, who mind-controlled Superman into killing his wife and child (similar to Kratos in the God of War), along with millions of other people in his home city of Metropolis. Shattered by the tragedy, Superman responds by killing the Joker and overthrowing the government to lead a totalitarian regime. This impulse comes from the flaw of overprotectiveness, again mirroring Kratos, but unlike Kratos, the distraught Superman does not rise above his flaw. Instead, he succumbs to it, becoming an antagonist that must be stopped. Although the bulk of his character arc occurs either before the game or during its opening scenes, Superman still follows a classic Corruption Arc, and his failure to overcome his flaws become his downfall.
The other type of character arc that involves a character succumbing to their flaws is the Fall Arc, in which a character who has already succumbed to their flaws has a chance to rise above them, yet ultimately chooses to re-embrace them. Final Fantasy VII’s (Square Enix, 1997) Sephiroth is a classic example of an antagonist with a Fall Arc driven by his own weaknesses. In Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth is a powerful soldier who believes himself to be superior to normal human beings. This sense of superiority, his weakness, comes from a mixture of lies he was told during his upbringing and his success in the military. His opportunity to reject his flaw comes when he’s stabbed by a middling recruit (the protagonist, Cloud Strife) and left for dead. Instead of recognizing this encounter as proof that he’s no better than anyone else, Sephiroth clings to his belief in his own superiority and becomes even more obsessed with proving it, and is ultimately taken down by that same middling recruit as a consequence. Had Sephiroth recognized his flaw, he could have grown and found a new path to happiness, but instead, he doubled down and embraced the flaw, solidifying his role as antagonist.
Character flaws are powerful forces that can drive both positive and negative character arcs. By instilling characters with flaws based in past traumas, writers can create well-rounded, relatable characters who can earn the audience’s sympathy. Whether the characters choose to overcome these flaws or succumb to them, those flaws are what make them and their arcs worth remembering.
1 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws (p. 14). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws (pp. 14-15). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
3 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws (p. 18). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
4 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws (p. 25). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (God of War): Gamer’s Little Playground. GOD OF WAR All Cutscenes (PS4 PRO) Game Movie . YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Footage (Alan Wake) The Gaming Library. Alan Wake All Cutscenes (Game Movie) 1080p HD. YouTube, 2015.
*** Reference Footage: Lacry. Final Fantasy 7 Full Walkthrough Gameplay – No Commentary. YouTube, 2021.
**** Reference Footage (Injustice): NRMGamingHD. Injustice: Gods Among Us All Cutscenes HD GAME – Justice League. YouTube, 2016.