For as long as I’ve been a part of the online writing community, the one principle that’s been hammered into me by screenshots, blog posts, and novelists aplenty is this: your characters need to have flaws, otherwise they will be unrealistic and unrelatable. Which is absolutely true. The problem is that many writers are given this advice and then turned loose with no idea of what kind of “flaws” the commentators actually mean.
Cue a spate of heroes and heroines with perfectly upright morality, always making the right decisions, whose flawless visage is only marred by a single problem: “clumsiness.” Or “being misunderstood.” Or “having a Dark Soul that needs saving.” The problem with these kinds of flaws is that they’re usually tacked-on traits for an already-distinguished character who is otherwise in the spotlight of good, all the time.
In this blog post, I want to talk about giving characters real flaws – how to do it, and why having a flawed character it’s actually a very, very good thing.
Several months ago, I stumbled across a Pinterest post that addressed this same topic. The writer had a perspective that I thought was spot-on: a character’s natural flaws – the kind that are realistic and enhance the story – come from within. It’s usually their strengths taken to the extreme and turned against them. If you look at clumsiness, that’s not really an inborn flaw. It’s just the inability to walk on your own two feet. Being misunderstood puts the onus on others for the “flaw,” not on the character himself. And the Dark Soul is too vague.
So how do you go about instilling real flaws into your characters? Here are a few things that have streamlined the process for me as I draft. I hope they’ll help you, too!
1) Understand what a flaw really is.
As mentioned briefly above, a lack of coordination is not a character flaw. It can be a trait – one that may even affect the plot, if a clumsy character is running from a serial killer, for instance – but it’s not really a flaw. However, you can have a clumsy character who is also very smart, to the extent that she manipulates the people around her into being human shields between herself and the serial killer, since she knows she’d never be able to run away. That’s a flaw…heartless manipulation and disregard for human life.
A flaw is a crack in the character’s moralistic or honorable facade, where the ugliest parts of their personality show through. We all have them. A well-rounded character is going to have them, too. Understanding the difference between a flaw and a detrimental trait is a key to getting that sweet balance in representing your character.
2) Take a good hard look at your character’s personality.
As mentioned above, a true flaw is usually something that grows out of your character’s greatest strengths. To use my own writing as an example: in my current WIP, Starchaser, the MC is a sweetheart. She always wants to see the best in people, which is her greatest strength – it allows her to defuse situations, mediate, and make new friends very easily. The downside is that, when taken to the extreme, her sunny outlook on life opens a vein of naivety. Over the course of the story, this flaw traps her for too long in an unhealthy relationship, leads her to make bad decisions hoping for the best, and causes serious friction when she learns someone didn’t have the best intentions toward her – which leads to more bad choices.
Instead of constructing a flaw for your character, try looking at their strengths. Then ask yourself, “How could this go wrong?” Maybe your character’s strength is cleverness, but it makes them too proud to ever listen to others. Maybe they’re a talented protector, but it makes them overbearing to the point of suffocating their relationships. There’s two sides to every coin, a light and a dark. Understanding your characters’ strengths is a perfect lens for seeing their flaws, too.
3) When you find a flaw…stick it out to the bitter end.
Our deeply-ingrained flaws don’t just go away when a situation arises, unfortunately. In fact, they often become glaringly obvious in times of crisis. Once you find your character’s flaws, you have to ask yourself how they play into any given scenario. This can be difficult, because it may alter the course of entire scenes and arcs. But when the flaw is defined and allowed to show its ugly teeth, it can up the tension and realism of an already-tense scenario.
For example: your proud character may walk all over others in a time of crisis, certain that he has a way out – only to bring devastation on himself and his peers. Your clever character may charge forward thinking she has all the answers – only to find herself stranded in a situation she was really unprepared for. In the case of my own MC in Starchaser, her naivety lands her time and again in scenarios that could’ve been avoided if she’d led with her head instead of her heart. Goodness knows the story would be a lot easier to write if she had a sudden “ah-hah!” moment right before she followed her heart in these situations…but staying true to her character, and the flaws that are an integral part of her, means that I have to let her go down these rabbit holes, and then find a way to get her out again.
Easy? Never! But that’s the hard part of sticking to a flaw…you have to let it wreak havoc on your plot, in order to keep things consistent and realistic.
4) Don’t be afraid to let your characters have flaws.
We all love to hate when a character makes a poor choice, especially when we see the consequences coming a mile away. A secret kept to the detriment of a relationship; a prideful decision that opens a character up to massive repercussions; a character’s overbearing attitude building up the tension in the cast like a pressure cooker. These things can be hard to navigate in the drafting process. But the problem is, if a character isn’t allowed to have a flaw, it’s hard for their arc to have anywhere to go. If they’re proud but always right, then the pride isn’t really a flaw – it’s bragging rights, and there’s nowhere else for the character to go. He’s hit the ceiling of his potential growth. On the other hand, if his pride leads to a fall, then he has to scrape himself up, learn to accept his shortcomings, and maybe even turn to others for help in the future. This is where growth happens…a journey the reader and the character take together.
Flaws are uncomfortable. They make readers groan and throw the book at the wall and get shivers of secondhand embarrassment. We often want our heroes to make the right decisions and be full of integrity, honor, and discipline. But life doesn’t work that way, and a character who is flawed and makes mistakes – like all of us! – is, in the end, much more memorable and much easier to root for than one who always has the right answer and makes the perfect decision in any given scenario.
5) Keep it ugly.
I’ve personally found this to be the most difficult part of writing a flawed cast. A lot of times, readers operate under the assumption that however the “good guys” in a book behave, that is what the author condones. I truly believe that this attribution of intention has opened the gateway for too many flawless heroes, because writers don’t want to be accused of being prejudiced, over-zealous, prideful, or any of a host of other flaws that might crop up in their characters. But sometimes we have to take it on the chin in order to keep it real…because real is ugly. And even the “good guys” and the well-intentioned people (in both the real and fictional world) have deeply-ingrained veins of ugly that need to be explored and attended to, so that they can become their best selves.
In the third book of Starchaser, one very ugly and very unexpected flaw that emerged in one of my characters was her vicious nationalism. Not just pride in her kingdom, but disdain toward anyone who didn’t live under the same flag. It was difficult, disgusting and downright rotten to write her through the journey of that book, examining that flaw and the things it had driven, and continued to drive her, to do. But in keeping it ugly, when she (and I!) emerged on the other side of that arc, I felt more satisfaction and clarity and even personal understanding than I had ever felt in a character’s journey before. None of that would have been possible if I’d let her be the morally upright and well-balanced warrior among a flock of prejudiced brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. She had to have that flaw, and I had to walk it out as the writer. Not because I myself am a vicious nationalist, but because it made sense in my character’s strengths and as her weakness, and she needed to tackle that flaw in herself to stay true to the story. She was no less one of the “good guys” – just a good guy with a seriously ugly flaw that needed addressing.
As you plot and play out the story, your characters may present flaws that go against your very core beliefs, or your deepest nature. That’s okay. Let them be ugly, let them struggle…and then let them walk it out and come through on the other side of it. It’s necessary. It’s a growing pain for them, and for you.
In flawed characters, we see a reflection of ourselves. So as readers, and even as writers, we want to see them grow and overcome their flaws, or at least learn to acknowledge and work with them…because it gives us hope that we can do the same. And with so much talk lately about the things that need representation in novels, I think it’s imperative that we strive to represent the flawed side of humanity, just as much as its strengths. We need characters whose genuine growth we can root for – and maybe, through that, find ways toward growth of our own.