How many people do you know who are perfect? No one’s perfect. We all have flaws – many of them. So characters in fiction need flaws too. Creating a flaw which works can be a real challenge, especially if you’re new to writing fiction.
While all characters are based on aspects of their creator, if you’re a new writer you’ll create characters who are Mary Sues or Marty Stus: idealized people, representations of yourself, and your counterpart of the opposite sex.
To avoid this, focus on a character’s flaw.
Tip: in your first draft, just write. A flaw may emerge naturally from the character – he’s hot-tempered, speaks without thinking, and is dismissive of others’ emotions. She’s too self-centered: she sees everyone in terms of herself.
If your flaw doesn’t emerge naturally, create one in in your second draft.
The Younger Your Character Is, the Easier It Is to Create a Flaw Which Works.
Rita Henuber writes:
I feel the younger the character, the more they have to learn and the more flaw possibilities. Consider the cattle baron’s only child, a daughter, comes home from her first semester of college and announces she is now vegetarian and the family are murderers. What’s her flaw? She’s immature and wants to fit in with her college boy friend’s group who are anti everything.
The older a character, the harder it is to make him/ her sympathetic despite a flaw, because that flaw is part of the character. Few people change in any fundamental way once they’re in their 30s and beyond. Their character is set: that’s just the way they are.
Your readers can empathize with a man who’s hot-tempered in his 20s, and gets in trouble because of that. Once he’s in his 30s, that flaw probably won’t work, unless he’s well aware of it, and is actively trying to change.
Consider my favorite character, Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett has many flaws; she should be a deeply unsympathetic character. When Gone With the Wind begins, Scarlett is just 16. She’s engaging, and readers forgive her flaws. By the end of the book, readers forgive Scarlett again – why? One reason. Scarlett never, ever gives up. She’s the ultimate in strong characters, and readers love strong characters.
Scarlett has a lot in common with Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe – both are strong, and deeply flawed characters.
Character Flaws in Genres: Be Wary of Creating Stereotypes.
I read a lot of romance fiction, especially Regency romances. In Regency romances, the rake is a staple. He’s young, he’s wild. Readers forgive him this flaw because he had a horrible childhood, and never knew love. The heroine teaches him to love, and he’s suddenly reformed, because of his love for the heroine.
In mystery fiction, you have the flawed detective. He’s a sensitive soul, who drinks because he’s seen too much of the dark side of life. If you make your character an alcoholic, he stops drinking for a reason. Something means more to him than alcohol. Make sure that he stops drinking by around chapter three, after you’ve set up your plot.
What are common character flaws in the genre in which you’re writing? Read. You’ll soon spot them. Be aware that if you choose a character flaw which is common in your genre, your character may become a stereotype. Brainstorm, and find ways to avoid that.
Choose Your Favorite Flaw.
Try to make your main characters and their flaws complementary. Consider the characters of David Huxley and Susan Vance in the old movie, Bringing up Baby. David’s a calm scientist, Susan is energetic and confident. They’re pretty much opposites – he’s struggling for money, she’s wealthy, and so on.
Play a series of “what if” games, if you can’t decide on a flaw, or if one doesn’t emerge naturally.
Character Flaws Are Fun to Write.
Character flaws can make your short story or novel. I enjoy creating cynical, snarky characters, and characters with a short fuse. Think about your favorite story characters, and their flaws.
Your characters’ flaws make them memorable too.
Consider Tom Ripley. Lovely man, shame he’s a murderer. Or Walter Mitty, who lives in fantasy. Or David Brent, of The Office fame. David’s totally oblivious to his effect on others.
In summary, characters in fiction need flaws. Flaws are fun to create, and they can make your characters truly memorable.
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Updated: April 25, 2018
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