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Storytelling master Robert McKee shared how he thinks about finding a characters inner flaw. Giving your main characters a flaw, even if it’s the protagonist and hero of the story, is key to making the character more relatable and believable. You give your character dimension through contradiction. (Otherwise, you end up with ridiculously dumb characters like the kind you find in Wonderwoman 1984).

His advice is simple: Look for

Step 1: Define what a flaw is? Now obvious, a flaw is a negative trait, but you want to be more specific here. One example is a person that’s unable to love—that’s an obvious flaw. But another example of a flaw is a person that loves so fully, so completely, and so easily that it renders them unable to live a productive life. That too can be a flaw. Which is why you want to define the nature of the flaw in the context of your story.

Step 2: List the positive qualities of your character. And then look at each of these qualities and ask yourself: What’s the opposite of that? For example, if the character is very intelligent and smart, then ask yourself: In what are of their life do they behave really stupid? What’s their blindspot? No matter what their IQ is, this one thing they just don’t understand and can’t quite wrap their head around. Name that. That can be your characters flaw.

Now this doesn’t work for every character and every positive quality, but when you make the list of positive qualities, and their opposites, you will come across some where you find they really could be in the nature of this character.


“we do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days”

Robert McKee, Story

When I read these words, they resonated the way deep and obvious truths resonate when you see them clearly for the first time.

For the longest time, I had this underlying notion that a good part of our craving for story is rooted in that desire to escape our current reality. But this, what Robert McKee addressed here, hits the nail on the head so much more.

Later he elaborates again on this:

To retreat behind the notion that the audience simply wants to dump its troubles at the door and escape reality is a cowardly abandonment of the artist’s responsibility. Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.

McKee, Robert. Story (p. 12).

Stories are this magical vehicle that takes our minds, but even more importantly our souls to a different place that we can’t quite reach by other means.

He also stresses the importance of honest, powerful storytelling:

as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence. Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels. In Hollywood imagery becomes more and more extravagant, in Europe more and more decorative. The behavior of actors becomes more and more histrionic, more and more lewd, more and more violent. Music and sound effects become increasingly tumultuous. The total effect transudes into the grotesque. A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.

Robert McKee, Story

While personally I think that there still is plenty of great storytelling around (but who am I to judge?), there also is a lot of real bad, flat storytelling around. Wonderwoman 1984 anyone? It’s bad from minute 1, and downhill from thereon. Where can you find depth in that movie? Or truth?


One of the best pieces of storytelling in movies I’ve recently seen is the movie White Tiger.

Director Ramin Bahrani spoke about the creation process of the movie.

There were two interesting things about the creative process in there that stood out to me:

The movie is based on the book by Aravind Adiga, and Ramin and Aravind have been friends who always talked about movies in college. Ramin actually read early drafts of the book before it came out, and Aravind has often been giving feedback on scripts Ramin worked on. So there’s a long history of the two of them jamming on stories together already, which is always something that I find beautiful.

When making a book into a movie, how do you decide what to keep and what to discard?

[Minute 4:40 in the video] This was one of the hardest parts of making this movie for Ramin. He liked the book so much that at first he just included everything he likes from the book and ended up with a 200-page script. A movie script is normally 90-120 pages long, so what followed was a painful process of cutting out parts of the story.

On team: “I don’t want them to just execute my vision. I want them to bring something to it, to make it more.”

[Minute 6:50 in the video] Trust your team. Typically non-Indians shooting movies in India bring a big crew with them, but he didn’t want to do this. He brought around five people of his own crew with him, and the rest of the team was Indian. His crew was 99% Indian. Passionate, dedicated, talented people.

Arrive with a detailed plan, but then change everything in the moment

[Minute 10:30 in the video] “The production allowed me to do what I really want, which is freedom on set. To be loose on set. I like to show up with a very detailed plan. I’m hyper-organized. And I have a very clear plan. But then I always show up and want to change everything. Because I see things in that moment that inspire me, and I’m challenging my actors to do whatever they want to do, not what I want them to do. And that means freedom. And the crew here gave me that […]”


The 8 stages of story design by Robert McKee

According to Robert McKee, there are 8 essential stages every story moves through:

  1. Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect
  2. Subject matter = Balance
  3. Inciting Incidence = Imbalance
  4. Object of desire = Need
  5. First action = Tactical choice
  6. Reaction = Violation of expectation
  7. Crisis choice = Insight
  8. Climactic reaction = closure

He lays these 8 stages of story design out clearly in his book Storynomics. Here’s my summary:

Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect

Who is your audience? And how will the story make them feel and think?

Subject matter = Balance

What value is the protagonist’s life anchored in? What time, and in which physical and social world does he live in? While there might be minor ups and downs, overall the value it’s balanced, more or less neutral, it all evens out.

Inciting incident = Imbalance

What unforeseen incident upsets the balance of the core character’s life? It’s a radical change that puts the character under pressure. It can be a turn for the good or bad.

The object of desire = An unfulfilled need

How does the core character want to get his life back in balance? It’s the object of desire that the core character believes will help him accomplish this. The object of desire can be, but doesn’t have to be an actual physical object.

The first action = Tactical choice

What does the core character do to rebalance his life? How does he act in order to get a reaction from his world that will get him (or at least move him closer to) his object of desire?

The first reaction = The violation of expectation

What unforeseen antagonistic forces block the protagonist’s efforts? What’s the gap that cracked open between what he thought would happen and what did happen? How does this reaction move the protagonist farther from his goal?

The crisis choice = Insight

What does the protagonist learn from the first reaction? Now that he’s in even greater jeopardy of losing his object of desire, what second action does he choose? Note that this second action must be more difficult and more risky than the first action, but it’s the action that the protagonist believes gives him the best chances of getting him what he wants.

Climactic reaction = Closure

What climactic reaction happens that grants the protagonist his object of desire? How does it restore the core character’s life to balance, and end the story?


What’s the core value of your story?

Every story has a core value, according to Robert McKee. With value, we do mean positive character qualities of a person like love, generosity, etc. In the context of storytelling, a core value is about the positive and negative charge of a binary:

  • truth / lie
  • love / hate
  • generosit / selfishness
  • hard work / laziness
  • loyalty / betrayal
  • life / death
  • courage / cowardice
  • hope / despair
  • meaningfulness / meaninglessness
  • maturity / immaturity
  • justice / injustice
  • any quality of human experience that can shift charge dynamically from positive to negative and back again

A telling may incorporate any number, variety, and combination of values, but it anchors its content in one irreplaceable binary—the story’s core value. This value determines a story’s fundamental meaning and emotion.

Robert McKee, Storynomics

He then proceeds to share some examples:

Suppose a story’s core value is love/hate. How and why a person moves from love to hate or from hate to love gives the events meaning. As the story moves back and forth between negative and positive charges, emotions flow, not only in the characters but in the audience as well. But if a storyteller were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core value would evolve her work from a love story to a redemption plot with all-new meanings and all-new emotions.

If a crime story were to shift its core value from justice/injustice to life/death, it would stop being a crime story and pivot to an action tale—once again, new emotions, new meanings.

If a family story were to deemphasize the value of unity/breakup and instead emphasize maturity/immaturity in one of its children, the plot would radically change genre from domestic drama to a coming-of-age story.

Robert McKee, Storynomics

I’ve never really considered the core value of a story, and how a shift in the core value can transform a story into another, and change its entire meaning.

Robert McKee then proceeds to succinctly make a point:

The core value that pulses at the heart of a story determines its specific meaning and unique emotional impact.


Like in many areas of life, in writing and storytelling, you get what you want by sacrificing something you want less. You make hard choices.

Writers hoping for a best seller want their stories to influence the largest number of readers or audience members possible, so they generalize, opting for a one-size-fits-all, rather than one-of-a-kind, world. This unfortunate step actually shrinks, rather than expands, their future audience or readership.

Robert McKee. Storynomics

You choose the one-of-a-kind world when you write. And then you let your readers’ imagination do the generalization.

The mind works best when it moves from the specific to the universal—not the other way around. Consider, for example, the phrase a piece of furniture. As you read it, a vague image blurs your imagination and halts your thoughts because your mind has no inclination to go backward to the particular. But if I say, “A wingback Duchess chair upholstered in blood-red leather,” a clear image glows in your mind. Instinctively, your imagination moves forward from this particular to the general, slotting the chair into the mental category “furniture.” This applies to all aspects of a story’s world, physical and social. Therefore, the principle: The more specific the setting, the more universal the story’s appeal.

Robert McKee. Storynomics

This is a great lesson. Whenever you’re struggling with how to approach writing a certain piece, how to express a certain idea, how to elicit a certain feeling—ask yourself first: What specific situation could trigger this?

If you write on the most general level about it, what you get is dull text-book writing.

And whenever you’re reviewing and editing your own work, ask yourself: Is this general or specific? And how could I move this more to the specific?


Stan Lee on writing: Write for yourself

Stan Lee shared some advice on writing when he spoke at Google a few years ago:

  • Read a lot. The more you read, the better.
  • Write what you yourself would love to read. Especially in television, companies are always looking to write something that would appeal to 13-year-olds, or 20-year-olds, and that’s fine. But what you want to write is something that you yourself would genuinely enjoy reading. If you write something that you yourself enjoy to read, then it’s very likely that there are other people out there who’d enjoy reading it as well—because none of us is really that different from everybody else. Don’t try to write something that other people would want to write.
    The great writers wrote to please themselves. And that’s why their stuff was good. Be your own best critique.

You can watch the entire session here, but the advice on writing specifically can be found at 26:25.


Narratives vs stories:

I’m currently reading Robert McKee’s Storynomics—like most of McKee’s books, he’s dropping storytelling wisdom, but in this case it’s specifically for marketers, and I love how thoroughly he covers the fundamentals.

If you would have asked me for example about the difference between a narrative and a story… I wouldn’t have been able to give you a clear answer.

Here’s how McKee described the difference:

Narratives tend to be flat, bland, repetitive, and boring recitations of events. They slide through the mind like juice through a goose, and as a result, they have little or no influence on customers. Stories, on the other hand, are value-charged and progressive. The mind embraces a well-told story; the imagination is its natural home. Once through our mental door, story fits, sticks, and excites consumer choice. The next time you’re bored to the bone by somebody’s “story,” in all likelihood you’re not being told a story. If you were, you’d be listening and engrossed. Instead the guy is torturing you with a narrative, probably a repetitious recitation of “. . . and then I did this and then I did that and then I did the other thing and then and then and then…”


What is a story, precisely? The essential core event in all stories ever told in the history of humanity can be expressed in just three words: Conflict changes life. Therefore, the prime definition becomes: a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.

McKee, Robert. Storynomics: 1 (p. 48). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So the tldr:

  • a narrative is chaining a bunch of events together through “and then this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened”
  • a story is a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life


We humans are natural born storytellers. We are addicted to stories. We live, think, and feel in narratives, and stories have had a profound impact on us individually, as well as collectively. Our culture and society is in a large part defined by stories we tell ourselves: stories about our past, stories about our present, stories about our future, stories about others, stories about what could be. It’s been like this since the beginning of civilization.

But nowadays, we don’t sit around the campfire and tell each other stories anymore the way our ancestors did. Now, the stories we tell and consume are mostly movies.

I’m currently reading the book King, Warrior, Lover, Magician by Robert Moore, and there’s a passage that I wanted to share with you:

The study of ritual process by the specialist may tend toward dry reading. But we may see it enacted colorfully in a number of contemporary movies. Movies are like ancient folktales and myths. They are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—about our lives and their meaning. In fact, initiatory process for both men and women is one of the great hidden themes of many of our movies.

A good, explicit example of this can be found in the movie The Emerald Forest. Here, a white boy has been captured and raised by Brazilian Indians. One day, he’s playing in the river with a beautiful girl. The chief has noticed his interest in the girl for some time. This awakening of sexual interest in the boy is a signal to the wise chief. He appears on the riverbank with his wife and some of the tribal elders and surprises Tomme (Tommy) at play with the girl. The chief booms out, “Tomme, your time has come to die!” Everyone seems profoundly shaken. The chief’s wife, playing the part of all women, of all mothers, asks, “Must he die?” The chief threateningly replies, “Yes!” Then, we see a firelit nighttime scene in which Tomme is seemingly tortured by the older men in the tribe; and forced into the forest vines, he is being eaten alive by jungle ants. He writhes in agony, his body mutilated in the jaws of the hungry ants. We fear the worst.

Finally, the sun comes up, though, and Tomme, still breathing, is taken down to the river by the men and bathed, the clinging ants washed from his body. The chief then raises his voice and says, “The boy is dead and the man is born!” And with that, he is given his first spiritual experience, induced by a drug blown through a long pipe into his nose. He hallucinates and in his hallucination discovers his animal soul (an eagle) and soars above the world in new and expanded consciousness, seeing, as if from a God’s-eye view, the totality of his jungle world. Then he is allowed to marry. Tomme is a man. And, as he takes on a man’s responsibilities and identity, he is moved first into the position of a brave in the tribe and then into the position of chief.

Moore, Robert. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (pp. 4-5). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

6 types of stories

Here’s the TLDR of a recent article in The Atlantic:
AI identified six kinds of story archetypes (narrative arcs of popular storylines / mapping the emotional trajectory of a story):

1. Rags to Riches (rise)

2. Riches to Rags (fall)

3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)

4. Icarus (rise then fall)

5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)

6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

How they came up with these categories:

Based on an idea from Kurt Vonnegut. They mapped “the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune.”

He’s discussed the idea in this video:

Here’s an example of what the Cinderella story arc looks like when mapped out this way: