Character flaws are necessary for writing complex characters, but some writers don’t get why. Here’s what writers need to know about writing flawed characters.
Most writers seem to understand that character flaws are necessary for good character development. Characters are flawed because people are flawed, and because, frankly, it’s not very interesting to read about people unless they’re a bit messed up.
However, some writers don’t seem to understand the role a character flaw serves in the story. It’s not just a quirk to make them more relatable or to make us dislike them. Character flaws, and how they affect behavior throughout the story, are a primary source of conflict in most stories.
Strengths Can Also Be Weaknesses, and Vice-Versa
In a lit class I took in college, a classmate of mine once floated out a strange idea. What if you took two of the most famous tragedies of all time – Hamlet and Othello – and switched the titular characters?
The answer seemed to be this: they were both over in about five minutes, and neither one was a tragedy anymore. The same character flaws that made them tragic figures in their own story – Hamlet‘s indecisiveness and caution, and Othello’s jealousy and directness – equipped them to deal with the problem at hand much faster and with a lot less collateral damage.
The point to this aside is that a personality flaw doesn’t always have to be a flaw, per se. Sometimes it’s just a perfectly innocuous facet of their personality which, for whatever reason, doesn’t come off well under the circumstances. Are they honest? They may sell out a friend to avoid lying. Generous? They’ll be easy for the bad guy to take advantage of.
Conversely, character flaws can work in the character’s favor sometimes. A character who’s established as insanely stubborn might use that stubbornness to work for their goals. The character who is annoyingly short-tempered might be the first person to get righteously mad when something horrible happens. And so on and so forth.
If It Doesn’t Affect the Story, It’s Not a Flaw
One common – and very annoying – way for writers to make a character look complex without doing the work is giving them superficial, inconsequential character flaws. If you’ve read a lot of fanfiction or bad YA, you’ve probably seen this a lot – the main character isn’t perfect, but only because they’re clumsy. Or shy. Or just too heroic.
Inevitably, the “flaw” is not only silly, it has zero effect on the plot. The shy and insecure characters never have trouble making friends because secondary characters flock to them anyway. The character’s knee-jerk heroism is only ever rewarded, never punished.
The thing is, we can’t say these characters have character flaws. Their “flaws” either don’t have any effect on the story, or they only ever work in the character’s benefit. If a character flaw doesn’t generate conflict, it can’t really be a flaw.
This also goes for characters who have genuine character flaws. If you tell us – or show us – that your character is stubborn or hot-tempered, we should see the effect that these traits have on the character and other people in the story. Otherwise, these flaws are just as shallow as the clichéd clumsiness.
Character Development Isn’t Just Getting Rid of The Flaw
The thing about flaws is that they are part of the character’s personality. It’s not just a random defect that they picked up somewhere, but a part of who they are. I’m not saying that character development is impossible, but the basic components of your character’s personality should be clear throughout their character arc.
Let’s say your character is unusually short-tempered. This gets in their way a lot at the beginning of the story. They make impulsive decisions that get them in trouble, and they’re isolated because other characters dislike them for being kind of a jerk. Eventually, they realize that this isn’t a beneficial way for them to act, and they decide to change.
This is character development and putting it into your story will make it a little more nuanced and lifelike. Not to mention it’ll eventually make your character more palatable to your audience. But it shouldn’t be easy. While changes in behavior generally start with someone deciding to make a change, it’s never easy to change the way you’ve been acting your entire life.
Here’s an example of how the character might act after their character development kicks in. Someone does something that, three hundred pages ago, would have had them yelling and flipping tables. Instead of freaking out, they take a deep breath and tell themselves to calm down – but it’s a tangible effort not to get angry. The character flaw didn’t disappear, the character just learned to control themselves better.
Character flaws are necessary for any well-written and nuanced character. However, a lot of authors seem to understand this without understanding why character flaws are important to the plot or the characters. Keep these things in mind while you’re creating your characters and trying to figure out what their flaw is.