Character Flaws: How They Work in Good Writing

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Regardless of our real-world tastes, when it comes to fiction, we are often not satisfied with one thorny rose—we want a whole greenhouse of foxgloves and flytraps. Flaws give characters depth and make plotlines much more fractious and interesting. You want your characters to be as realistic as possible so that readers will either root for or against them. 

Since nobody is perfect, it’s crucial to ensure that all your characters, not just the villains, have flaws. If one of them is too perfect, readers will write her off as a Mary Sue. (And nobody likes a Mary Sue!) When writing your characters, always understand their flaws. For more help on character shaping, consider consulting an editor

The nature of flaws

As Marilyn Monroe once said, “It is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” Flaws add pizzazz! Each character should have more than one. After all, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, which makes them multifaceted. 

A flaw is a negative character trait, not an action. Stealing isn’t a flaw; Aladdin steals to eat. Greediness is a flaw of certain people who steal, like Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. Flaws often lead to the character’s problems and conflicts, hindering their happiness or success or that of other characters. These may be major or minor, depending on the flaw and character. They can be a character’s ultimate shadow, known as a fatal flaw, or its harsher offspring, a tragic flaw

These terms pop up in editorial feedback, so it pays to understand them. Don’t just assign flaws willy-nilly by going through a list; instead, take the time to get to know each and every one of your characters so that you can decide which flaws make the most sense. Keep in mind that some traits can be positive or negative depending on the context or execution. For example, confidence is often portrayed as a positive trait, but if a character is too confident, he or she becomes cocky, which is a flaw.

Minor and major flaws

You don’t just flip open a book of flaws and pick one or several. Flaws should have context; they sprout from the character’s past, personality, and surroundings. For instance, if you have a character willing to do whatever it takes to reach the top of their profession, it doesn’t make sense for their flaw to be timidity.

Minor flaws might affect a person but aren’t the pillar of their character. Flakiness, for example, is a minor flaw that might inconvenience a character or their friends, but it will likely not be their undoing. Nosiness, like the neighborhood Karen, is another minor flaw. Yet, flaws aren’t the same for everyone. For example, both Mary Poppins and Narcissus are vain characters. However, Mary Poppins’s vanity makes her seem uptight, but Narcissus’s is a little more serious and damning. 

While sometimes the result of upbringing or lifestyle, flaws can also be aspects of deeper character defects. A writer can use them to gradually reveal a character. In Heathers, J.D.’s initial defiance of bullies is played for laughs, but it’s a hint at his subsequent unhinged cruelty. 

In fiction, major flaws almost always come from life-defining moments and emotional trauma. They color the characters’ perspectives, deeply affect their lives and demeanor, and cause conflict within and around them. Major flaws have a particularly profound effect on a character’s actions and mindset and can push them to make potentially disastrous decisions. In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s pride leads to a criminal enterprise that puts his family in danger and reflects his other flaws (volatility and arrogance).  

Fatal flaws and tragic flaws

Fatal flaws are a kind of major flaw. They distinctly serve the story’s structure. The main character’s flaws are keeping them stuck and incomplete and will somehow make or break them. It will take overcoming their deficiencies for them to have a character arc. Elizabeth Bennet must overcome her prejudice or remain alone and unsatisfied, Scrooge has to confront his greed or become an enchained ghost, and Avatar’s Lord Zuko can’t find redemption without conquering his indecisiveness. 

When a character can’t overcome their fatal flaw, it becomes a tragic flaw—their downfall. Inspector Javert’s rigidity leads to his suicide, Scarlett O’Hara’s selfishness causes her abandonment, and Othello’s insecurity ends in his and Desdemona’s deaths. 

Indeed, not all characters need to—or will—overcome their flaws. Some are intrinsically more tragic than others, so make sure you understand your characters’ arcs and personalities. 

Triumphing over one's flaws

Characters don’t need to fully vanquish their flaws, but their transformation can hinge on overcoming them to the point where they’re no longer hurt by these flaws. Mr. Darcy, for instance, can still have his pride without it making him aloof. Personal growth makes for an interesting story and memorable characters. We often remember the complicated protagonists better than the white knights. 

There are countless flaws to pick from, but only some of them will work for your unique characters. You can contact an expert editor for help with crafting your characters and making them shine. 

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