Saturday, May 21

Broken, but Still Good: Adding Character Flaws

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's an old saying: "I'm not looking for the perfect man, just one with faults I like." (no clue anymore where I heard this, but it always stuck with me.)

Perfection is kinda boring. We might want to be perfect, but when everything always goes our way and nothing ever surprises us we yearn for the unexpected. Imperfection is so much more intriguing because it's unpredictable. Everyone has flaws, and those flaws are what make us interesting and unique.

This is even more important when it comes to characters. The flaws are what allows your characters to make the mistakes and the bad choices that lead to compelling plots. But picking just any old flaw isn't going to cut it. You want to choose flaws that add to your story.

I'm So Scared: Give Them Fears

Fears are great things to play off of, because you can use them as excuses for your characters to make the wrong decision. Everyone is afraid of something, even if it's irrational. You probably don't want to make it the exact thing your protagonist has to face to win (unless that's the entire point of the story) because you don't want to be too convenient or coincidental, but something that hinders the protagonist in their pursuit of their goal can go a long way toward causing trouble.

It's also fun to show those flaws in action, so when the protagonist gets close to doing X for plot reasons, the reader can see he's probably going to mess it up. They'll worry, because they can see it coming, but hope he'll realize (or has learned) and will make the right choice at that oh-so-important moment. And of course, sometimes you can swing it the other way and let them overcompensate for their previous mistakes, and mess things up even more.

I Hate That: Give Them Prejudices

Prejudices are another good flaw to exploit. It can be a full blow racist trait, or just a dislike of something based on past experiences. For example, if your heroine had her heart broken by a blue-eyed blond surfer, she might react badly toward them when she first meets them. This is great for when you need your protagonist to instantly dislike another character for plot reasons and they have no good reason to do so. Starting off on the wrong foot can lead to all kinds of trouble.

But That's How I Roll: Give Them Strong Traits

Even positive traits can be flaws in the right situation. Refusing to give up no matter what could be quite troublesome if faced with a problem that requires them to give up to win. Always doing the right thing can work against you if dealing with people who never do what's right. Being forced to go against your nature can add wonderful internal conflict to an external goal. (I use this one a lot in The Shifter)

And the most important reason to give your characters flaws -- flaws help make them likable. The little quirks that make them feel so human and real, that allow readers to relate to them and root for them no matter what they do. Remember, not all flaws are bad. Some are those endearing traits that stick with you long after you've met someone.

You don't want to make them too flawed though. Broken is good, but utterly dysfunctional can steal all the sympathy from a character. It's like being perfect, because someone who always makes the wrong choice and always has things go wrong is just as predictable as always having things work out. You want to balance the redeeming qualities with the flaws, so readers never know which side is going to make the next choice. The character might have the potential to make the right decisions, but the possibility they'll mess it up is high.

So, as you create your characters, don't forget to give them flaws and issues that make them three dimensional.

Because after all, nobody's perfect.

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Good point on the unpredictability angle. We know our characters will have to face the fears we give them--I'm forming a new character and am keeping all these things in mind. It's about "push-pull" -- both internal and external.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Characters with flaws are endearing, and just for the reason you stated - because no one is perfect. When we see ourselves in someone's writing, that's true connection and is a wonderful thing.

  3. I can see how flaws make characters real in the minds of readers. Like you said, everyone has them to some extent.

  4. Great post. My character has a few flaws that I'm exploiting, but I like your idea of turning positive traits into flaws at key moments. Off to do some brainstorming...

  5. Good thoughts. It often seems like most book characters are "short-tempered" or "stubborn", and when I sat down and wrote a novel from the perspective of a paranoid character who was a bit oblivious, I discovered why: it's easier to show someone being stubborn or having a short temper.

    "Showing" that your first-person narrator is oblivious is harder, because some readers will hate it. I have one friend who can't stand unreliable narrators. I find it sad, but also amusing, because that means our favorite UF authors vary widely. (But that friend liked The Shifter, Janice—I gave her a copy. :) )

    You want the friends and romantic interests to have different flaws than your MC, too, so folks can balance each other. It gets interesting when you create characters who are enjoyable on the page, but you realize you wouldn't like them all that much (or you'd be terrified of them) in person.

  6. I will apply your ideas to me current re-write. Thank you, Barbara P/S.: "Off of"? Nooo. No.

  7. Wonder post, I agree with you 100% on the character flaws. Great Stuff!

  8. This post is especially helpful because I do have some making flawed characters, especially the main characters.
    There have been times I've played with using racism as a character flaw but I've worried that maybe it's too big of a flaw because so many people are really against racism. I've never had a main character with that particular trait but I have done it with secondary characters.

  9. Terry: Exactly, in some many ways all throughout the book. That tug is so vital, whether it's a subtle tug or a big action-adventurey tug.

    Barbara: It really is. Even if we'd never do what characters we like do, if we feel connected to them we stay with them.

    Carol: Yeppers. It also makes it more fun to plot around them.

    Candace: Good luck!

    Carradee: Great comment. You're totally right. I think immediately of Hannibal Lecter. Loved him on the page, but keep that guy away from me! (grin) And thanks for passing my book along! Much appreciated :)

    Barbara: Good luck on those!

    Orlando: Thanks!

    Jessi: The racism was a trait that just happened in THE SHIFTER, but I'm glad it did. It really showed how easy it was to hate an entire group of people for the bad things a few did. I think had I done it in a real world setting it would have come across differently (sad to say). But in fantasy you can approach tough topics in a safer environment because it's all made up.

  10. Such an awesome post!!! I LOVE it. I also love Stitch, but I guess that's not as important. :D You put it so well. Thank you.

  11. Lisa: Thanks! Lilo and Stitch is one of my all time favorite movies. Loving Stitch is TOTALLY important, LOL.

  12. I constantly tell my students that characters should have flaws. Great post! The most important reason for creating flawed characters: they are more realistic. Since "real people" always have flaws, our characters must have them, too.