Problem, Symptom, and Critical Flaw

A writer recently sent these questions.  First, their letter, then my response:


I’ve been following Dramatica for almost a year now and when you think you’ve got everything sorted out, something comes along to make you question what you thought you knew!  In Dramatica some of the traits you have for the Main Character are :

  • Critical Flaw
  • Problem
  • Symptom

The reason I’m lost is how does this relate to other theories talking about a main character just having a need and a want (aside from their external goal)? I get that the ‘need’ is Dramatica’s ‘solution’ but what is the ‘want”s (their superficial want right at the beginning of the story) equivalent in Dramatica’s terms? They talk about the ‘want’ as being something main characters usually overcome in realisation that they have a much deeper inner need which is fueling this ‘want’. I was thinking that Critical Flaw maybe this ‘want’ because it hinders their progress but main character’s don’t overcome their Critical Flaw do they? Otherwise you’d have a character who could overcome their external problem, internal problem AND critical flaw – that seems like too much of a stretch.

I guess what i’m asking is if you could help enlighten me on what a main character’s (external/superficia/what-they-think-will-solve-the-problem) ‘want’ is in Dramatica terms? Is it the Symptom? (If that’s the case then – e.g. in the Social Network, the main character’s ‘Symptom’ is to get into one of the elite Harvard clubs when you could argue his ‘Solution’ is to get back with his ex-girlfriend which he doesn’t seem to realize truly until the end of the film)

Any help would be greatly appreciated,

My response: 

Hi, Kris.
The Main Character isn’t driven by a single source but by the combination of several different story dynamics.
For example, the Problem represents the source motivation for the character.  The word “problem” is misleading, as it really is the drive they have, which is only a problem if it is misplaced or inappropriate.
The “critical flaw” on the on other hand, is a thematic item – the counterpoint to the “unique ability”.  Dramatically (and psychologically), the unique ability is the quality that makes the Main Character uniquely able to determine whether the effort to achieve the goal will end in success or failure.  It does not mean the MC must even be directly involved in the quest – simply that they hold the key to success or failure in that venture through their action or inaction.  Critical flaw is the MC quality that either undermines their ability to employ their unique ability or that undoes their unique ability accomplishments after the fact.
As an example, we all know MCs about whom we say, “If they would only XXXXX, then they could solve the problem.  “XXXXX” is what their unique ability would have them do, but their critical flaw is what holds them back from doing it.  Or, another MC about whom we say, “Great.  Problem solved.  Now if only they won’t XXXXX this time.”  In this case, the critical flaw comes in to wipe out the gains made through using their unique ability.
As for the “symptom” you mention, there is really a quad of items that primarily drive the MC – the Problem, Solution, Focus, and Direction.  They are the equivalents of a Disease, Cure, Symptom, and Treatment for the symptom.  And so, an MC will not see his or her real drive (or problem) because they are Focused on the symptom.  In response, they pursue the Treatment for that symptom by moving in a particular Direction.  In the end, they will either treat the symptom until that relieves the situation enough for the problem to cure itself, or they will realize the problem is just getting worse, see it for what it is, and address it directly with the cure.  That is, of course, if they ultimately are to succeed.  If they continue treating the symptom when a cure is needed, they will fail, just as if they keep searching for a cure when there really is none, and should have simply kept treating the symptom until the problem can resolve itself.
Hope this helps.