You have a really great idea for a character you love. They’re good, smart, and gonna save the day. You’ve developed a back story and a trajectory for them. Now it’s time to take them down a few notches.
Perfect stories about perfect characters who never do anything wrong aren’t good stories. The main example of this working is in fairy tales, but even so, those characters are often flawed.
So here’s going to be an exhaustive examination on flawed characters and how to them.
Why do my characters need to be flawed?
There are a lot of reasons, but the general consensus is that characters do need to be flawed. Why? Here are some reasons:
- Readers can relate.
- Flaws allow growth.
- It gives them obstacles to overcome.
- It creates conflict to drive the story.
Even your own reasons are valid here. My point is that compelling stories involve flawed characters.
Every character should be flawed.
Do you know anyone who is perfect? Neither do I. Just the same, your characters should not be perfect. Whether they be main or secondary character(s), they should be flawed. Some writers (particularly newer ones) overlook this. They either make the main character really flawed, but everyone else (especially the love interest) is holy, good, and perfect. Or everyone else sucks and needs to learn from the main character.
Harry Potter is a fairly universal example, so I’ll go with that. Harry is flawed. He’s a bit of an impulsive hot head at times, and he likes to dick around with his friends more than he cares about his school work. But the characters who aren’t Harry (but are close to him) are flawed too. Ron doesn’t care much about school either, and he can be a bit of an insensitive jerk at times who sometimes gets jealous of Harry. Hermione is really smart, but she can be a bossy, controlling, know-it-all.
In this way give every character some flaw. The flaws may compliment the flaws of other characters, they might not, but all the same the flaws should be there.
Flaws are not weaknesses.
Superman is weak to kryptonite. That’s not a flaw, that’s a biological weakness that he cannot control or fix.
There’s no hard and fast rule, but a lot of the consensus states that a weakness is something that is completely out of someone’s control and is no fault of a character. A flaw is something that when it comes up, the character can be blamed for.
Here’s an example: Jane has a really fiery temper. Jane is out on the town with pals, but someone starts talking smack about one of her friends. Jane gets more and more pissed off, ends up decking the mean person, and as a result starts a fight that gets the whole group in legal trouble.
That’s a flaw. This character could have plausibly controlled their temper but didn’t, leading to consequences that are directly that character’s fault. So even if it is a personality trait that is difficult to control or deal with (“I can’t help it! I just got so pissed off!”), it is still that character’s fault that they started a fight and got everyone in trouble.
Make flaws matter.
A flaw should have a detrimental impact on the character’s life and for the story at large. They need to matter to the main conflict, or contribute to the conflict. Make flaws detrimental.
“Johnny is clumsy” is not a good flaw unless it matters. If it’s just him falling down a lot or bumping into stuff, that’s boring. Make him clumsy where it matters. Make it a real, big problem.
Put Johnny in a situation where he’s the only one who can transport an ancient and fragile relic to one place from another. This fragile relic, if broken, will bring an end to the entire world (for whatever reason). This object is the last hope of the good guys and the only way they can hope to stop impending doom. Now his clumsiness actually matters.
Whether Johnny succeeds or not is up to the writer. Maybe he cracks it but doesn’t break it. Maybe he’s more careful than he’s ever been in his life and succeeds. Either way, it should be difficult for Johnny to do this and his clumsiness that was more of a cute quirk at the beginning doesn’t just go away now. Otherwise, you’re just putting it in for the sake of having the characters more likable or humanized in some way.
Or let’s say Dennis is never on time. He’s always late. This is fairly inconsequential on the surface. He shows up 2 hours late to an all day party, no big deal, that’s slightly annoying at most. That’s why this inconsequential flaw should be more. Your characters set up a big bank heist and he needs to be there on time or they’ll get caught. As usual, he’s late. This ends up with the characters failing in their heist because Dennis wasn’t there with the getaway car in time.
Here Dennis’ flaw wasn’t just a quirk, it was a real flaw that actually mattered to the plot of the story. Remember, flaws can often be just quirks unless they matter.
Don’t construct loopholes for flaws.
“Sally is a coward who runs from confrontation and is always concerned with protecting her own skin, but she would brave hell itself for her friends.”
When I hear that, I hear that Sally is brave when it comes to important stuff, but not unimportant stuff. When the climax happens and her friends are all in danger, she’ll have no issue running in and saving the day. But she’ll run from a bar fight on every other day?
Maybe Sally does save the day. That’s fine. But it shouldn’t be easy. It should be really, really difficult for Sally to overcome that flaw. If she’s a coward, she’s gonna have the impulse to run. She’s going to try to find another way out that doesn’t mean putting her life on the line. She’s going to be terrified. That fear isn’t going to just go away with high enough stakes. If anything that fear will be greater.
Flaws are not admirable.
Flaws can make a character more “likable” to a reader because it humanizes the character. We can see reflections of our own flaws and how they impact our lives in them. That being said, they aren’t strictly admirable qualities.
If you were friends with Jane from the first example, and you were there for the bar fight and subsequent legal trouble, you’re probably not going to tell her “Hey, Jane, thanks for standing up for me.” It makes more sense for you to be pissed that Jane lost her cool, ruined your fun night on the town, and now you’re spending the night in jail. Jane might have had good intentions, but it’s still her fault, and it’d make sense that you’d be pissed.
In this way, your character’s flaws shouldn’t be admired to no end by other characters. When flaws cause problems, other characters should react to it: Fed up, pissed off, annoyed, etc.
If your character is naive, maybe that makes them cute and quirky, but what happens when your character donates all the group’s money to a scam? Sure Naive Ned thought he was doing the right thing, but now the group is broke and they really needed that money. It’s not going to be “Oh, that silly Ned! It’s okay buddy, we’ll figure it out.” At least initially, the other more worldly characters (who presumably would have recognized the scam) are going to be annoyed or mad at Naive Ned.
Flaws are not easily solved.
We all have flaws. Think of yours. How difficult is it for you to overcome them? Probably extremely difficult.
A bad flaw is something that a character could easily overcome.
If Billy has a really bad singing voice, that’s not really a good flaw. For one thing, it’s only likely to come up as a flaw if he sings, which is a really specific situation and can’t be used as flaw really anywhere else. As well, Billy could just invest in voice lessons to get better at singing. Problem solved.
Let’s say Billy is shy instead. Again, this should not be just a cute quirk that goes away when it matters. Billy is cripplingly shy, it has a huge impact on his life. He doesn’t make friends easily, doesn’t know how to talk to people, maybe he can’t get ahead in his career because he’s not outgoing or charming enough.
This is something that could take a long time to get over for Billy. It would mean really pushing him out of comfort zone, frustrating him, making him nervous, etc. He would have to undo years of comfortable and learned behavior. And he’s likely not to do it right away. He’s got to screw up. Maybe he makes an inappropriate joke on accident. Maybe he cancels plans because he’s nervous. He has to fail along the way.
Admirable traits can be turned into flaws
Just as your characters should have flaws, they should also have good qualities. But an admirable trait can be turned on its head and become a flaw, depending on the situation. In A Game of Thrones (the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire) Ned Stark is the epitome of honor. A lot of the characters talk about it, many admire him for it. He’s a good guy who will always do the honorable thing.
But in his honor, he makes a bunch of mistakes that eventually lead to his downfall. He warns a villain of his plan to foil her, revealing everything he’s found out, giving her time to prepare and retaliate. He did it to be merciful to her, which is noble and honorable, but he shouldn’t have done that.
So let’s say Laura is really selfless. This is an admirable trait. Selfless people are good people. Maybe she gives all of her belongings to people who are disadvantaged. Again, not bad. Good for Laura. But she gives away everything and now lives a life of poverty and misery. Maybe Laura’s selflessness gets taken advantage of. Or, maybe Laura has a skill that the group of good guys needs to defeat the bad guy. But Laura, being selfless, sacrifices herself too early when she should have saved her own skin for the sake of the greater good. Now Laura is gone and the group has to find a new way to defeat the bad guy.
Another example: Jenny is really hardworking. She’s very much admired in her field, does good work, helps people, can support herself and her family, etc. Again, admirable. But does she take it too far? Maybe Jenny is constantly checking her work emails or is a workaholic who isn’t around for her family. She misses out on important events because she’s working and it hurts the other characters’ feelings.
Flaws shouldn’t contradict each other.
Most of us have more than one flaw, some are greater than others and that’s fine. Characters can have more than one too, but they have to make sense.
Let’s say Ben is a snob. He’s a total snob who looks down on everyone below his station. He only does things that he believes are worthy of his station. Someone like Ben probably isn’t likely to be best friends with someone who is poor, nor is Ben likely to have any care or sympathy for poor people. So making Ben an arrogant snob but also volunteering at homeless shelters isn’t going to make a lot of sense.
There are ways to rework it. Let’s say Ben is a bit insensitive and he makes harsh jokes at other people’s expense. He doesn’t do it to be mean, it’s just his sense of humor. But let’s say that Ben gets really defensive and hurt when he gets it thrown back at him. This isn’t the same thing as a contradictory flaw. A contradictory flaw would be Ben’s insensitive humor coupled with him being really empathic to others’ feelings and thinking before he speaks. The former example, makes it sort of a “double-barrelled flaw”: Ben can make jokes, but he can’t take them.
Opposites in different characters.
Your antagonist and protagonist should “foil” each other in some way. The antagonist needs to get in the way of the protagonist’s goals and perhaps vice versa. They can have differing personality traits, but they shouldn’t be cleanly the exact opposite.
If Wendy always lies, don’t create Timmy, who always tells the truth, just to balance Wendy out. That’s too simple.
Traits can contrast each other, in fact they should in some cases, but they shouldn’t be too easy to see or oversimplified. The key here, in my opinion, is to add complexities. Tell me why the characters are that way.
Let’s say Wendy is politically neutral. She hates politics and doesn’t want to get involved. Timmy is very politically engaged has a very well thought out political belief system. Timmy is really annoyed that Wendy is so neutral and Wendy doesn’t understand Timmy’s political engagement because it’s all the same to her anyway.
But why does Timmy feel that way? Was his life impacted by political decisions? Did he fight in a war and almost died/watched his friends die? Is he the victim of a political regime? Why is Wendy like that? Does she hate all the arguing and fighting, wanting nothing to do with it? Is she disillusioned with the world and doesn’t care? Does she have a philosophy where she sees the world as nothing matters and everyone dies anyway?
These characters should interact with each other. They should be developed, one should not be created just to contrast with another, otherwise one of them doesn’t belong.
Flaws have real consequences.
This fits with other points, but I’m giving it its own section anyway. If a flaw has no consequence and your characters make no mistakes because of the flaw, then it has no business being in your story. Have your characters make real mistakes with real consequences.
Officer Mary has no remorse when it comes to criminals and law breakers. She believes in upholding the law at all times and she is good at her job. Because of this, she has no sympathy for a person who stole a loaf of bread to feed their family and ruins that person’s life for it (sound familiar?). Even further, what if Officer Mary arrests the wrong person? The suspect can’t prove they didn’t do it and as result they’re sentenced to death. It comes out later that it wasn’t that person and now Officer Mary has to live with the fact that she sent an innocent person to their death.
What does that do for Mary? Does she have guilt? Remorse? Does she hate herself for it? How does she change? Does she lose her job? Is she vilified by the public?
Other characters should react realistically to flaws.
Ronny is an angry drunk. He’s not fun to be around when he’s drunk. Maybe he’s mean, violent, or puts himself (or others) in danger.
If you were friends with Ronny in real life, you’re probably not just going to say “Oh, that’s just Ronny, we love him how he is!” Even if you do care about him as a friend, everyone has their limits.
So how would Ronny’s friends react? Do they try to talk it out with him? Do they try to stop him from getting too intoxicated? Do they get angry and just walk out on his life? Do they give him an ultimatum (“you need to control yourself or we’re not going to bars anymore.”)?
Characters, even ones who like each other or are friends, should react to each other’s flaws in realistic ways. They should get annoyed, angry, sad, hurt, etc. They should argue.
Sometimes good traits can become flaws. But sometimes flaws are impossible for others to deal with or understand. Try to write some characters that have irredeemable flaws. They aren’t just mildly annoying. They aren’t cute or endearing. They’re just plain awful.
Bob never keeps his promises. This is not endearing, it just plain sucks for everyone around him. Whether Bob does this maliciously or not, it’s not right of him to do, especially when others are counting on him to follow through.
Or maybe Bob lies all the time. Maybe he thinks he’s always right. Maybe he’s a champion for specific lifestyles or beliefs and everyone who doesn’t believe the same is wrong in his view. Maybe he’s ignorant and this pisses others off and he refuses to change. Maybe he’s completely selfish and only acts in his own interest.
He can still be a compelling character. He can still have admirable traits otherwise, but try to write some characters like this. Ones that cannot just be redeemed, where there flaws are really hard for other people to deal with.
Flaws don’t disappear at the end.
For many people, our flaws, no matter how aware of them we are, are lifelong struggles. We might get better, but the flaw often doesn’t just disappear.
In the same vein, make it so that your characters’ flaws aren’t just redeemed in the end. They’ve learned their lesson and their life is so much better for it.
Susie is a pessimist. She goes through a lot of trials and tribulations throughout the story that prove to her the world is a wonderful, beautiful place. She’s a shiny optimist in the end. Meh.
Susie can change somewhat. She should change in some aspect, actually. Maybe she’s a bit more hopeful and optimistic. Maybe she learns to admire her friends’ optimism. Maybe she changes in some other way that has nothing to do with her pessimism.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo goes through stuff. He wonders if saving the world even matters. It’s his pal, Sam, that keeps him going forward. However, at the end, although Frodo has more hope for the world, he’s still kind of done. He can’t go back to being a happy-go-lucky hobbit. He leaves the Shire and goes to hang out with the elves for the rest of his life. So we had a happy character, who gets a happy ending, but doesn’t just return to how they were before. Nor does he become completely disillusioned with the world.
How self aware are your characters?
In theatre, we talk about how some of the most difficult parts to play are stupid characters. It’s difficult because a stupid character doesn’t think that they’re stupid. “Crazy” characters don’t think they’re crazy.
In real life, we might not even think or dwell on our flaws very much. We might not even be aware of them at all until one of two things happens (usually):
- Another person in our lives points it out to us.
- We suffer consequences because of our flaws that are directly our fault.
In the same way, how aware are your characters of their flaws? Does Naive Ned from before think he’s worldly until he gets scammed? Does Jane with the hot temper not think about her temper until she drives people away or she gets in one fight too many?
If your characters aren’t as self aware (better storytelling in my opinion) write them as if they don’t know about their flaws.
Jane might think her temper is under control. Maybe she makes excuses, maybe she tries to justify her behavior. She shouldn’t get just in one bar fight and think “Oh, no! I need to change!” she needs to say “I was in the right! That person was insulting my friends and shouldn’t have been able to get away with it! People like that need to be taught a lesson!” It should escalate before they realize it. They should think they’re in control of their flaws when they’re not, or that they don’t even have those particular flaws.
Sally is right, that person was mean and shouldn’t have been doing that, but she escalated the situation and started the violence. She could have ignored it, gone somewhere else with her friends, or told the bartender about the harassment. Instead, she got everyone in trouble and that’s what Jane doesn’t see. She knows it sucks, but she doesn’t think that she was wrong or that it was her fault.
She shouldn’t realize it or try to change it until she goes through actual devastating consequences (a significant other leaving because of her temper, court mandated anger management, etc.)
That was a long and exhaustive piece on flawed characters. I’ll write up a second part of this that takes these things further. If you made it this far and want more info, here are some resources:
The Mary Sue Test (The whole Mary Sue/Gary Stu thing is controversial in writing circles, but all the same this is a good guideline on analyzing your characters and their flaws.)