Being a Better Writer: Character Flaws

Hello readers! Welcome back to Unusual Things and Being a Better Writer! I trust you all had a fairly good weekend?

Mine was nice. Got more done on Fireteam Freelance, including finishing another character interview and getting about halfway through a third. Plotting for the main arc is starting to come together. Once the interviews are done, I believe I’ll have enough planned out to start the first chapter! Which means it’ll show up on the site some time after that … So get ready folks. While I’m not close enough to it yet to want to drop a release date for certain, I’d guess that you’ll all see the first chapter of Fireteam Freelance before LTUE!

Also don’t forget that LTUE is coming! We’re just sixteen days out from one of the best Fantasy and Science-Fiction writing conventions of all time! In fact, this week I’m making a run to my local print shop to get a few things printed up for it (not books, but closely related)! If you’re looking at that acronym in puzzlement, check out the full write-up I did on LTUE and the panels I’ll be at this year, then go check out the official site to secure your registration or find more panels to be at!

70081760_568294170598543_7425837595373862912_oAlso, in that vein, don’t forget that A Dragon and Her Girl, LTUE’s second benefit anthology, launches February 13th and is now available for pre-order! Again, there’s a write-up on the site about it you can go check out if you missed it. Featuring twenty stories from accomplished authors old and new about dragons, heroines, and everything in-between, A Dragon and Her Girl is absolutely something to grab if you’re a fan of any of that! Additionally, proceeds from sales of A Dragon and Her Girl are used to keep attendance prices at LTUE low, specifically the $5 student ticket. So by purchasing a copy you’re helping keep the student admission price to LTUE affordable and cheap! Click on the image to the right and go right to the pre-order page on Amazon!

Okay! That was a lot of news, but hey, there’s a lot coming up in the next few weeks. I all honesty, I probably could have talked about some other stuff as well. But … I’d rather get into this week’s BaBW post! So, let’s talk about character flaws.

Character flaws are one of those areas that seem to be fifty-fifty with a lot of people coming into writing (or even just talking about reading). Or, in other words, you’re either one of those people that gets it, even if you can’t explain why, and understand that yes characters need flaws … Or you’re one of those people who remains utterly baffled that character flaws are something writer and readers think about because they’re a character, not a real person, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to make mistakes (as people should be striving to).

Don’t laugh. I’ve actually heard this sentiment before from readers and new writers. Why give a character flaws? They’re not a real person, and they should be performing at peak efficiency.

Of course, that’s not always the argument. Sometimes it’s “Why give them flaws? That just drags them and the story down.” Or “I read stories to see how great people can be. I don’t need flaws breaking that.”

So on and so forth. Again, these may sound ridiculous to you … or you might be one of the people that’s expressed a similar opinion before. After all, these are things I’ve heard before in writing classes or from people talking about books. People do hold these opinions about character flaws.

But I’d hold that having those views shows that they don’t quite understand the purpose of having those flaws in the first place. Or rather, the statements they make show that they don’t really understand what the goal is with having good character writing. Or, and this was in one case very explicit from one of these people, they didn’t actually care about good character writing and just wanted “a good story.”

Personally? A “good story” in which there are no character flaws probably isn’t going to be much of a “good story.” It might have some good action setpieces, and be entertaining, but will it be a “good story?” I don’t think so.

Okay, so why? What’s so important about giving our characters flaws? Why do they need to be imperfect? For that matter, what sort of flaws should we give them?

In order, then. Let’s talk about why it’s important that we give our characters flaws. We do so, at the core, for one very specific (and good) reason:

People are flawed.

As human beings, we’re not perfect. We can be stuck in our worldview. We can be completely tone-deaf. We can be hypocrites or quick to judge. We can be lousy with computers, or social connections. We can be in poor physical shape because we don’t watch what we eat or exercise enough.

People aren’t perfect. It’s just the way we are. We try (or at least, some of us try), but at the end of the day, we’re imperfect. But here’s the thing about that. Because we’re all imperfect, and we all have these minor or major flaws to us, when we’re confronted with “the perfect character” you know what that makes them by comparison?

Inhuman.

See, we expect people (and characters) to have flaws. Living things do. It’s part of who we are. So when we’re faced with a character that displays no flaws, it’s … off-putting. Alarming. A little weird.

A little difficult to relate to. That doesn’t make it entirely impossible, but very difficult.

Why? Because we all have flaws. We have troubles. We make mistakes. It’s just part of who we are. And we relate to other people in our lives through those flaws and mistakes.

We comfort a child when they fail a test, and push them to do better next time, thinking of our own experiences with failure. We commiserate with a friend when they’re rejected by a job, or by a potential love interest. We watch people make a mistake we know they’re making and hope they’ll learn from it.

All of that? Part of the “human” experience. And whether or not your protagonist is human or some other species, if we don’t give them flaws, the reader looses that connection to the human element.

In other words, if you want to write characters that readers can relate to, you need to give them flaws. Because we, as sapient beings who screw up all the time and have our own little failings, are reassured by and connect with because we’ve experienced similar. As much as we don’t think about it, finding those little flaws in those around us? It reassures us. Strengthens the idea that we’re all experiencing similar things. Someone that’s “perfect” however, doesn’t give us that connection. We find it much more difficult to relate to that character in a story because they don’t share that human element.

So, that’s one reason to have a character with flaws. Note that they don’t have to be massive flaws, nor do they need to be “balanced/” You don’t need to sit down and worry that all the characters aren’t sharing the same “level” of flaws. Nor that they aren’t immediately noticeable. Flaws can be something as simple as always mixing up left and right, or as complicated as “has deep trust issues.” They can be a whole range from little mistakes to big ones.

Nor do they need to be deeply vital to the story. A character’s flaw doesn’t need to be some central point to a plot, or even a subplot. It can just be there, something that pops up from time to time as an aspect of that character. That alone can be something readers connect or even empathize with, a detail that humanizes the character for the reader.

Now, that being said, this isn’t all that a flaw can do for a reader, either. It can also have an impact in the story. And yes, I acknowledge that I said it doesn’t have to be a plot or subplot, and that’s still true. It doesn’t have to be at all. But it can have an influence on the plot! One that can affect pacing or even mood.

For example, say you have a character whose flaw is that they’re impulsive. They act fast, before taking in everything. And then they go into a situation that’s a powder keg, where the reader knows that without considering everything, this impulsive character may light the fuse. And then, as that character goes through the scene, they’re wondering “Will they reign in their impulsiveness in time to keep this from exploding? Or is everything going to explode?” And as the scene edges closer and closer the tension builds, and …

Boom, that’s engaging. And note that it doesn’t have to be a “physical” explosion. It could be. But this could be anything from an actual bang to someone unknowingly (because impulsive) tiptoeing a conversation close to a social landmine.

Or what about a character who has a flaw that they need to overcome in order to escape a situation? Or not even overcome, but grapple with? For example, Jake Tames in Colony has a phobia of water. Not only do readers slowly discover why he has that phobia over the course of the story, but at the end we have a scene where they specifically have to face it in order to help save the day, and every time it threatens to overwhelm them the reader isn’t sure if it will or won’t. Add in a few other elements of the scene and … you’ve got a tense, evocative moment. One that also feels familiar to anyone who has needed to face a phobia before and in turn allows them to further connect with the character.

See? Flaws are powerful tools. An author can use a flaw to do everything from make a character more relatable to drive small moments of tension in the plot. But that’s not all, either.

The last reason that flaws are so vital to a character is that it gives them something to overcome. I’m not saying that all flaws need to be overcome, no, nor that all flaws in a story will be overcome, or even that any will be. But, if an author so chooses, they can have a character overcome a flaw as part of their narrative arc.

For example, a character that’s judgmental and quick to accuse may, over the course of a story, begin to identify this flaw within themselves and work to overcome it. They may not do so entirely, but at the end of the story they may be a little better at it than before and even have some growth to show for it.

Bam, character arc. Or part of one, anyway. But it’s an arc that a lot of people can understand and relate with. Sands, some readers may even look at themselves through the lens of the character and question if they themselves are judgmental and quick to accuse in a similar manner, prompting a minor bit of self reflection that will make the story’s character all the more real.

All right, so then with all this said, how do we go about putting flaws into our characters? What sort of flaws should we choose? How should we develop them? How much weight do we want them to have over the story, or the character?

That’s for you to decide. What obviously wrong answers there are there (such as “all the flaws”) are just that: Obviously wrong. Some flaws don’t mix well, or counteract one another (for example, someone who’s “always impulsive” isn’t likely to also be “indecisive”). And some flaws won’t serve your story well either (such as an action story needing quick decisions having and indecisive character … though if you’re writing a comedy action story, that could change).

What flaws you pick will be up to you, as well what you perceive as a flaw (maybe it becomes a hidden strength). But you need to have them. Not “should.” Need. Flaws are an integral part of who we are as sapient beings. Overcoming them, or learning to control/live with them is as well.

So, to conclude, our characters need flaws to be “human.” To be relatable. Giving a character flaws will make them more like the readers, and in turn give them depth and empathy.

Flaws can also be used to drive small or large elements of scene or story, or add tension, or just character. From an author’s perspective, they’re a tool in the “writing toolbox” that your characters use (or forget about) to a number of effects, from distraction to tension. The possibilities are almost limitless, so have fun! What can you do with a character that’s afraid of birds, for example? Is it a funny note about them, or will you make it a plot point?

Lastly, flaws give our characters directions to grow in. They give them challenges to overcome, sometimes even the flaw itself being something they can conquer … or at least learn to work with. And that’s a great way to set up or spark a character arc. Or even be a full character arc in and of itself.

So, as you set out to write your characters and mold them for your stories, don’t neglect giving them flaws. Make them “human” by figuring out what they’re bad at, or where their bad calls might be. Let them have their failings and work on them, just as each of us do.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Character Flaws

  1. I think that this is a great thing to remember when writing. I am working on a novel and this is something I am really working on. But there is another thing about flaws that I have noticed is that you can’t have that be the character or be to overdone. Many times I have seen bad writing when a characters flaw is used too much. To use an example you brought up is that a character is impulsive so he constantly has to throw himself at the problem even when any little bit of intelligence would tell them not to. Of course this mostly applies to non comedy works since this kind of thing is common in comedy. I have seen times where a character causes problems that are completely unnecessary because they did something completely stupid and the only reason is “well it is because they are impulsive”. A really good example is jar jar from Star Wars. His flaw is that he is clumsy and slavery naive which by it self I would not see is a bad flaw but the problem is that that is the only real thing about his character. Every time he is on screen he is just his flaw. I think that if they had removed or toned down his accent and flaw that he could have actually been a good character. A downtrodden person who is saved from death and pledges to help the one who saved him and travels along as a sidekick and ends up rallying his people to help free their world. Technically that is jar jars character but it cannot be really seen because the only thing people remember about him is that he is that annoying character that is always clumsy.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Spot on Max! Thanks for the reminder.
    I can only think of one Best Seller that has a perfect main character, and even then his patience in dealing with his less than perfect, flawed, and quite relatable human followers keeps it extremely relatable. And even he lost temper, understandably.
    Thank you for posting these blogs. I am really appreciating your insights and pointers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What you say is the best one can say from within the Western tradition, which believes in the concept “perfection”. But it’s still mentally unhealthy, because the notion of perfection is devastatingly unhealthy.

    “Perfection” is not a thing. The concept was invented by Plato, in support of his theory that for every word in the language, there was an eternal transcendent Form describing the perfect version of that category. So every apple was a cheap imitation of the perfect apple, every sunset was a cheap imitation of the perfect sunset, and every person was a cheap imitation of the perfect Man.

    It’s a stupid concept. There is no such thing as the perfect food, and there certainly is no such thing as a perfect person.

    FiM shows an alternative, more Eastern or feminine view: Characters don’t have “flaws”; they have imbalances. Each of the Mane 6 has one great strength, but they have attained this one strength at the expense of other attributes. Individually, they thus rely on their one strength in situations where they shouldn’t.

    If they were more balanced individuals, they’d do better when working on most problems individually. But they wouldn’t have that one great strength. Twilight’s learning would be impossible if she hadn’t sacrificed her social development for it. Rainbow’s competitiveness would suffer if she were as sympathetic as Fluttershy. Applejack’s reliability for getting the job done would suffer if she had Rarity’s perfectionism. There is no “perfect pony”; many different strengths are, beyond some level, incompatible.

    What they do in the show is to learn to act together, as a team, so that each of them can bring their one great strength into play when it’s appropriate. They are thus stronger as a team than would be 6 “perfect” ponies.

    Like

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