Articles / On Writing

Real Character Flaws

We’ve all heard the old adage “no one’s perfect,” right? Let’s consider the flip side of this coin. What if everyone was perfect? Can you imagine it? A perfect world where everything goes your way and everyone is the absolute ideal? There are no struggles, nothing unexpected happens, and life is just perfect. Sounds great, right?

Not really. There is a downside. Without struggles and imperfections, we would never change or grow or learn something new. We’d never get that feeling of satisfaction, knowing through hours of practice and hardship we finally mastered a new skill. Why? Because in a perfect world, we’d do everything perfect the first time we try, because we’re perfect. It’s a nice idea, but once you really think about it, it’s not always that appealing.

This is just as true in writing as it is in the real world. Our characters shouldn’t be perfect either because, let’s face it, perfect is… well… kinda boring.

I am reminded of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Captain Hammer played by the fantastic Nathan Fillion. He’s the perfect superhero. Always thwarts Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), saves the day, and gets the girl, right? When I started watching this tragicomedy, I thought Captain Hammer was a Dudley Do-Right superhero who was boring—kind of like Captain America (don’t be hating me). But during the course of the story, we see that Captain Hammer’s perfection is superficial. His real downfall is vanity. Plus he’d never experienced real pain or had discovered anything he couldn’t do. He had no empathy because of his lack of experience. It could also be said that because all his experiences were perfect, he was unprepared for failure and the real world. This was a nice twist on the superhero myth and what would happen to a truly perfect character in an imperfect world. Because of this, Dr. Hammer’s perfection was also a character flaw. It was nice play on the Mary Sue/Marty Stu character taken to the extreme and was a great source of comedy. But in most writing, perfect characters don’t ring true with audiences because, let’s face it; it’s hard to identify with the Captain Hammers and Glinda the Good Witches of the world.

So short of getting a degree in psychology or spending a year in silence to gain a better understand of your inner self, what is an author to do? Glad you asked. One of my favorite activities is to people watch. We humans are fascinating creatures. We come in all different sizes, colors, and shapes. Each is unique and has his or her own set of character traits, talents, and flaws. As I watch people, sometimes I will make up little back stories about them. If I see someone with a physical ailment, I wonder what happened and my imagination runs with it. If I see someone with acne scars I’m instantly transported to junior high and wonder at the inner scars left behind in the wake of the ones left on the skin. I wonder about the chip on the shoulder of the scowling teenager. What trials did these people go through, how did it shape who they’ve become today, and what front do they put up to cover the flaws underneath it all. The idea here is through observing others, you learn how to read people and learn what motivates them. This in turn gives you a better understanding of the characters who may one day appear in one of your books. These characters could have any or several of the following character flaws or one of the hundreds not on this list because it is not all-inclusive:

  • martyr
  • selfish
  • disloyal
  • pacifist
  • trust issues
  • meddler
  • temperamental
  • blunt
  • arrogant
  • self-righteous
  • vain
  • flirt
  • timid
  • noncommittal
  • reckless
  • flighty
  • trouble magnet or maker
  • bigot
  • humorless

The wonderful Writers Write blog has a fabulous article called “123 Ideas for Character Flaws.” This article is full of real flaws. The kind of flaws your characters will make real mistakes with and strive to overcome for a more satisfying outcome to your story. These are the types of flaws real people struggle with everyday. I have included the graphic below showing the “Seven Types of Character Flaws” from the Writers Write article because it is a wonderful example of the extremes of characters flaws and their polar opposites.

Seven Types of Character Flaws

So, don’t be afraid to give your character a couple of flaws to balance out the good. Your readers will identify with your characters, and if you show an honest portrayal of the struggles and triumphs, they just might grow to love your characters, and more so because of the flaws.

Now, go write something!

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