There is a popular adage by Alexander Pope that says ‘to err is human.’ This can’t be far from the truth when it comes to the world of fiction. Of course you would want to have well-rounded characters in your story that are relatable, but you would not want them to have character flaws. Well, you’ll need to give your character flaws for them to be relatable as actual people with imperfections.
Though this feels drowning to give your characters defects, it enriches your story with deep motivations, intelligent interactions, and gives an edge to the central conflict of your plot, which is a compelling driver for the story. Don’t worry, there are lots of fascinating and complex character flaws that could tweak your story.
The duty, therefore, lies with you as the writer to fully craft characters that are realized. Inexperienced writers tend to turn away from creating character flaws, and most writers tend to create flawed antagonists to ease the story into a problematic plot that would be seen as regular. The issue, therefore, is with creating character flaws in the protagonist.
It is often the imperfections of a character that makes the character likable and distinct.
But first, can we understand what a character flaw is?
What is a character flaw?
A character flaw is a character’s negative quality that can be detrimental to them or others, the effect mostly depends on the flaw. It can also be defined as a trait that makes a character imperfect. It could be a quirk, limitation, bias, false belief, or fear that holds the character down. Every character flaw has consequences that are expected but can be represented differently in different characters. It would naturally look like the antagonist should be the one with character flaws, but any character in your story can have flaws.
Are there types of character flaws?
Character flaws can be divided into three major types;
The minor flaw:
It has a minimal impact on the life of the character and sets the character apart in the mind of the reader, but usually has little impact on the story. Character flaw in this sense could be a mental or physical disability because it limits the character in certain ways, and not necessarily a moral flaw.
Examples of a minor flaw are:
- Excessive nail biting
- A disability that requires the character to use walking aids.
The major flaw:
This has a significant effect on the character’s life and impacts the story plot. Major flaws are mostly morally related that lead to external or internal conflicts throughout the story. It could be:
- Addictive gambling that leads the character into deep trouble
- Pride that prevents a character from seeking help when it is needed
- The dread of approaching the love interest of a character probably due to low self- esteem
The fatal flaw:
Also known as the tragic flaw or hamartia, is the pathway that leads to the downfall of the character. It could also be seen as a foolish tendency that blends into the main conflict of the story, which results in the death or defeat of the character at the climax of the story.
When there is a fatal flaw, the character is bound to have a downfall either literally or morally. Examples include:
- Deep trust in matters that lead the character to ruin, mostly financially
- An unnecessary sense of duty that drives the character to sacrifice themselves
- A seething need for revenge that leads the character down a woeful ending
The outcomes of these flaws would largely depend on the way the character handles it, for example, a minor flaw for one character could be a fatal flaw for another and vice versa. Therefore, keep in mind that while using any of these character flaws, if not handled carefully, it could change its purpose, and if managed well, a fatal flaw could make the story exciting.
The role of flaws in conflict
Character flaws play a role in fueling the two types of conflict contained in every story, the internal conflict which is character-driven, and the external conflict driven by the plot.
A character flaw in external conflict can limit or hinder the character from achieving their goal, while the internal conflict has the flaws at the heart of both positive and negative arcs that give the character growth as humans throughout the story.
Reasons to give characters flaws
There are several functions that flaws play in characters, the following can be achieved to engage an inner conflict:
- Gives a character room to change and grow
- Makes the character human and relatable to readers
- Enables characters to have their unique quirks that differentiate them and stand them out
- It gives room for exploitation of a character’s weakness by another character
- Presents obstacles that have to be overcome in the course of the story
- Makes the obstacle prevent a character from solving a conflict immediately
- A character’s specific flaws open up or amplify broader themes for the story
What character flaws can you use for your writing?
There are boundless types of character flaws that can make for a good story, below are a few that can generate conflict that engages and drives your story forward:
- Vanity: Many real characters are vain and seek the beauty that the world gives, this also can work perfectly in fiction and film. If you have characters that are models, athletes, politicians, or artists, or anyone obsessed about the way they look, you can drive them in the story through their vanity. Although, other ordinary characters can also be negatively affected by vanity.
The vain character gives a lot of their time to make themselves desirable for external validation or reassurance that they are the best or most beautiful. A typical example of this would be Snow White’s stepmother in the fairy tale story.
How to write a vain character into your story?
- Make them inadequate: that feeling of not being the best or enough leads the character to seek external validation to make them feel worthy
- Excessive need for validation: a vain character would always need validation and this can lead them to seek it externally or elsewhere, driving the conflict of your plot deeper
- Know-it-all: No one loves an arrogant person, but this arrogant, self-righteous know-it-all character will give you a good drama when they fall on their face. This works better in comedy and features better when the know-it-all has a moment where they suffer a major lack of knowledge on an important scene.
- Perfection: A perfectionist that is never satisfied is a great flaw for an office worker, a detective, or a manager. Set them to hardly accept a project as completed especially if it’s not done by them.
- Fear: This is common in dramas and action-driven stories and is an amazing character flaw that drives the story naturally, be it the fear of bugs, specific phobias, or cowardice.
- Greed: This is another common character flaw which can be used as a powerful driving force that decides the action. This is a restless flaw that keeps the character always needing more and deriving pleasure from getting rather than giving.
When greed is used as a character flaw, these few underlying causes may arise;
- Shame; a character who had a poor background may acquire a great amount of wealth to cover that past
- Self-worth; when a character believes that his self-worth and relevance in the society can only be achieved by a certain degree of wealth, he sets to get that status and class by seeking always to acquire immeasurable wealth
When writing this kind of character flaw, consider the personal history or belief of the character and what possible obstacles the character would need to overcome.
- Laziness: The lazy character flaw is most obvious in hilarious plots, but it could also drive grave conflict if the lazy character is placed in a position of authority, it creates lots of tension for the plot. Generally, laziness as a flaw depends on the tone of the story you are telling.
- Low self-esteem: This character flaw can come in the form of feeling inadequate or having a dislike for one’s self, and both of these can make fascinating characters. Let them begin their journey with low self-esteem, and as they grow in the course of the plot, they begin to have more confidence in themselves or have that turning point where everything changes and they have stronger faith in their strength and personality.
- Jealousy: For romantic elements in writing, jealousy is a good and common flaw that drives the story’s conflict. It can create emotional friction in relationships as one character desires to gain freedom or independence, while the flawed character could be a manipulator.
The following underlying reasons could be the causes of your character’s jealousy flaw;
- A desire for control; jealousy may seem different from the need to control, but they are often intertwined. It builds conflict when a jealous character tries to control the other character’s every move, especially in a romantic relationship
- Trauma: past broken or hurtful relationships can trigger jealousy in a character for their future relationships, and this backstory is a good ground to drive the conflict of the story’s plot
- No maturity: Beginning your character arc with a hopeless person who is immature but grows gradually in the story to attain a level of admirable maturity is great for building the story and drama.
- Physically vulnerable: When a character suffers from a form of physical weakness, it escalates into a fatal flaw. It could be something that denotes a strong character and becomes their Achilles heel.
- Stuck in the past: Let your character be haunted by a past occurrence that holds them down on a spot that they seek to be delivered from it or search for ways to forge past that inability to move on from their past. It could be a secret that no one knows, a witness at murder, or an unsaved victim. When you have such a character, you create obstacles that they try to resolve with an ending to the story that feels earned.
- Power lust: This is the undying thirst of many characters. The desire for more power is a great drive for conflict and is a relatable line for readers. It does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, especially if the lust for power is to be used to fix greater issues than their selfish desires.
When writing a character with power lust, let their motive be driven by the why, what drives them to seek more power? It could be greed, prior loss of power, need for honor or respect, or a destructive ideology.
There are setbacks for the character flaw, which include:
- Addiction; a character that becomes addicted to the need for more power that he/she is restlessly hungry for higher power
- Resentment; when a character desperately seeks power, they would do anything it takes to get that power, and this leads to provoking and causing resentment in lots of people
- False relationships: for example, if your character is a political figure that does all it takes at all cost to get more power and surrounds himself with guards and military arms to avoid their enemy taking them out, there is usually a tendency for them to be destroyed by one or the same guards
- Impenetrable Exterior: Do you ever meet those real-life people who seem standoffish, lewd, or even hostile? These people make great characters because they are most vulnerable internally and only put up a façade of a strong wall. When you break down that wall and bring out their vulnerability, it gives your story a strong drive.
As a writer, never be afraid to give a character significant flaws that make them unlikeable. Avoid the voice that tells you to give them minor, manageable flaws instead. To effectively develop impactful character flaws that move your story forward, start by considering the journey of your characters, even if you don’t have all the details yet. Let the character flaw fuel major internal or external conflicts that they experience in the course of their journey through the story.
Also, when crafting a flaw for your character, make certain it aligns with their general behavior through the story. Readers would condone a rude character that has had a rough time of abuse and now uses that flaw as a cover-up for their vulnerability, or a character that steals from the rich to help the poor would have sympathy from the readers because his flaw leads to a good cause.
Character flaws can add unimaginable depth and realism to your story.