Writing Character Flaws: An Article by Joanna Freire.

Hi guys! I’m Joanna, and if you like perfect characters, then this article won’t be for you. I’m here to pile the glory on flawed characters, and how to write convincing ones.

These are the points covered down below:

  • Different types of flaws

  • The consequences of character flaws

  • Flawed characters are okay!

  • So, Joanna, how do I actually write convincing character flaws, then?

Different types of character flaws:

There are the minor ones, such as nail-biting when nervous, or spitting out a glob of phlegm when agitated, or being the cute library mouse without the character realizing they’re actually a beautiful, desired girl. But these don’t really have much consequence on the story itself. Then there are major character flaws, such as being quick-tempered, impulsive, having a lack in sympathy, or inability to forgive. Then you have your tragic flaw. This one ultimately leads to your character’s own demise and or undoing – but only certain types of stories feature this one, as, well, your character will either die because of this flaw (such as being unnecessarily trustworthy, or loyal to the point of jumping off a cliff) or they will end up mad or meet their own defeat.

Either way, only major and tragic character flaws have impact on your plot and other characters, and the reader’s unsuspecting heart. Which leads us to my next point:

The consequences of character flaws

These are of utmost importance, especially when writing convincing character flaws. I have a flaw of rambling almost all the time, so by way of combating that I’m going to tell you my main point here – If the flaw you’ve chosen does not get your character into some sort of trouble, conflict, internal struggle, or external issue, then it’s not a flaw. Honestly can’t tell you what it is, probably more like a wig your character slides on and off when it’s conveniently safe for them to reveal their shiny scalp. So, no, it’s not a flaw if it doesn’t somehow alter the way your co-characters interact with your flawed character, or if it doesn’t at least have a minor influence on your plotline.

Flaws aren’t things your characters can wear like a wig and then throw aside when they need to be “better” for the sake of the plot. Sorry, but if your character is easily agitated every other time, but during a critical meeting is provoked by another character and miraculously keeps their cool, then you’ve written a convenience flaw. Unfortunately, in reality, their flaw will make them explode in anger, they’ll spoil their chance at a successful meeting and ultimately lose out. BUT. This gives your character the chance to learn, to reflect, and you can have a date with character development. The next time your character is in that same situation, provoked by that same character, it’s infinitely more satisfying when they’ve learned to keep their cool because of the consequences of their flaw. It feels natural, it feels real. It brings respect to your character. Why? Because getting over a flaw isn’t easy. And it doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t just go away after the character has conquered it the first time.

A good example to plug here is Kaladin’s character in ‘The Way of Kings’ by Brandon Sanderson. He has quite a terrible character flaw, and he continuously struggles with it even after conquering it the first time. But he doesn’t give up on it, and it makes him so much more interesting and likeable.

A convincing character flaw is like a fly. You’ll swat it away once, you’ll be satisfied, then it’ll return twice as buzzing. So you’ll swat it away again, maybe failing, maybe land a hit, it’ll return, you’ll swat and swat, you might give up and just live with it, or you can swat until you’ve crippled the pest enough that it can’t fly. The bastard will still be crawling, sure, but at least it can’t zip into your hair anymore.

The thing is, flaws rarely go away for good. But your character can develop and learn because that flaw has brought consequences that either hurt them, hurt someone they care for, or has made them lose out on something important. Or they can grow out of the flaw because of circumstances, and maybe even develop a new one because of that circumstance. That’s what it’s about, that’s what a character flaw brings to your story – realism and layers and consequence, which in turn brings stakes to your story, because your readers never know when that flaw will flare up or whether they’ll tame and conquer it. Speaking of which, however terrible this may sound for your character…

Flawed characters are okay!

Have you ever thought that perhaps writing a character with flaws will damage the view your readers will have of them? Or even make them seem unlikeable and annoying? Well, that doesn’t have to be the case. And it usually isn’t. You can write characters who are very flawed, or even just reasonably flawed, but they will come to be some of the most beloved characters. Basically take any character from Game of Thrones and you’ve got a flawed character nailed. Flaws also relate a bit to morally grey-ness, but that’s a tricky thing for me to explain and not a conversation for right now.

Continuing on, here’s how to go about structuring a flawed character: Build up the understanding and sympathy for your character. It’s also about balance. Readers will forgive almost all major character flaws so long as they have connected with your character and can understand their motivation. Granted, some flaws are worse than others – say, a need to eat human flesh (No amount of appealing to my sympathy will ever make me feel okay with this flaw). On the other hand, for example, if a character is genuinely trying to do a good deed, but their impulsiveness gets in the way, the reader has an easier chance of forgiving the character because they can understand where their actions are coming from.

Most readers don’t want perfect characters. Ironically, that’s where your unlikable, arrogant protagonists creep out from, and usually from an abyss of cringe. The eye-roll. The you’re-so-shiny-you’ll-probably-outlive-the-sun, type of character. I bet one of those jumped to mind right now, didn’t they? How much did their no-nuance-perfect-personalitied character ruin the story for you? They feel flat, they feel as flat as the page and the words on it, and it’ll take the train right out of imagination station. This is also a problem for that perfect character, because usually then you’d be forced to write a reactive character instead of an active one, considering the conflict they’d face has to come from external means, and not because of a flaw causing external conflict.

Not that reactive characters are all terrible, and that might even be what you’re after, but if not – then make sure to give Mr. Perfect a tooth ache that makes him speak funny, so when he’s in an argument he can never properly get his words out and or spits on the opposing party. Conflict, there you have it. They have spit on them and he has another missing tooth. [On a side note, character flaws don’t have to be personality related, they can be physical too!]

And then you have your flawed character, who, for example, despite their flaw of drinking too much, is drinking because their family was killed in front of them. You can understand this, and you sympathise with them, and when that character forgoes drinking to instead seek revenge, you cheer them on when they struggle, and you celebrate their victory with them when they exact perfect revenge. With this example, their flaw of drinking isn’t the storyline itself, however it provides an extra layer that the reader can connect with. All of us have internal struggles, right? But when you witness this character dealing with their flaw and overcoming it, wouldn’t it make you feel inspired? Wouldn’t you like them more for enduring and succeeding??? Uhm, yeah, as I was saying…

So, Joanna, how do I actually write convincing character flaws, then?

That’s right! So, to write a convincing character flaw, here are the main points to keep in mind:

  • For your main characters, make sure to choose a major character flaw for them. This includes any flaw that will create conflict with other characters, will influence the plot in some way, will result in some sort of consequence (whether that be emotional or physical). I know I’m being super vague here, but it really depends on your story and your context, so choosing one that’s right for your story is also key.

  • Make sure your character flaw is balanced by their reasonable, understandable side. In other words, make the reader sympathise with them by giving some insight into their motivations. Otherwise, for example, they really will just be annoyingly stubborn without them seeming strong-willed and determined. [And my god can stubborn characters purely for the sake of being stubborn get frustrating. You kind of just want to hurl a chair at them and hope it knocks their brain into proportion].

  • Giving your character a flaw is a good thing! It makes them more realistic, it grounds your character, and overall will make them more endearing. We get to cheer with them when they succeed, and cheer them on when their flaw gets in the way. If they’re perfect, it’s really difficult to sympathise with them because, you know, they can’t struggle with a non-existent flaw. And you might fall into the trap of writing a reactive character.

  • Be careful of convenience flaws, those ones that only show up in your character when there’s no real danger to it influencing the plot or affecting other characters. This might make your reader sit back and think, “Well, that was convenient???” And basically, convenience killed the cat, dog, fish, and parrot, but you don’t want a zoo featuring deceased animals, so make sure your flaws are alive and thriving (until, of course, it’s time to kick them to the curb).

  • Above all, character flaws can introduce some serious character development to any of your characters. It’s really amazing reading about a character overcoming a detrimental flaw, or even a physical one, and it provides another layer of nuance to make your story even more interesting, and your characters all the more lively.

That’s all I’ve got on this topic for now! Thank you so much for giving this a read. And for Madison for giving me the opportunity to be featured on her blog.


Follow Joanna on Instagram: @writer.joannafreire

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