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Wednesday, January 10

Do Your Characters Have the Right Flaws?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

“Characters must have flaws” is one of the cornerstones of fiction. Flaws create more interesting people, they give you the foundations for your character arcs, and they help you write more relatable stories. But just having flaws isn’t enough. You want the right flaws that will best serve your story.

So what are the “right” flaws?

Flaws that help illustrate aspects of the story you want to explore.

The needs of a literary novel will differ from the needs of a romance, and both will differ from what a thriller wants to do. For example:
  • A literary novel might focus on flaws that illustrate the character growth, as growth and internal conflict are typically key to that genre.
  • A romance might focus on the flaws keeping two people apart, as well as the flaws that make them perfect for each other, as comprise and coming together are common to happily ever afters.
  • A thriller might focus on physical flaws that the character needs to overcome to save the day, as learning and outsmarting than the bad guy is instrumental to resolving that type of story.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a literary protagonist with physical flaws, or a romance hero with deep emotional issues, but flaws that don’t serve the story in some way often lead to stories that are hard to write. You just don’t have all the necessary tools for the job. Sure, you might be able to use that wrench as a hammer, but it won’t be as effective.

Here are some things to consider when looking for the right flaws for your characters:

1. What flaws support the novel’s theme?


Your theme is as often-underused resource. This is the concept tying your story together, and it can be a wealth of inspiration on how to develop that story. One of the strongest areas we see theme is in our characters, their flaws, and their character arcs.

If you’re writing a romance between characters with commitment issues, “Failure to commit” can be the guiding idea in the novel. Good flaws might be someone who always cancels plans at the last minute, or never follows through once they start something.

Think about your theme and your characters: What flaws cause or affect their behavior? What past issues caused this flaw? How will this flaw show an aspect of the theme? Which flaws will help character growth? Which flaws will cause internal conflict? External conflict?

(Here’s more on how to develop your theme)

2. What flaws will keep the character from making good choices?


Plots are about the choices the characters make, and if they always make the right choices, odds are the story will feel flat. Flaws are a great way to give your characters reasons to mess up when they need to, keeping the plot unpredictable and interesting for the reader.

If you’re writing a thriller, a character might have problems with authority, which causes him to question his superiors or ignore their directives. He might do what he thinks is best, even when he’s wrong.

Think about the choices your character needs to make: What flaws might make those choices more difficult? What flaws might prevent the character from making the right choice at all? Are their any flaws that would make it impossible for the character to make a decision?

(Here’s more on how your characters can screw up their decisions)

3. What flaws will cause the character the most pain?


My personal motto is, “What doesn’t kill my characters makes them more interesting,” so this is a favorite of mine. Characters who bring about their own problems by their own actions are a lot of fun to write. They bring delightful internal conflict to a story, and give you plenty of opportunities to get them into trouble and them back out of it again.

If you’re writing a literary novel about a character who is her own worst enemy, these are great flaws to develop. Someone who acts against her best interests will have flaws that prevent her from being happy, and may even be self-destructive in nature. Behaviors and views might cloud her judgment or make it impossible for her to see what’s really going on in her life.

Think about what will hurt your character: Are there flaws that developed as a result of this pain? Did a flaw cause this pain? Are there unconscious flaws leading to painful situations or outcomes the character is trying to avoid by doesn’t know how?

(Here’s more on developing character flaws)

Flaws don’t always lead to suffering and bad choices, so it’s a good idea to also consider the flaws that bring out the best in your characters.

4. What flaws will lead the character to true happiness or success?


Positive flaws are often quirks or traits that show off a character’s personality. These are usually the reasons readers like them, and are the things that keep the character pushing on even when all hope appears lost.

Refusing to think about tomorrow could be a flaw that allows a character to focus on the present and not worry about things she can’t do anything about. Irresponsibility or impulsiveness might be just the things that make the character appealing to a love interest who feels trapped by life and doesn’t see a way out. Forgetfulness so bad the character is forced to write everything down could be the reason the bad guy gets caught.

Think about the flaws that lead the character to success: What traits will put the character where they need to be (physically or emotionally) to win? What flaws create happiness, even though it causes trouble somewhere else? What flaws do other characters appreciate or find endearing?

(Here are five ways to fix too-perfect characters)

5. What flaws will make the character likable or relatable to readers?


If readers can’t relate to, like, or be fascinated by a character they won’t read about them. “I didn’t care about the character” is a common reason stories get rejected. But flaws make characters human, and even if a reader doesn’t know what it’s like to be an alien from the planet Xerp, they do know what it’s like to be lonely, or scared, or feel like no one really understand what they’re going through.

Universal flaws can connect characters to readers no matter who they are or where they’re from. Pretty much everyone can relate to acting tough when inside you’re dying, or pushing people away because you don’t want to get hurt, or not taking something seriously because you want to avoid a painful truth.

Think about how your character is like everyone else: What are the common flaws they might share with readers? How might those flaws make them seem more human? What are possible flaws that will make readers accept them, even if they’re not the nicest character?

(Here’s more on ways to make a character likable)

Character flaws are wonderful tools for developing a strong story, so don’t ignore them when creating yours. They help bring depth and flavor to the plot, making it about more than just what a character does. Flaws make us human, and readers love a character because of their flaws.

What flaws do your characters have? What are some of your favorite flaws to write? To read?

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My 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. 


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 her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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