“Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull.” – W. Somerset Maugham
Flaws serve to add depth and conflict, establish empathy, and make the character more memorable.
“Flaws are the vehicle by which a reader most readily identifies with a character. It is through flaws we can identify with an elf, a king, or a captain.” – Bruce Marko
If a character is perfect, then all the conflict in the story is someone else’s fault. He’s either a victim of circumstances, or has no personal stakes in the story
Flaws add a skintight layer of conflict. It can be defensive external conflict or guilt-ridden inner conflict.
In the end, a character isn’t defined by his flaws but by what he does in spite of them. Tweet this!
We all like to daydream about life without any limits. No flaws, no challenges. So it’s tempting to write a story about that daydream. But here’s the stink:
Perfection is like a crystal clear lake. There’s no sense of depth. And as novel and beautiful as that lake may be, a character without depth is boring, or worse, annoying.
In comparison, the “flaws” of underwater branches and water discoloration in the photograph above add beauty.
Leave perfection in daydreams.
In fact, you might make your character as flawed as you can manage. Why? Because readers like impossible odds. It increases the tension, and in a way, the stakes.
Readers relate to the struggle. And they get a vicarious payoff when the character succeeds.
“The bigger the flaw, the sweeter the victory.” Kristen Lamb
Recognizing the RIGHT Flaw
The foundational flaw, the essential one, will be a personality defect.
It will be major.
It will impede the character in his goal. We’re not just talking about the protagonist. Almost any character can be deepened through a flaw/goal juxtaposition.
It should also deepen the characterization in some way. You might need to explain it through backstory, or it might be related to another part of the character’s personality.
You can have other flaws, even minor and non-impeding ones. Just makes sure they make sense and add depth.
Side note: Physical aspects or limitations, circumstances, and fears do not count as foundational flaws. Each has its place, and it’s not here. PERSONALITY DEFECT.
If you’re writing a tragedy, your character should have a fatal flaw, and a moment (called hamartia) that sets him on a path to inevitable destruction.
Your character’s flaw might also be a weakness. I differentiate the two, because a weakness is something that can be exploited, and it can be anything from a virtue, to a secret, to the desire. If your flaw is a weakness, great.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Many, Many Possibilities
Before you start trying to add a flaw, recognize what might be considered less than perfect about the character, and how it can affect the story. You might not need to add anything.
What with the flaw being quintessentially human, there’s a smorgasbord of flaws to choose from. Go figure.
Start with the deadly sins, chief features, and polar traits. Then we’ll move into the uncategorized wilds.
We’re starting with the most vague, and if not treated with nuance and care, the most cliche.
- Vainglory/Deceitful Boasting
Now, you might notice that there are more than seven. That’s because historically different sins have been featured. So I included them all. It’s a downright sinful party of possibilities!
(Did you really expect to get away without a pun? You’re FUNNY.)
There’s some overlap from the deadly sins (greed and pride), but it’s worth noting how some of them oppose each other.
- Martyrdom – It’s possible that a character afflicted with this chief feature will actually refuse help in order to complain later.
Any of the sins or chief features can differentiate into more specific flaws. Layering is encouraged. Just don’t let the flaw overwhelm the rest of the personality.
These are traits that become negative when taken to extremes.
A virtue taken too far is easily positioned as reasonable from the character’s perspective.
“I’m only trying to help!”
“I’m just being honest!”
It’s not the only way to position a polar trait, but it’s the easiest.
As Limyaael points out, “too unselfish” doesn’t count. It has to be so extreme that there’s no mistaking that it’s a flaw. We’re talking about taking organized up a notch to control freak and then slamming it to flat out manipulative.
The further you take it, the more depth you give the character.
This layering is even better if you can connect it to one of the sins or chief features. Wide net, small holes.
Don’t worry overmuch about categorizing the flaws. That’s not the point. As long as you know how they interconnect, you’re set up to work on the Theme when the time comes.
Other Flaws (The Wilds)
It can be hard to figure out the ways that a sin or chief feature might manifest, so these are specific flaws you can use.
I’m including a short list of my own, and several linked lists.
- Overtalks (especially when nervous)
- All talk and no action
- Will do anything to please (external locus)
- Adrenaline junkie
When you choose a flaw, keep in mind that there has to be a reason behind it. There might be a lie that they believe, or a traumatic experience in their past. It might even be a reaction to current circumstances.
I’m not of the opinion that you have to show the reason behind every flaw. Sometimes it’s appropriate, and sometimes it’s better to let the character’s past remain a mystery.
However, you should seriously consider looking into why a character has a certain flaw.
The reason grounds the flaw, and gives the reader a basis on which to judge it less harshly. It allows the audience to understand why he is the way he is.
With minor characters you can skip the reason, but generally not with major characters. Even if you simply hint at one, it’s still better than nothing.
Unless you don’t want reader sympathy for that character. A valid choice.
Putting the Flaw to Work
Before you can write the flaw, you need to get specific about how it manifests. Otherwise it’s all too easy to end up with a character that doesn’t act according to their flaw. Or the flaw overwhelms the personality.
Don’t make the mistake of labeling a character in your writing, either. Use the specifics to show the flaw, dialogue to hint at it, and the reactions of other characters to acknowledge its existence.
Let your character make mistakes.
Just have him make a different mistake each time, because you don’t want to get caught in the loop-de-loop of similar scenes. Or flat-lining stakes.
Put him in different situations where the flaw can be acted out.
If you’re having trouble thinking up mistakes, it might help to think of the flaw as an attitude and the mistakes as behavior acting out that attitude. As a last resort, as some teenagers to help.
Speaking of flat-lining stakes, the mistakes should have consequences. No letting him off scot-free. You hear me?
Pro Tip: Let the consequences of the flaw reverberate throughout the story. Unforeseen ripples can give your audience chills.
If it seems impossible to punish your character, or if all the possibilities seem too harsh, then you haven’t given him a flawed enough flaw. Barely there equals watered down, and readers will notice.
Really, punishment is the wrong word.
The fallout should be a natural result of the actions, even if the character and reader didn’t see it coming. It’s probably going to be the repeated repercussions that cause the character to finally change his ways, if you go that route.
Another way to show the flaw is through the character’s inner conflict over it. Maybe they want to change. Maybe they don’t, but they hate the consequences.
Either way, it drives home how engrained the flaw is.
You should also show it through the character’s voice. It helps if you think of it as an attitude. It doesn’t need to be constant, but it needs to crop up every once in a while.
And it’s not just dialogue. It’s in narration, too.
“Character flaws in first person POV can be a real challenge. Most people don’t see their own flaws – don’t acknowledge their own mistakes. The flaws have to be communicated using the unreliable narrator who thinks that what s/he’s doing is correct and logical but which inevitably results in unexpected circumstances.” – Nathan Lowell
And that pretty much sums up showing your character’s flaws.
But it doesn’t mean we’re done.
Or rather, the lack of self-awareness. Our psyches have ways of keeping us from becoming fully aware of our shortcomings, including cognitive biases and defense mechanisms.
I’ll share a few biases.
- Anchoring – focusing on only one of a number of pertinent pieces of information
- Bias Blind Spot – not believing they are biased
- Choice-Supportive Bias – believing past choices were better than they were
- Confirmation Bias – supporting preconceptions by focusing on information that fits
- Empathy Gap – not realizing how much something will affect someone
- Moral Credential Effect – feeling justified in a few wrongs because of a good track record
- Normalcy Bias – the denial of unusual events, causing a lack of preparation or reaction
- Omission Bias – seeing harmful acts as worse than equally harmful omissions
- Restraint Bias – underestimating temptation
- Semmelweis Reflex – rejecting new evidence because it doesn’t “fit” with what is “known”
As you can see, most relate to ignoring evidence that the character doesn’t like. Quite useful for keeping them in the dark. But you can’t overuse them, because reader’s won’t be suffering the same effects, and they won’t find it believable if used too often.
On the other hand, your character might be aware of the flaw and quite comfortable with it. You’ll have to explore the situation and backstory to get a handle on that one.
Don’t overdo the self-awareness, though. Occasional hints suffice.
How the Story Plays Out
This is one area where you can run into a lot of conflicting advice. Some say the flaw should be consistent throughout the story; others think it should be redeemable.
I say it depends on the character and the story. As long as it’s believable and satisfying, go for it.
One way to find the middle ground is to have a foundational flaw (the one that impedes the character in the story) to be redeemed, and other flaws to keep around.
And that brings us to the ways that you can shape the arc.
1. The most commonly espoused arc is the ultimate transformation, where the flaw is eliminated. It’s a good option, but not always fitting.
If you’re going that route, you should avoid including too many scenes where the character beats himself up over the flaw. Realistically, a negative attitude makes it harder to change.
2. Success in spite of an existing flaw. In a way, this is harder to pull off because you have to convey that the flaw hasn’t been beaten.
For either scenario above:
Unlike the Greatest Fear (another Cornerstone), which I suggest should be approached in small steps for believability, the flaw gains a huge emotional impact by making a sudden leap. It can be made believable by showing the internal conflict.
It works with the flaw because it isn’t an instinctive reaction like fear. It can be approached rationally if the character is aware of it.
3. The character succeeds precisely because of the flaw. The worse the flaw the better the story.
4. There’s one final arc possibility for the flaw. Tragedy. This is where you get the term “fatal flaw.” The flaw causes death, or at the very least, a lack of achieving the goal.
No transformation, no overcoming. Although you could throw in a transformation too late to save him.
(I’ll be covering arcs further in a later post.)
Questions to Answer
What is the general flaw?
What are the specifics?
What is the cause of this flaw?
What makes it seem reasonable to the character?
What mistakes can the character make because of this flaw?
Do the consequences have an affect on the storyline?
Is the character aware or unaware of the flaw?
What form does the arc take in relation to the flaw?
Don’t be Afraid to Use Flaws
“Give them a character they can love because of his flaws—not in spite of them.” – K.M. Weiland
If you want some help figuring out your character’s flaw and how to deepen it, give me some character info in a comment and we’ll see what we can do.
For a quick overview of how the Flaw works with other aspects to build your character’s personality, click over to The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters
Others so far in the series:
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