Wednesday, April 25, 2012

For Writers

Does Your Character Have An Interesting Flaw?

Character is one of those words, that, when you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Someone will say to you, ‘he’s a real character’, and visions of your uncle Bob or that wacky used car salesman you talked with recently come to mind. Politicians often tout character as a mark of their moral constitution and fitness for office. Writers must imbue their characters with distinctive qualities and traits that will capture the imagination. And nothing is quite so intriguing as a flaw.

One of my favorite literary characters is Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. She was charming and intelligent, but also willful, vain and self-centered. All of these traits in one package made her interesting. And even though her vanity and selfishness were balanced by her love for Tara and her tenacity in the trials she faced during the Civil War, she rang true. She was flawed.

In taking on the role of creator, some writers find it easier to build a hero and give him all the strengths and virtues that are often lacking in real people. But will that reach our audience? That old adage ‘nobody’s perfect’ should weigh in and count for something. A flaw gives balance.

Flaw Types

To see a flaw, hold up a mirror. We have physical and emotional flaws. We have skill and intellect flaws. Some flaws are endearing and some are annoying while others are all too common like Scarlett’s. As you weave your story and develop your character the appropriate flaw may make a sudden appearance. While sorting out the strong points of the young boy’s personality in one of my manuscripts he began to bore me a little. Then I discovered that he didn’t like animals; in fact he was often unkind to them. Yikes! How could any kid not love animals or worse yet be unkind to them? Well, in real life all children don’t love animals. Allowing this flaw gave me a character in need of reform keeping me from getting bored and my reader turning the pages.

Many serious adult flaws begin in childhood. If it’s your habit to do character sketches, start there. A ten year old may think he hates his cousin who comes from the rich side of the family. In fleshing out his character you can direct his path in various ways. Perhaps when he realizes his cousin is deathly afraid of snakes, he becomes more sympathetic. Or, on the darker side, he may use that fear to devious advantage in your plot design.

Your secondary character may be able to have the most interesting flaws. In the wildly popular children’s series, Harry Potter, we have an excellent model for this. If Harry hadn’t had such a miserable counterpart in Dudley Dursley we wouldn’t have rooted so hard for Harry to escape his surroundings. Dudley was loud, self-indulgent and a snitch – one of the worst flaws of all. You can often have more fun with the secondary character because sh/e needn’t triumph in the end. Just resist the urge to go overboard!

Flaw Resolution 

In the real world we often hang on to our flaws if only in some form modified by time and experience. All through life we chip away at our flaws a little at a time. A good story finds a way to modify the flaw, but lets the reader know that it takes more than one encounter with the devil to tame him. Too swift a change will make the reader doubtful and suspicious. The resolution (or semi-resolution) of your character's flaw can take as many forms as the flaw itself. It may be wildly explosive, a quiet moment of introspection or a more protracted ordeal that flows over into another book. Perhaps it will even be informed by a personal experience of your own. 

So go ahead, mold your character. Make her a strong, beautiful and kind tax cheat. Is your Buck Trueheart a wonderful doctor, husband and father? Great, but he needs to be rude to his nurses or ashamed of his mother.  As with Scarlett  O’Hara and Harry Potter and your exciting hero, a well-developed character mirrors the real world where there are flaws enough for everyone. Let your characters have some.

Image: Free Digital Photos


  1. Such great articles for writers, Susan. Hope you submit them to magazines like The Writer because they are as good and as helpful as the ones they publish.

  2. Hi,Cindy. I sold this one to the ICL newsletter when I first began writing over ten years ago, but the basic advice still holds. Thanks for commenting and I'm so glad you find them helpful!