Ruth E. Walker
“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.
My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.
The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.
So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.
The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:
- contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
- sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
- motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)
Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.
- baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
- weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
- neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)
The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.
- focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
- restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
- creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
- social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)
Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.
Applying the Flaws
Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural. What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?
And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.