Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Are You Making This Character Flaw Mistake?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

“Give your characters flaws” is one of the more common pieces of writing advice out there. It’s good advice, as flaws make characters more human and relatable, and the fatal flaw is a critical part of any character arc, but many writers make an easy mistake when creating them.

They think flaws have to be negative traits.

In many stories, the flaw is a negative trait that must be overcome, but it’s not always the case. And when it isn’t, the belief that all flaws are “bad” can cause a lot of frustration for a writer trying to find a plausible reason why the protagonist has a negative flaw that fits the plot, story, and character arc.

A good example here is the flaw in my current WIP—my protagonist cares about people too much.

Wait…what? Did you say she cares? How could that possibly be a flaw?

Well, she’s an undercover spy, and caring about the people she’s spying on is a bit of an issue. She’s not supposed to care, and this makes her mission a heck of a lot harder.

And that’s the key to a great character flaw—

It makes the protagonist’s goal harder to accomplish.

Using positive and negative traits opens up a lot more opportunities for interesting flaws for your characters. They don’t have to be bad behaviors, as long as they hinder the protagonist in some way. For example:

Trusting others is a bad trait for someone surrounded by people she can’t trust

Generosity is dangerous if the character is exposed to people eager to take advantage of him

Self-sacrifice can create a lot of heartache for someone who never puts themselves first—even when they ought to

(Here’s more on ways to fix too perfect characters)

Widen your scope and consider the positive aspects of a character and how those traits might interfere with their goals.

Key Things to Think about When Creating Character Flaws

The best flaws aren’t usually random ones chosen before the story is developed. They play into the plot and character arc, and are picked for the trouble they’ll cause in the story. Whether your flaw is a positive or negative trait, choose ones that will also aid your plot and serve your story.

1. What trait would make their goals harder to accomplish?

Look at the things they need to do in the story and the people they’ll be interacting with. What traits would benefit these tasks? Now, consider traits that are the opposite of those as possible flaws. If they need to be clever, perhaps let them be a bit dense. If they need to have a thick skin, make them sensitive and compassionate.

(Here's more on finding the right flaws for your characters)

2. What trait would cause emotional problems with what they need to do?

This is a fun place for a flaw for any character struggling to maintain a facade or external persona, but inside is a totally different person. Acting tough when you’re gentle, being dumb when you’re smart, pretending you don’t care when you absolutely do—forcing someone to “live a lie” through their flaw has great story potential.

3. What trait would force them to change how they approach their problems or tasks?

Different problems require different approaches, so if you need your protagonist to manipulate others to achieve a goal, making him honest to a fault will be a problem for him. Traits that force a character out of her comfort zone is a good way to add additional conflict and tension to a scene, as well as put the character is a tough bind.

(Here’s more on ways to create character flaws)

4. What trait is holding them back from being happy?

This is particularly vital in Person versus Self conflicts, when the whole point of the story is to get the protagonist to overcome their fatal flaw and be happy. While these types of flaws do tend to be more self-destructive, a positive trait that makes a character miserable is an interesting twist on the idea.

5. What trait works with the character arc?

The character arc chosen typically suggests the right flaws for that character. If they need to learn generosity, odds are they’ll be selfish or greedy. If they need to learn to stand on their own, odds are they’ll be meek or non-confrontational in some way.

(Here’s more on creating character arcs)

Flawed characters create a deeper and richer story, and they’re usually a lot more fun to write. They have more ways and opportunities to screw up, cause trouble, and just make a mess of everything. Which is what every great plot needs.

Character flaws can come in many forms, so don’t be afraid to expand your search when developing your characters.

What are some of your favorite character flaws? What positive traits can you think of that would be good flaws?

Find out more about creating conflict and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

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. Love your blog and your books. Thanks for the great article.

  2. I love the idea of positive traits that are flaws in certain situations. The first example that comes to my mind is Hermione Granger, who often suffers for being 'too' smart. I also love when characters have negative character traits that turn out to be strengths. His Dark Materials has some of my favorite examples of those. Lyra is often dishonest, classically negative, but it's often vital to the good things she does, as when she saves Iorek from the other armoured bears. Lyra's mother is an even more extreme example. For most of the series, she is evil in a whole bunch of ways, but at the very end, it is precisely her evil that allows her to save Lyra.

    1. Great examples. Flaws aren't always bad, even when they're "bad."

  3. Excellent advice. I've always liked the idea that the best weaknesses are simply strengths the character relies on at the wrong time.

    1. What a fabulous idea and way to put that. It's so true.

  4. My MC has obedience issues... she would rather obey someone telling her to do something she shouldn't than confront them about it. She's too obedient for a girl living with someone who wants to destroy her.

    1. Nice! If you haven't seen or read Ella Enchanted yet, you might pick it up. She was given the "gift of obedience" by a fairy godmother and it caused her all kinds of trouble. Could be a nice reference for you to see how that's been handled. :)

  5. I've come full circle, starting with a heavily plot driven sci fi adventure to one of a man coming to terms with the inability to connect emotionally (who still has to kick some alien butt). Thank you Janice for helping me think through that challenge. Your book on Conflict has arrived, and that too, will be a big help!

    1. Most welcome :) Thank you for giving me the idea for this article. Your story has come a long way, so keep up the good work!