Why you should have flaws in characters
“Flaws would not only bring death but, far worse, humiliation.”― William Goldman, The Princess Bride
We spend millions of dollars per year trying to hide those flaws and wrinkles we deem unattractive and humiliating. Dozens, if not hundreds, of magazines, promise ways to either remove or at least hide the blemishes. We earnestly seek any way possible to distance ourselves from the dreaded “flaw”, the imperfections that we feel lessens our appeal in the sight of ourselves and others. Even if we could achieve this utopia, we can’t allow this in fiction. Flaws in characters are a part of fiction. Flaws in fiction drive stories. Why? Because we need characters who are flawed just as we are.
What are flaws?
In her article, The Four Types of Character Flaws1https://writershelpingwriters.net/2013/11/the-four-types-of-character-flaws/, Angela Ackerman defines a flaw as “a self-focused trait that does not take into account the well-being of others, damages or minimizes relationships, and holds the character back in some way (denying self-growth).“
As writers, we know that our characters should have positive and negative traits. No one is perfect. To be honest, perfect people are boring to read about. These positive and negative traits can advance the story, but that doesn’t mean they are flaws.
Flaws in characters make them more accessible to us as readers. We see these characters as real and similar enough that we can identify with them. Not all flaws are earth-shaking show stoppers. Some are simply odd foibles to the character that reveals something about the character. All flaws should add depth to the character.
Although some writers will consider physical attributes as flaws, I don’t. The character’s attitude toward the physical attribute may be a flaw, depending on how he or she views and handles it.
In my short story, “Devil’s Advocate”, the character of Man is rude, obnoxious, and condescending. I would see all these traits as negative, and they influence how Man acts in the story. However, none of these traits are flaws for Man in this story. They are consistent with who he is and with his interaction with the main character, Mitchell.
Mitchell has flaws. Obsessively, he is focused on his life and the struggles that he is going through with little regard for others. He expects others to relate to him on his terms, while ignoring the fact that he treats people the same way. His own self-doubts and perceptions are keeping him locked into a way of living that will ultimately be destructive if he doesn’t change.
Types of character flaws
A minor character flaw is an imperfection which serves to distinguish the character. These flaws will not likely affect the outcome of the story in any significant way. Our characters may have one or more of these kinds of flaws and will see them as just “part of who I am”.
James Bond has several minor flaws.
- He drinks and smokes too much
- He gambles
- He is a womanizer and lacks sound judgment
- He enjoys dangerous games
These are minor flaws in that, though they add some depth to the character, they do not affect the outcome of the story. In fact, in Casino Royale, his gambling helps him to achieve the story goal. Even there, he almost loses.
Minor flaws may emerge out of major flaws. In “Devil’s Advocate”, Mitchell’s major flaw is his own deep insecurities about who he is. This leads him to over-analyze everything. That overanalysis is a fairly minor flaw in that feeds back into his major flaw.
Major flaws are much more noticeable and have a more profound impact on the story. They should impair the protagonist or antagonist from achieving his story objectives.
These flaws arise out of experiences that have shaped the worldview of the characters. Often, the experiences are painful, but they don’t need to be. Things such as strong religious views, rigid codes of honor, loyalty to a cause, and others can be flaws if they negatively affect a character and influence how he/she interacts with others in the story.
- For villains, their major flaw often leads to their eventual downfall. This flaw may also provide empathy for the villain.
- For heroes, their major flaw usually must be overcome (either temporarily or permanently) by their own determination or skill.
- For neutral characters, or those that shift allegiance, the major flaw can lead to either their corruption, redemption or both.
- For the protagonist, the most visible flaw serves a more vital interest. It defines a part of his or her core problem. This flaw may form the core storyline and the basis for the story, or it might be an important subplot. The “super hero” stories of the past few years have explored the troubled pasts of their protagonists.
In my story “The Dream Café”, Eddie Cockley is an elderly man, probably ex-military. Dreamweaver, the protagonist, sees into Eddie’s dreams and finds a young boy who has been bullied and mocked by his peers and abused by his step-father. Eddie promises to take revenge on those who have hurt him. He is not the antagonist of this story, but his pain and his desire for revenge shape his worldview.
Fatal flaws drive fiction. They are those flaws which may bring about the downfall and, possibly, death of the character. Fatal flaws are the obstacles preventing the character from achieving his story goal. What makes the fatal flaw attractive to writers is that it engages the protagonist in a way that he can’t escape. Overcoming the fatal flaw is do or die, figuratively if not literally.
On the one hand, the fatal flaw is simply a more impactful form of the major flaw. However, it could be separate. Examples of this could include hubris, misplaced trust, excessive curiosity, pride, and lack of self-control.
For Jay Gatsby, it is his obsessive love for Daisy. Everything he has done in his life since meeting Daisy was to make himself worthy of her, though she was not worth it. In the Bible, Judas Iscariot’s fatal flaw that leads him to betray Jesus is greed. For Dorian Gray, it is pride in his youthful looks.
The fatal flaw is so important to fiction that it is hard to find examples of stories that don’t contain at least one2https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/FatalFlaw/Literature.
The tragic flaw is one that the character cannot overcome, either through his own inadequacies or because life circumstances were more than he could bear.
Flaws in Characters
Should my character have flaws? The answer is, yes. Any character relevant to a story should have flaws. They may be minor and insignificant to the major plot lines, or they drive the story. Flaws in characters should be appropriate to the character in the story, give depth to the character, and matter.