Let's talk character flaws
Hello, writer friends. How was your January? Mine’s been awful, and the less said about it the better, truth be told! De Klerk frontier was invaded by the Covid armies, and unfortunately they got a bit of a foothold… We’ve beaten them back and reinforced the walls, and so far so good, but being under siege is never a good feeling.
Today’s blog post is all about character traits. If you’ve been on the writing circuit a while, you’ve probably seen some variant of character development worksheet.
NanoWrimo has one, which I have used on occasion.
Selfpublishing.com also has one, which looks promising.
You’ve also probably read a book or five and thought, “The main character is such a Mary Sue. Is clumsiness really the only flaw you could come up with? Really? Does the main character have to wail about how she’s so ugly every ten lines, when we know that every guy thinks she’s HOT?”
You might have even printed yourself off one of those forms and sat to it, trying to figure out how to make your character stand out, without being a Mary Sue. How to make your character flawed, without making people hate them. How to make your character diverse, without making them stereotyped.
That’s what today’s blog post is about.
Character flaws are one of those things that come up time and again in writing advice. We have to have them, and we love to hate them. No one wants an annoying main character, but there’s nothing more annoying than a perfect main character! It’s also just plain difficult to sit there and think constructively about what you’re going to make bad about each character. After all, their personalities have to serve the plot, be consistent with their history, and just make sense. And that’s quite tricky to master, because obviously we don’t want to get a PhD in psychology just to design characters.
I know, I know, it’s difficult.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s not as hard as you think.
We’re going to design a character, quick as anything. Well, actually, I’m going to be lazy and grab one from the manuscript that I was totally not just working on instead of writing this blog.
Her name is Marta. Marta is pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. She’s a smuggler. She’s sassy and street-smart and a great fighter. She’s also very politically adept, outgoing, and excellent at conversation.
Sounds a bit Mary Sue-ish, right?
Truth be told, it’s all in the writing.
Every positive character trait has the chance to be a flaw if cast in the right light.
That’s right, guys.
You don’t need to sit there and think of extra character flaws. Just list the person’s good points, then figure out how those can become negative traits. Their greatest strengths will also be their greatest weaknesses.
Because, like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Let’s go back to Marta. When she meets her love interest, they drive each other crazy. Why? Because she’s smarter than him and talks circles around him. Intelligence is a pretty common strength in book characters, especially main characters. That’s okay, you can make your character smart. And some people will admire it. But think about how much it will annoy other people. Being smart can be a bad thing, too. A smart person might be prone to showing off, or they might disregard advice from people they think are stupid.
This works for other character traits, too. Someone who is laidback may ignore obvious signs of danger. Someone who is helpful may come across as smothering. Every character trait can be both positive and negative—and will usually be both. How a person comes across will depend on the situation, and who they’re interacting with. Two stubborn people are unlikely to appreciate stubbornness in one another.
Sounds easy enough, right? But figuring out what your character’s flaws are is only half the battle. The harder half is writing them convincingly.
How to convey character flaws in your writing
Demonstrating a flaw is not the same as demonstrating a virtue. You want the reader to like your character, therefore you will put them in situations where they shine. Creating conflict, putting your character in the wrong, is trickier and takes subtlety.
Your main character is going to think they’re right, even when they’re wrong. That’s just human nature. Unless low self-confidence is their character flaw, they’re not going to be constantly thinking about their own flaws. In fact, even if it is, it’s not useful for them to be thinking about their own flaws all the time. This is likely to annoy the reader, and flaws need to have real consequences.
If stubbornness is a person’s flaw, they need to get into arguments.
If they’re bad at taking advice, they need to make mistakes which could have easily been avoided.
If low self-confidence is their flaw, they need to be awkward in social situations, struggle making friends, or avoid situations where they feel uncomfortable.
If you have a person who is otherwise confident, but very critical inwardly, you haven’t created a convincing character flaw; you’ve just created an alien.
The medium for demonstrating flaws lies in how they interact with others and how others react to them. Think about how other people might perceive your MC. Would they get annoyed that s/he is being stubborn again? Do they talk right over your character because s/he lacks self-confidence? Do they dislike coming to your character for help because s/he always lets them down?
Teasing out these reactions is vital to demonstrating character flaws. Not only that, but it’s a natural and organic way of creating conflict. Rather that using situations to create conflict, or secrets, think about the normal misunderstandings that arise on a daily basis. A few examples from my everyday life:
- Getting annoyed at someone because it’s the fifth time they’ve talked too quietly and you’re sick of asking them to repeat themselves.
- Getting into an argument with someone who has interrupted you three times in the same conversation.
- Getting annoyed with someone because they laughed at something that you didn’t mean as a joke.
All of these situations boil down to one person’s flaws butting heads with another person’s flaws. Including them in your novel provides conflict, and will also make your characters seem human. It also gives you opportunities. After all, every second book has a teenaged character whining at an overcontrolling parent for not letting them go to a party. Why not switch it up? There are a thousand other reasons why a teenager might argue with their parents.
How are you demonstrating your main character’s flaws? What are they? Why are those flaws important to your novel? In general, why is it so important that our characters are flawed? Comment below to join the discussion.