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Friday, July 21

Broken, but Still Good: 3 Ways to Create 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 where I heard this, but it always stuck with me.

This is even more important when it comes to characters. The flaws are what allows our characters to make the mistakes and bad choices that lead to compelling plots. But picking just any old flaw isn't going to cut it. Who cares if the protagonist can't cook if cooking never matters to the story? It's important to choose flaws that add to the overall novel.

I have three favorite "categories" of flaws when I'm creating characters--what scares them, what makes them mad, and what doesn't always work in their favor. Choosing one from each category helps me create rounded and relateabe characters who don't come across as "too perfect" Mary Sue or Gary Stu.

(Here's more on creating too perfect characters)

1. Give them fears: What are they afraid of?

Fears are great flaws to play with, because you can use them as excuses for your characters to make the wrong decision or even act out of character. Everyone is afraid of something, even if it's irrational (and these are often the best kinds of fears). Unless it's the point of the novel, you probably don't want to make it the exact thing your protagonist has to face to win (you don't want to be too convenient or coincidental), but a fear that hinders the protagonist in pursuit of the goal can help create conflict and trouble in the novel. Consider:
  • 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?

It's fun to show these character flaws in action, because when the protagonist gets close to doing X for plot reasons, the reader can see she's probably going to mess it up due to this fear. They'll worry, because they can see it coming, but hope she'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 the protagonist overcompensate for a previous mistakes, and mess things up even more.

(Here's more on how a character's dysfunctional past can affect their flaws)

2. Give them prejudices: What makes them angry?

I use prejudice in the more classic sense of, "unfavorable opinions or preconceived notions" than the more common "racist" way. We all have opinions and ideas that shape who we are and how we think. Some of these ideas are based on bad facts or the opinions of others, and cause us to act in not-so-great-or-smart ways. Some of these traits shame us, and we'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 great for when you need your protagonist to instantly dislike another character for plot reasons and she has no good reason to do so. Starting off on the wrong foot can lead to all kinds of trouble. Consider:
  • 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?

(Here's more on what a character is ashamed of)

3. Give them strong traits: What traits do they have that don't always work in their favor?

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). Consider:
  • 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?
(Here's more on developing your character's personality)

Flaws help make characters relatable. It's the little quirks that make them feel human and real and allow readers to relate to them and root for them no matter what they do. Remember, not all flaws 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. You want to balance the redeeming qualities with the 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.

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.

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

Find out more about characters 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 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.

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.