Timeless, beloved fictional characters have flaws that make them accessible and believable. Even superheroes.
And while a lead character’s flaw or weakness might be major, it doesn’t have to be. It could be a simple lack of patience or an annoying sense of self-importance. Indiana Jones had a major aversion to snakes. In short, you want flaws with which readers can identify.
Such blind spots and weaknesses can do more than just round out characters and make them more realistic. They can also create depth, reveal personality, disposition, temperament, and give your hero realistic motivations.
If every character were perfect and personalities never clashed, little would happen in your story.
Even if your setting is a most outlandish fantasy world, flawed characters become people readers believe could actually exist.
Understanding Character Flaws
We all deal with our weaknesses everyday, so believable characters should as well.
Every challenge your protagonist faces builds new muscles (inner and outer) that equip them to become heroic in the end.
Character flaws function as obstacles your character must somehow overcome.
Whatever the flaw, it should impede your character. Part of your character’s growth should involve his effort to overcome it.
How Character Flaws Make Your Story Better
Flaws drive conflict, the engine of fiction
Conflict is the engine of fiction, and character flaws can fuel that engine. Remember Detective Lieutenant Columbo and his bumbling repetitious questions? Often those irritated his suspects so much that they blurted things they regretted.
Internal conflict involves mental, spiritual, or emotional battles characters face that also make them relatable to readers.
How does your hero react when the going gets tough—not just to outside forces, but also to those within himself?
Competing desires, moral quandaries, mental health battles, insecurity, confusion, self-doubt—internal conflict affects not only how he sees himself, but also often his relationships.
Internal conflict can also help characters deal with habits that hold them back.
So, how do we reveal that struggle to readers?
Organically through the story.
How in real life do you know something is off with a close friend or romantic partner? Are they quieter than usual? Is their temper shorter?
You can reveal the mounting internal tension in your protagonist in the same way—through odd behavior, poor choices, or strained interactions.
While your character may fight an outside power, sometimes his greatest threat comes from within.
External conflict is simply an outside force that a character must overcome to achieve his goal.
For example, a character whose weakness is a literal lack of strength struggles with physical obstacles.
Flaws can serve to heighten drama
Character defects not only create conflict but also raise the stakes.
Phobias must be faced to demonstrate growth in the face of adversity.
Fear can also work against a character.
Captain Hook, the villain in the Peter Pan stories, is terrified of a crocodile that has swallowed a clock. A clock ticking fills him with horror. Peter Pan exploits this in a pivotal fight.
Flaws help reinforce your theme
Character faults can drive home the moral of your story when a character’s defects create conflict that ends up hurting them or others, eliminating the need for moral commentary made throughout a novel.
This can showcase character growth (which I discuss below) or serve as a foil against other characters.
Conversely, a character’s strengths can expose weaknesses in others. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket is the only golden ticket winner who isn’t greedy. Meanwhile, the other children pursue their selfish desires, resulting in terrible consequences.
The other children’s flaws highlight Charlie’s humility.
Flaws create character arcs
Weaknesses give characters the chance to become better.
Realistic redemptive character arcs come from characters who believably change.
Paint your character with serious—but not disgusting—flaws so your readers will still root for them.
However, not every character arc results in a change for the better. Not only can you show a character overcoming their flaws, but you could also show them suffering because of them.
While every well-rounded character should have flaws, render your protagonist with offenses worthy of atonement—like pride, selfishness, cowardice, or anger—not with whining or hygienic issues.
That way your character remains empathetic, despite their shortcomings.
Create believable motivations for their actions—including their flaws. What has made them the way they are and justifies—at least in their mind—their choices?
Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is the epitome of this.
He’s introduced as a curmudgeonly loner but in the end becomes compassionate and charitable. By the Christmas ghosts revealing his past, readers come to understand how Scrooge lost himself to greed.
Flaws Highlight Strengths
Which flaws should your character have?
Start by examining their positive traits.
Is he the prototypical savvy businessman who fails in his personal relationships?
Or is he the archetypical rebel who passionately fights oppressive regimes but alienates others not as committed to the cause?
Often a person’s strength can also be their weakness. For example, the forthrightness and decisiveness of a leader can make him seem blunt and too direct with his friends.
Katniss Everdeen’s selflessness makes her a heroine, valuing the lives of others over her own. But the only way to survive the Hunger Games is to prioritize her own survival.
Types of Flaws
Quirks may merely annoy other characters, but they can also add subtle depth to your protagonist.
Your character may be forgetful, or have a temper, or exhibit an overactive sweet tooth.
In the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger presents as a know-it-all who often rubs people the wrong way, without creating huge problems.
Her flaw sets her apart as studious and academic while creating tension between her and her friends.
Major flaws naturally have more influence on your story.
These can include pride or greed, a character isolating from society, exhibiting intense anger, or anything that profoundly affects the surrounding cast.
In Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Kaz Brekker feels an overwhelming need for revenge, causing him to put his closest allies in danger.
The most extreme character defects have fatal consequences for either your character or someone close to them.
Many Greek tragedies utilize fatal flaws, such as the story of Icarus. Because of his hubris and desire to ascend to greater heights, his wings melt, resulting in his death.
Such flaws can prompt the journey your hero may take (Patrick Jane’s pride in The Mentalist) or lead to an unfortunate end (Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy in The Great Gatsby).
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
1. Flaws must serve a purpose
Issues that many readers can identify with can, because of their universality, come off as clichés.
Rather, use character defects to craft realistic characters. Just beware of two-dimensional characters made up of just their flaws. Even villains need to be more than just the sum of their evil deeds.
Pride can demonstrate that your character is flawed, but if they’re known only for being pompous, they might come across as gimmicky.
2. Don’t make flaws deal breakers.
Weaknesses should be identifiable but not irredeemable (a wimp, a scaredy cat, a slob, a dunce, or a doofus).
While readers might eventually forgive a cowardly character who ends up saving the day, it’s harder to forgive a character who’s done something truly despicable.
Remember: you want your audience to root for your protagonist.
3. Show, don’t tell
Character flaws should be introduced subtly, not with every other character saying, “You’re selfish.”
Introduce the flaw early on, as opposed to blindsiding the reader just to set up a plot point.
Examples of Character Flaws
- Hermione Granger’s intellectual superiority in the Harry Potter series
- Lily Bart’s impulsivity in The House of Mirth
- Linus Baker’s close-mindedness in The House in the Cerulean Sea
- Nick Miller’s laziness in New Girl
- Effie Trinket’s materialism in The Hunger Games series
- Anne’s stubbornness in Anne of Green Gables
- Jane Villanueva’s judgmentalism in Jane the Virgin
- Daniel Russo being hot-headed in The Karate Kid
- Tom Sawyer’s laziness in Tom Sawyer
- Bella Swan’s clumsiness in the Twilight series
- Alice’s gullibility in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Police Chief Martin Brody’s fear of water in Jaws
- Amy’s childishness in Little Women
- Mary Bennet’s dullness in Pride and Prejudice
- Boxer’s loyalty in Animal Farm
- Ove’s stubbornness in A Man Called Ove
- Mary’s brattiness in The Secret Garden
- Charlie’s meekness in The Perks of Being a Wallflower
- Luna Lovegood’s absent-mindedness in the Harry Potter series
- Victor Frankenstein’s pride in Frankenstein
- Jo March’s frankness in Little Women
- Kaz Brekker’s vengefulness in Six of Crows
- Lady Brett Ashley’s selfishness in The Sun Also Rises
- Pierre Bezukhov’s search for meaning in War and Peace
- Magnolia’s vanity in Magnolia Parks
- Meredith Grey’s depression in Grey’s Anatomy
- Violet Beauregarde’s competitiveness in Willy Wonka
- Percy’s excessive loyalty in the Percy Jackson series
- Rory’s selfishness in Gilmore Girls
- Oskar Schindler’s greed in Schindler’s List
- Sherlock Holmes’ pretentiousness in Sherlock Holmes
- Addie’s desire for individuality in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
- Carrie Soto’s competitiveness in Carrie Soto is Back
- Devi’s temper in Never Have I Ever
- Edmund’s rebelliousness in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Ebenezer Scrooge’s greed in A Christmas Carol
- Eleanor’s dishonesty in The Good Place
- Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes in the Indiana Jones series
- Hamlet’s existential dilemma in Hamlet
- Icarus’ hubris in the Metamorphoses
- Javert’s obsession with justice in Les Miserables
- Vera Claythorne’s greed in And Then There Were None
- Henry’s obsession with academia in The Secret History
- Anna Karenina’s need for attention in Anna Karenina
- Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy in The Great Gatsby
- Ender’s anger in Ender’s Game
- Gollum’s desire for the ring in Lord of the Rings
- Guy Montag’s complacency in Fahrenheit 451
- Macbeth’s desire for power in Macbeth
- John’s lust in Brave New World
- Alma Coin’s lust for power in The Hunger Games
- Pony Boy’s thirst for revenge in The Outsiders
- Carrie’s naivety in Carrie
- Lennie’s mental disability in Of Mice and Men
- Patrick Jane’s pride in The Mentalist
- Brutus’ disloyalty in Julius Caesar
- Alaska’s recklessness in Looking for Alaska
- Thomas Sutpen’s desire for a dynasty in Absalom, Absalom
How to Best Use Character Flaws
Your protagonist must behave like a real person in real situations, not like a pawn to make your story work.
Even if your star is a superhero in a land far, far away, give them needs, wants, and dreams.
And most importantly, give them realistic flaws, mistakes, and regrets that will make them either a hero, or a failure, or a villain in the end.
The better you render your main character’s flaws, the more believable, memorable, and compelling your story becomes.
That’s the way to keep readers turning those pages until the end.