Inspired by the Pendragon Variety Podcast relaunch episode—in which the Pendragon ladies vamp on the topic: “Character Flaws – Balancing Your Character’s Awesome”—I decided to expound on… uh… character flaws.
First things first: We’re all told that our characters should have “flaws.” But what are these mythical creatures? What makes a flaw?
- any imperfection in a character?
- something that gets the character into trouble?
- something that makes us unsympathetic to the character’s plight?
- something that keeps the character from meeting his needs?
- a dysfunctional character behavior or habit?
- a self-defeating character trait?
- a physical characteristic?
- an emotional characteristic?
While many authors and commentators ask this question, I’m not sure many have given a good answer.
And asking Google does not help. For example, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
…a limitation, imperfection, problem, phobia, or deficiency present in a character who may be otherwise very functional… a problem that directly affects the character’s actions and abilities, such as a violent temper; [or] a simple foible or personality defect, which affects the character’s motives and social interactions, but little else.
There’s a lot in there. But one thing I think we can agree on:
That is, useful character flaws are character traits. Or: Character flaws matter when they affect how the character meets his needs.
Unfocused character quirks, that is, character flaws that do not impact the story, don’t make the reader feel good or bad about the character. They are at best neutral, only adding spice to an already full character.
On the other hand, flaws that serve as obvious plot gimmicks, changing the course of the story without actually being integrated into the character’s character—like the clumsy heroine who is clumsy only so that she can stumble into the hero’s strong arms… Gack! These can grate on the nerves and even reduce sympathy for the character.
So we can limit discussion of “flaws,” looking only at those flaws that are also deep character traits. But not all character traits are flaws. A “flaw” has a negative connotation. It gets in the character’s way. It doesn’t necessarily need to be something with a social stigma, like alcoholism or drug addiction. It can be something as simple as the character turning to food whenever she feels her life is careening out of control.
Therefore, to find a character’s flaws…
In real life, you’ll find these flaws everywhere. In studies of addictions. Of depression and suicide. Of eating disorders. Of battered women. Of crime. Of divorce. Of political action and terrorism.
Once we realize that a character flaw is just a specific case of character trait, we can identify two more truths:
BUT this assumes you’ve already provided compelling reason for the flaw’s existence in the first place. (Note that this is just a restatement of the Second Law of Character Action.)
So the character tries to maintain control over his life by arguing with his wife, but this also distances him from his family, which makes him feel lonely, so he flirts with the pretty receptionist at the office, which produces another fight, etc.
In the Pendragon Variety discussion, the ladies at points said, “The character’s flaw is…” And then, “Actually, I think the character’s flaw is…” Followed by: “No! The character’s flaw really is… Meooowww!”
I made up that last line. They weren’t really fighting about it. However, in a different time and place, with a different group of commentators, they could have been. In all such disagreements, I take the middle position:
In other words, a realistic character is never composed of a single, fatal flaw. Realistic characters are made up of many character traits, all interacting in complex ways. Which one comes into play in a given scene or story depends on which others are also in play.
One more note from the discussion: They talked about “flaw” and compared it to “evidence of flaw,” another discussion that seemed to have no firm set of rules, for a very simple reason:
“Flaw” vs “evidence of flaw” is the difference between show and tell. And which is which will depend on what zoom level you’re looking at. Just as we can have the narrator zoom in and out and look at a scene from different perspectives, we can look at a character from different perspectives.
For instance: With even the slightest unexpected event, the character feels her life careening out of control (flaw); therefore, she disagrees with the next person she talks to, in order to reassert control (evidence of flaw).
Zooming in a little: Whatever her coworkers think, she always seems to take the opposite view, and can never let up, even for the sake of peace (flaw); instead, she engages them in heated fights (evidence of flaw).
These fights distance her from her coworkers. She’s known as someone who can’t go along to get along, who doesn’t play nice with others (flaw). She overhears someone saying that management is looking for a reason to fire her, and so she finds a good-for-nothing lawyer who will seek out a legal rationale to sue her employer (evidence of flaw).
You need both in a story, both the zoom-out and the zoom-in, both the establishing shot and the close shot. So it may be useful to recognize that, from such-and-such a perspective, this is a character flaw and that is evidence of the flaw. But I’m not convinced it’s all that useful to make general statements about a story: “That’s evidence of the character’s flaw, which is…”
I hope this brief foray into character flaws has led to some insights for your own writing. If you start with character first, as you flesh out your characters, flaws will provide a natural way for you to increase the drama of your stories without making your characters feel fake. If you look at them from that perspective, as dramatic character traits, they’ll never lead you astray. And always…