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Character Flaws



Character flaws are shortcomings or weaknesses that limit the protagonist or others in some way. We all have imperfections and quirks that make us unique. Characters are no exception to this rule. Afford your characters that same uniqueness by dishing out a few foibles and idiosyncrasies. Internal glitches live in the belly of a character’s being and spring to life as personality traits. Take time to brainstorm a few core traits that depict what’s at the heart of your character’s claim to fame. Physical splotches like in-your-face birthmarks, wicked scars, wild, streaked hair, a butterfly nose ring, etc., practically write their own impactful scenes that can slam characters negatively or shake things up for them in desirable ways. Think outside the character box, and booyah you’ll invent a cool character.


Think Harry Potter’s lightning scar or the fact the he was an orphan raised in an abusive home. Readers and many at Hogwarts automatically feel a soft spot for him because of his imperfections. This helps Harry. On the negative side Harry is ruled by his emotions, which sometimes gets him into trouble. Either way, his flaws affect him in life and influence the stories throughout all seven books. JK Rowling expertly uses Harry’s flaws to build tension and create conflict. Scenes that display Harry’s faults front and center are some of the best in her novels.



Surprise! Readers don’t relish perfect characters. Oh, no they don’t. Say what? That doesn’t sound kosher. Well, it’s a fact. No one is perfect so fictional characters shouldn’t be either. Readers want to relate to characters. Stir in a few simpatico blemishes into their character recipe and boom, readers will connect. Here’s the deal. If your darlings are pristine humans who are nonstop do-gooders and always come out smelling like a rose, there’s no room for growth, struggles, conflict, or resolution which are the bedrock of every good plot. Let them step in it. Dig that hole and work it until they claw their way out. Characters with flaws enrich writing and help with those plot must-haves. Build characters so readers savor them, care about them, or despise them. Fashion scenes so your darlings attract awful things like a magnet, then flourish from the conflicts.


Brew a character who is not comfortable in their own skin. Dump them into awkward or difficult situations. Cue their courage then let them wear the perseverance-badge like a boss. That’s mega-relatable and sparks cheering from readers who watch the struggle and root for their success. Building characters without relatable characteristics amounts to humdrum writing and will render many to slam your book closed and never look back.


***Unless, of course, the author purposefully builds a character who is a perfectionist which can be viewed as a flaw worthy of change.


Think about it, what stakes could an author foist upon a character who has it all going on? Readers long to see the protagonist suffer a bit so they can applaud them when they overcome adversity. They will even root for characters with undesirable qualities as long as there’s a sense underneath that the character has some good lingering in there somewhere.



As stated above, conflict is a driving force for both characters and story. Building tension and leading your protagonist and possibly other characters toward a climax is crucial. At that pinnacle, readers will turn pages to watch your characters move beyond pain, misfortune, and stress as the falling action transpires. This ultimately heads to a satisfying resolution, that ties up loose ends which is the mark of almost every good novel. This doesn’t necessarily mean the ending must close all open loops, not when there’s a second or more in the series where those problems can be tackled.



This brings up the issue of consistency. Whatever inadequacies an author assigns to a character, they must carry those flaws throughout the story, especially if they are physical in nature. Sprinkling in a character’s internal failings and physical defects not only instills believability, it sets the stage for tension and conflict. Do this through prose, dialogue, and dialogue tags.


You can’t have a character with a limp in chapters one through five, suddenly and without explanation lose that limp. It’s writing suicide to have a character filled with sarcastic comebacks abruptly discontinue the mockery with no warning to the reader. They’ve come to expect cynical retorts. It’s how you built that character. Stick with it.


Remember, authors, have the ability to help characters eventually overcome internal shortcomings that have been reliably mentioned throughout the narrative by including scenes that show character growth. For example, a character with a phobia can conquer their fear by saving others. A mocking personality can soften but still be funny.


LET’S BREAK IT DOWN



Assigning Character Flaws

Start by assigning characters one or more major flaws along with a few minor ones. Remember to strike a balance between negative deficiencies and positive attributes and voilà, you’ve developed well-rounded characters. Versatile characters are believable characters. This allows readers to bond with them. Character traits should complement each other too. Different qualities that exist at the same time can make for interesting reading. For instance, a character’s main defining weaknesses might be that they are set in their ways and stubborn to a fault, but they are also sympathetic to the needs of others. They might be brilliant, but absent-minded, so they forget appointments. You get the idea.


***Of course, a villain need not possess any redeeming qualities.


Minor Details

Minor details can impact both characters and narrative in a major way. Don’t dismiss them. Our own personas are a mix of glaring quirks and seemingly insignificant aspects so it stands to reason the characters we build should possess both as well. Constructing characters in this manner helps readers connect to them. Minor details are the ones that occur from time to time over the course of the story. For example, a character who twirls their hair when nervous.



Don’t Go Overboard

Don’t taint characters with insufficiencies that are excessive, outrageous, or too many to keep track of. Weak spots within characters must be convincing and add depth, not distract or confuse readers. A character can have an eidetic memory, but not be an insufferable know-it-all. A character with physical prowess need not display his strength in every scene or pummel everyone they meet. Let them show restraint. Unless your character is a damaged superhero, an alien meanie, or a descendent of an Olympic god, stick with a few believable faults. Too many flaws are well, too many.



Build Multilayered Characters

Strive for the development of multifaceted characters. They must come across as more than just that one peculiarity that sets them apart. A self-absorbed character must shine beyond that unfavorable feature so readers can identify with them. If they are a complete and utter narcissist, readers may have a hard time sympathizing with them or even liking them. Give that undesirable character a good ass-kicking to soften them up. Try this fix: perhaps they are egocentric yet kind to others or they stand up to bullies. One-dimensional characters are B-O-R-I-N-G with a capital B. Complex characters are intriguing and keep readers engaged.


To further illustrate this point, think about a character riddled with anxiety, but at the same time they are highly intelligent. They’re given a school assignment to stand in front of the class and discuss a topic of their choosing. The multifaceted character, though pent up with worry, draws from their pool of knowledge and decides to speak about public speaking and the difficulties one faces. In doing so they disarm their own anxiety and deliver an unexpected performance that in turn disarms their audience. There’s more to their personality than just anxiety. A one-dimensional character would completely fall apart. And yeah, you can write further scenes where they try again, but still melt into the woodwork, however that gets tedious, fast. Blessing them with a single dimension doesn't allow them to spread their wings and fly. They need a little somethin', somethin' to help pull them through and take them to the next step.



What about a prideful workaholic who’s faced with marital discourse due to his inattention to wife and family. In real life that’s a sticky situation that can go either way. Deliver that authenticity into your story. Does your character lose his marriage and family because of their linear, narrow-focused flaw or do they, tap into that inner layer of strength, have the guts to swallow their pride, rise to the occasion, get professional help, and choose a different path? The latter is a sample of a multifaceted character .


In these scenarios, a character has an opportunity to demonstrate what they’re made of. They have a chance to turn a negative into a positive. That's what readers want to read. The idea is to throw your protagonist and other characters into dramatic and critical situations with their limitations leading the way then flip the script by allowing them to test their strengths, learn lessons, and grow.



Use Character Defects to Your Writing Advantage

As stated above, character inadequacies are a breeding ground for struggle, tension, conflict, growth, and resolution. Keep your characters’ issues in mind as you construct your plot and subplots. Have at it. Use their flaws and mistakes to your writing advantage. Craft scenes that generate conflict and tension around those defects, but remember to show, not tell.



Fatal Flaw

Last but not least is the fatal flaw, the one that leads to your character’s downfall. This refers to physical death, moral death, the death of a relationship, death of a career, etc. You get the picture! A plethora of traits corner the market on fatal flaws that spawn defeat, disgrace, or ruin. There are way too many to list, but chew on this to shake up your creative juices — an overly ambitious character who would sell his own mother to advance his agenda but ultimately loses everything, or a character suffering from extreme vanity who continually opts for plastic surgery and ruins their beauty. You get the drift!


Character Flaw Ideas to Get You Started

The Annoying:

Wimpy

Immature

No common sense

Gossiper

No sense of humor

Cries at the drop of a hat

Obnoxious

Petty

Germaphobe

Spoiled


The Nasty:

Stuck-up

Bitchy

Aggressive

Bully

Misogynist

Jealous

Judgmental

Controlling

Self-centered

Mean-spirited


The Horrible:

Violent

Dangerous

Intimidating

Sadistic

Master manipulator

Total lack of empathy

Verbally abusive

Feels no remorse for actions

Homicidal

Blowhard




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Hi. I'm Liz Ambrico, freelance proofreader and aspiring author. I too am querying agents, editors, and publishers in hopes of becoming a published author.

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