Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Broken, but Still Good: 3 Ways to Create Character Flaws

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Choose the right flaws and weaknesses to round out your characters.

There's an old saying: "I'm not looking for the perfect man, just one with faults I like." No clue where I heard this, but it always stuck with me, because it’s so true. Everyone has faults, and some are more palatable than others.

This is true for our characters, too. Their flaws and weaknesses make them three-dimensional people readers can relate to and root for. They also allow our characters to make the mistakes and bad choices that lead to compelling plots.

But picking any old flaw isn't going to cut it. Who cares if the protagonist can't cook if cooking never matters to the story? So what if they can’t commit if they’re never asked to? It's important to choose flaws and weaknesses that add to the overall novel.

Well-rounded characters have flaws and weakness that endear them to readers.

When we skip the negative traits, we wind up with either a flat, uninteresting character or a too-perfect to be real Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Neither of these win over readers and make them care enough to hear that character’s story.

A lack of flaws and weakness also make it much harder to plot, because there are fewer ways things can go wrong. A character who never makes mistakes, never gets scared, never makes a bad choice or read a situation wrong, must rely on outside forces to drive the plot—which results in a reactive protagonist.

Here are three places to look for a character’s flaws and weaknesses:

1. Under their bed and in their closet.

That’s right, we’re talking about fears!

Fears are useful character weaknesses, because they can lead to mistakes, wrong decisions, or even out-of-character behavior—all things that create trouble and add conflict in a novel. Everyone is afraid of something, even if it's irrational (and these are often the best kinds of fears).

However, unless the point of the novel is to overcome that fear, be wary of making it the exact thing your protagonist has to face to win. When details line up a little too perfectly, they can seem convenient or coincidental. 

Aim for fears that hinder the protagonist and their pursuit of the goal, help create conflict, and cause trouble in the novel. Consider your character and ask:
  • What past traumas might affect current behavior?
  • What are they irrationally afraid of?
  • What are they secretly afraid of?
  • What are they publicly afraid of?
  • What fears relate to the current problem?
  • What fears are caused by the overall plot problem?
  • What fears draw on internal conflicts?

Show these character fears in action so readers know they’re a problem. That way, when the protagonist gets close to doing X for plot reasons, readers will worry that fear will cause failure. And of course, sometimes you can swing it the other way and let the protagonist overcompensate for a previous mistake due to fear, and mess things up even more.

Fear is a strong motivator and a relatable weakness for a character. Use it.

(Here’s more on What Makes Your Characters Uncomfortable?) 

2. Their lousy role models.

Prejudice is taught, and your protagonist might have learned terrible lessons about their world.

I use prejudice in the, "unfavorable opinions or preconceived notions" way. Characters can have opinions and ideas that shape who they are and how they think. Some of these ideas are based on bad facts or the opinions of others, and cause them to act in not-so-great-or-smart ways. Some of these traits probably shame them, and they'll go to great lengths to avoid it.

For example, if your heroine had her heart broken by a blue-eyed, blond surfer, she might react badly toward blue-eyed, blond surfer boys when she first meets them. This is useful if you need her to instantly dislike another character for plot reasons and she has no good reason to do so. Starting off on the wrong foot based on prejudice can lead to trouble. Consider your character and ask:
  • What were they taught to dislike or disapprove of as a child?
  • What pushes their buttons?
  • What do they believe that's wrong?
  • What do they believe that's not so nice, but accurate in their world?
  • What do they have no tolerance for?
  • What will they fight about?
  • What are they ashamed of?

Prejudices and biases will affect how your protagonist interacts with their world and the people in it. Take advantage of that.

(Here’s more on The Dysfunctional Home Your Flawed Character Was Raised In) 

3. Their good qualities (yes, really).

Even positive traits can cause problems in the right situation.

For example, tenacity is a useful trait, but refusing to give up no matter what could be quite troublesome if faced with a problem that requires the protagonist to give up to win. Always doing the right thing can work against them if they’re dealing with people who never do what's right. 

Being forced to go against their nature can add wonderful internal conflict to an external goal. (I use this one a lot in The Shifter). Consider your character and ask:
  • What positive trait could become a flaw in the right situation?
  • What positive trait causes just as many problems as it solves?
  • What trait annoys other characters?
  • What trait might be holding the character back?
  • What trait symbolizes the soul of this character?

Don’t forget to look at the darker side of positive traits and strengths. Pushing them too far might be just want a scene needs.

(Here's more on Five Traits to Help You Create Your Character's Personality)

Flaws and weaknesses make characters relatable. They're the little quirks that make characters feel human and real and allow readers to root for them no matter what they do. Remember, not all flaws and weaknesses are bad. Some are endearing traits that make a character all the more likable.

You don't want to make them too flawed though.

Broken is good, but utterly dysfunctional can steal sympathy from a character. It's a bit like being too perfect—someone who always makes the wrong choice and always has things go wrong is just as predictable as always having things work out.

Balance a character’s redeeming qualities with their flaws, so readers never know which side of the character is going to make the next choice. The character might have the potential to make the right decision, but the possibility of messing it up is high.

(Here’s more on Are You Making This Character Flaw Mistake?) 

As you create your characters, don't forget to give them flaws and traits that make them three dimensional. Because after all, nobody's perfect.

Take five minutes and list the flaws and weaknesses of your main characters. Now list where and how they affect or influence the story and plot. Are they enhancing the story or are you missing an opportunity there?

What are some of your favorite character's flaws? What's the best flaw you ever created for your own characters?

*Originally published May 2011. Last updated November 2020.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you: 
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

  13. Janice, I wish you and yours a safe and grateful Thanksgiving; thank you so very much for all the help and guidance you give us.

    1. Thank you! It was lovely, if quiet. I hope yours was wonderful as well.