You have a brilliant novel idea.
You have an epic plot and a compelling cast of characters. But everyone who reads your writing says the same thing…
“Your characters are boring.” “I just can’t relate to them.” “They don’t really interest me.”
Don’t worry. This is a common problem for beginning writers and it comes with a simple solution.
Give your characters flaws.
That’s right. One of the best things you can do to solve this dilemma is to provide your character with a flaw.
It’s not at all unusual to completely forget about character flaws when you dive right into writing a story. In all the excitement, the thought of giving your character faults and imperfections can get lost in all the chaos, leaving you with an unrealistic, unrelatable protagonist.
However, this is an easy fix! Taking the time to learn about character flaws and the pieces you’ll need to craft a sympathetic and lifelike character will help you significantly in the process of choosing your character’s flaws. Choose your faults wisely and your readers will love your characters, both for their strengths and for the flaws that make them that much more endearing.
Once you discover the importance of character flaws and the basic steps you need to take when it comes to determining their flaws, you’ll soon be able to see the big picture and you’ll have a fantastic character lying among your pages.
Why Character Flaws Are Important
Character flaws are essential for several reasons.
First of all, flaws make your character interesting. Well-crafted character flaws intrigue your reader, make him root for your character, and keep him reading until the end to find out what happens. Additionally, no one likes a perfect character, so character flaws serve to make your character more realistic.Every person deals with his own struggles, so character flaws will also often help make a character more relatable for the reader.
Character flaws are necessary for character arcs as well; if your character isn’t flawed, then there is no room for him to grow and change. Character flaws also help to generate both internal and external content, which are vital to a story. Flaws can influence a character’s words, actions, and decisions, causing conflict with others, or they can influence his thoughts and desires, causing conflict within himself.
Furthermore, character flaws can influence the plot. When a character has a flaw, his flaw tends to affect how he reacts and responds to other people and situations, which in turn impacts the plot and can send your character into a spiral of facing the repercussions of his choices.
Finally, character flaws often reveal your theme. The message of your story is often revealed by your character overcoming the major flaw that hinders him throughout the course of his journey.
All of these reasons clearly explain the importance of character flaws, but what exactly is a character flaw?
What is a character flaw?
A character flaw is simply what makes the character human. It’s an imperfection, a weakness, or a limitation that causes the character to be flawed.
Character flaws are something that every person and, therefore, every character, has. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small imperfection, such as a bad habit of biting his nails, or a major fault, such as pride; everyone has a flaw.
As with many things in life, character flaws can be separated into more defined, detailed categories. Let’s dig a little deeper into the different types of character flaws.
Minor character flaws
These kinds of character flaws are often overlooked because they’re seemingly unimportant. Minor character flaws are small, maybe even insignificant, character imperfections.
While minor character flaws may not often affect the story in a substantial way, these types of flaws are helpful for creating realistic characters, because every lovable character has those little quirks that are specific and unique to him.
Examples of this type of character flaw include the following:
- Being bad at driving
- A physical imperfection, such as a birthmark, or a scar
- Always cracking his knuckles
- A knack for reading that can sometimes get the character into trouble
- Social awkwardness
- Being a picky eater
One example of a minor character flaw in a work of literature is visible in the main character, Sophie, from Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities book, as follows:
“A rock moved under her foot and she fell into Fitz’s arms. “Sorry,” she whispered, knowing her face was almost as red as her dress.
Fitz shrugged. “I’m used to it. My sister, Biana, is clumsy too.”
Major character flaws
Major flaws are generally the faults that can make or break a character. These flaws can affect your character’s life and may determine whether or not your character will reach his goals. Major character flaws generally play a role in conflict throughout the story; they have the special ability to drive the plot and significantly affect your character’s arc.
These flaws can be mental, emotional, behavioral, or even moral, and may prove to be a serious hindrance to the character throughout the events of the story. Major flaws limit characters in significant ways, however, the traits that these faults stem from aren’t always necessarily negative.
In some cases, even a character’s good qualities can become a major flaw when applied in the wrong way. For example, honesty can become a flaw when a character is always telling others exactly what he thinks with no regard for how his words will affect those he interacts with.
Even a positive trait can become a major flaw. If a certain good trait encourages a character to make choices that will lead to a disastrous outcome, it is considered a major character flaw, and may be the source of the character’s eventual downfall.
Major character flaws play a big part in making the character who he is and they often drive the story’s main conflict.These flaws can cripple your character and dominate his character arc, the main plot, or both.
Major flaws are the faults that can lead to the character’s destruction if he doesn’t learn how to overcome them. A character with a major character flaw may bring about his own downfall– or even his own death– if he doesn’t conquer that flaw throughout the course of the story.
Some other examples of major character flaws include the following:
- Phobias, such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia.
- Mental conditions
- Excessive insecurity
- Lack of self-control
- Excessive ambition
- Extreme recklessness
A literary example of a major character flaw is Johnny Tremain, whose fault is arrogance, from Esther Forbes’ book, Johnny Tremain.
“Since his accident he had unconsciously taken to wearing his hat at a rakish angle. This, and the way he always kept his right hand thrust into his breeches pocket, gave him a slightly arrogant air. The arrogance had always been there, but formerly it had come out as pride in his work—not in the way he wore his hat and walked.”
Another example of a major character flaw seen in a work of literature is the character Annabeth Chase, whose flaw is pride, from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Sea of Monsters.
“I want you to do me a favor,” Annabeth said. “The Sirens… we’ll be in range of their singing soon.”
I remembered stories about the Sirens. They sang so sweetly their voices enchanted sailors and lured them to their death.
“No problem,” I assured her. “We can just stop up our ears. There’s a big tub of candle wax below deck–”
“I want to hear them.”
I blinked. “Why?”
“They say Sirens sing the truth about what you desire. They tell you things about yourself you didn’t even realize. That’s what’s so enchanting. If you survive…you become wiser. I want to hear them. How often will I get that chance?”
…. She pulled her blanket around her.”My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.”
4 Steps to Giving Your Characters the Right Flaws
Now that we’ve gone through the reasons why character flaws are important, we’ll talk about how to supply your character with the right flaw.
It’s very important to make sure you give your character the right flaw. Weaknesses aren’t just something where you can just look at a list, pick one, and throw it on the page.
Choosing flaws for your character takes a lot of thought and time. Sometimes it can be difficult, but it’s certainly worth it when it comes to crafting an unforgettable character.
1. Consider your character.
What kind of flaw fits your character?
This may seem obvious, but it’s something that can’t be overlooked.
Think about your character and consider what flaw fits him and his personality. Take some time to get to know your character if you need to. Learn about his life, his background, his experiences, his interests, and his fears. Doing so should help you discover your character and find out what character flaw best fits him.
The flaw you choose for your character needs to fit. It wouldn’t work if you had a character who’s supposed to be extremely quiet have a major flaw of talking too much, or a character who’s supposed to be giving to others throughout your story have a flaw of selfishness.
But what do you do when the flaw you decide on doesn’t feel quite right? The simple answer is, change it.
If you know your character well enough, you might be able to tell when something doesn’t feel like it fits him. And that’s a good thing. Listen to that feeling.
Give your character a flaw that fits him; it’s one of the best things you can do.
2. Think about your theme.
Another thing to consider as you work on choosing your character’s flaw is your theme.
Your character’s flaws play a big part in revealing your message. Oftentimes, the theme of a story tends to be centered around the character learning to overcome his major fault. Character arcs stem from your character’s flaws and these arcs are tightly interwoven with your theme, revealing the true message of your story.
As you write, think about what you want to teach your reader through your story and determine how you can best weave in this theme, using your character’s flaws to support it.
3. Plan your plot.
Your character’s flaw will influence the plot through the choices your character makes and create conflict for both himself and others.
As you outline and plan the plot of your story, you’ll want to determine how your character’s flaw affects him as he’s faced with important decisions, and how that fault influences his choices, thoughts, and words.
Your character’s flaws will also affect those around him through both his actions and his words. Additionally, one character’s faults always have the potential to cause conflict with another character as their flaws clash and their imperfections impact their responses to each other.
In all of these ways, a character’s flaw has the ability to impact the plot in significant ways, so it’s vital to figure out how the flaw you’ve picked for your character affects your story to decide if it is a good fit.
Remember your theme as you plan your project and ask yourself these two questions. First, does your character’s chosen flaw fit into the plot easily and realistically? And, secondly, do your protagonist’s flaws help emphasize the themes you want to showcase in your story?
If you answer “no” to either, or both of these questions, then you may have to rethink the flaw you’re considering for your character. But if your answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes”, then you’re ready to move on to the next step!
Outlining your novel is a good way to help you determine how your character’s flaw fits into the story and if the flaw you’ve chosen for your character is a good fit. Even just a basic outline to determine the plot will serve you well, as long as you remember to consider your character’s flaw and its influence.
A character’s faults will affect what choices he makes and can create major conflict, so keeping this in mind as you figure out your plot is definitely a good idea.
4. Determine your character’s development.
Determining how your character develops throughout the course of the story is an important factor to consider as you choose his character flaw.
Think about how your character is at the beginning of your story. Then think about how they’ve changed by the end. How does your character change as the story progresses? What events cause, or force this change? How does the character deal with all of this change? How much has your character changed by the time we reach the end of the story and will this change last?
Thinking through and answering these questions will help you nail down your character’s flaw, since a character’s flaw is what they learn to work through and overcome throughout the course of the story.
Choosing Minor Character Flaws
So far, we’ve talked about how to choose major and fatal character flaws for your character, but minor flaws are necessary as well. It’s important to have both minor flaws and major flaws; you can’t just have one. So how do you go about choosing minor character flaws?
In this case, minor flaws are really a matter of preference and how you imagine your character. Minor character flaws are quirks that bring your character to life and make him distinct and unique from other characters. Choosing minor flaws for your character is an area where you have much more freedom.
With that in mind, though, there are a couple of things you should consider when choosing your character’s minor flaws.
First off, you’ll want to follow the step we mentioned earlier, considering your character. The possibilities for minor flaws are limitless but you’ll still want to think about whether a certain flaw will fit with the picture of the character that you have in your mind. Does that flaw help portray your character the way you want him to be shown? Does it influence his personality in the right way? Even minor character flaws will shape how your reader sees your character in his mind, so it’s important that you choose them wisely.
Additionally, you’ll want to think about how this minor flaw might affect your story. Minor flaws won’t often have a significant effect on the plot or your story as a whole, but they can still have an impact on a certain scene, or can influence a relationship between two characters.
No matter what you choose for your character’s minor flaw, you’ll want to make sure you portray it in the most accurate and interesting way possible.
Show Your Character’s Flaws
Once you’ve figured out your character’s flaws, it’s important to keep them in the back of your mind as you write. It’s up to you to know how those specific flaws will influence your character’s decisions, actions, and speech. Finally, all you have to do now is showcase those flaws in what your character does, says, and thinks.
As we writers often say, show, don’t tell. This lets the reader see what’s happening for themselves instead of just telling them what’s going on. When it comes to character flaws, you want to do the same exact thing; show us your character’s flaws, don’t just straight out tell us what his flaws are.
Show your character’s faults so that your readers can see them in action, their effects, and the conflict they cause.
Description is a powerful tool in showing instead of telling. Even details that seem minor can reveal something about your character, whether it’s his backstory, a hobby, an interest, or a character flaw. Utilizing description in your writing will help you exceedingly in showing your character’s flaws.
When writing, think about whether your character’s flaws will affect anything happening during that scene. Remember, these flaws are a part of your character; anything he thinks, says, or does can be influenced by them. Even motivations can be rooted in certain flaws.
With this in mind, there are many prime examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ in relation to character flaws that are visible in great works of literature, such as C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Here are excerpts from each of these novels so you can see this principle in action.
In C.S. Lewis’ first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie, the brother of Lucy Pevensie, the protagonist, exhibits traits of selfishness and jealousy through the way he treats his siblings and his actions throughout the novel. The following excerpt from his book shows exactly what I’m talking about:
“It is a lovely place, my house,” said the Queen. “I am sure you would like it. There are whole rooms full of Turkish Delight, and, what’s more, I have no children of my own. I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I am gone. While he was Prince he would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long; and you are the cleverest and handsomest young man I’ve ever met. I think I would like to make you the Prince– some day when you bring the others to visit me.”
“Why not now?” said Edmund. His face had become very red and his mouth and fingers were sticky. He did not look either clever or handsome, whatever the Queen might say.
“Oh, but if I took you there now,” said she, “I shouldn’t see your brother and your sisters. I very much want to know your charming relations. You are to be the Prince and–later on– the King; that is understood. But you must have courtiers and nobles. I will make your brother a Duke and your sisters Duchesses.”
“There’s nothing special about them,” said Edmund, “and, anyway, I could always bring them some other time.”
Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice exhibits the fatal flaw of pride, in both his words and his actions.
“Which do you mean?” and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
Lastly, in Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, the protagonist, Jo March, is extremely blunt and says exactly what she thinks, which tends to cause later conflict. She frequently loses her temper, which is her main flaw.
“Amy got no farther, for Jo’s hot temper mastered her, and she shook Amy till her teeth chattered in her head, crying in a passion of grief and anger…
“You wicked, wicked girl! I never can write it again, and I’ll never forgive you as long as I live.” Meg flew to rescue Amy, and Beth to pacify Jo, but Jo was quite beside herself, and with a parting box on her sister’s ear, she rushed out of the room up to the old sofa in the garret, and finished her fight alone.”
In summary, these works of literature are outstanding examples of the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle; in studying them, you can learn quite a bit about showing your character’s flaws in your writing, rather than just explicitly stating what his flaw is.
If you are unfamiliar with these exceptional books, I highly recommend that you take the time to read through them in order to further see the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ in action.
Your Character’s Flaws Are Critical To Your Story
We’ve talked a lot about character flaws, what they are, why they’re important, and what to think about when you’re working on determining your character’s flaws.
When thinking about character flaws, it’s important to remember that flaws serve to help create a realistic, interesting, dynamic character. They also majorly influence the plot and reveal the theme of your story.
And, instead of straight out telling your reader what your character’s major flaw is, it’s always best to show them through your writing and let your reader figure it out on his own.
I know this is a lot to think about when it comes to giving your character a flaw. It may seem like a daunting task, but break it down step-by-step, and you’ll finish the process with an intriguing character, an interesting plot, and a timeless theme.
You’re now fully equipped with knowledge of character flaws, what they are, why they matter, and how to use this tool of character flaws to its fullest extent. Now it’s time for you to implement it.
To help you in your endeavors, check out our character motivation guide specifically created to help you as you go about developing your character and discovering his flaws.