Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Character Flaws

I must have been on fire yesterday because I wrote more than 6,000 words, and I didn't even spend that much time on it. I guess it was because I was at a part where I knew what would happen and had imagined the scene quite a bit. I think it still needs work, but the work is in the "I'll deal with it in revisions" category rather than in the "I have to get it right and figure it out before I can move on" category. I can see the end from here, though I'm not quite sure what happens next.

Now for the bi-weekly writing post ...

I've been thinking about character flaws and how important they are. It's important for characters to be interesting even if they're not likable (and when it comes to genre fiction, they should probably be likable or at least sympathetic). Strangely enough, having flaws actually works to make characters more likable. Would you really want to spend much time with someone who was absolutely perfect, who had no flaws and who always made the best decisions? Besides, if there's nothing wrong with the person at the beginning of the story, there's no room for growth.

There are several different categories of flaws. I'm not sure you'd really call these "flaws," but imperfections, handicaps or externally imposed limitations fall into one category. These work by building sympathy for the character. The reason I hesitate to consider these true flaws is that they aren't the character's fault, even though they do keep the character from being too perfect and these "flaws" can make a difference in how the story progresses. They can also lead to true character flaws, depending on how the character responds to them. Someone can be treated unfairly which isn't a real flaw because it's externally imposed, and if the person then grows resentful so that he becomes bitter and untrusting, then the bitterness and lack of trust are a real flaw. I wouldn't rely on something externally imposed as a character's sole "flaw" because it tends to create martyr characters or paragons -- the saintly blind person who sees more than those who have the use of their eyes, the physically challenged person who bravely overcomes his disability, etc. Or you get Cinderella, who is grimy and dressed in rags because of her wicked stepmother, but who, oddly, is totally untouched emotionally or psychologically by this treatment so that she never really feels like a real person.

Another category would be what I consider negative character traits -- things that are more like quirks than real flaws, like clumsiness, a caffeine addiction, a tendency to swear, habitual lateness, being a terrible housekeeper, etc. These kinds of things can work to humanize the kind of character who might otherwise fall into the too-good-to-be-true category. She may be rich and beautiful, but if she can't walk across the room without tripping over the carpet, then we know she's human and didn't get every possible advantage along with the wealth and beauty, so we know there's some justice in the world. But, again, you can't rely on this as a character flaw because it's superficial, and it doesn't create much of a story arc. I'm not sure you could get much internal conflict from trying to overcome clumsiness.

What I consider real character flaws, from a story perspective, are traits that cause characters to make poor decisions, something that can get them into real trouble and that they will have to learn to overcome in order to succeed. That would include things like fear, jealousy, greed, inability to trust or cowardice. Virtues can also become flaws when taken to extremes, like trusting too easily without discernment, being a perfectionist or being brave to the point of taking unnecessary risks. Be careful about what I think of as "job interview flaws," like the way job-hunting guides coach you to respond to the "what are your biggest flaws?" question by taking your strengths and turning them into flaws. It's not much of a flaw when your character's greatest flaw is that he can't see how awesome he really is. That might work if he's never been tested or has been too afraid to see what he can do, but if he's a hero who saves three lives a day and he's still wallowing in poor self esteem because he can't see his value to the universe, then he just looks stupid. I'm not even sure it counts as a real flaw in the person who doesn't have reason to know how awesome he is. He'd need another flaw to have a real story because you wouldn't want the climax of the story to be the character realizing that, hey, he has magical powers! His flaw might be instead that he doesn't trust in his own abilities, so he isn't willing to rely on his powers until he has absolutely no other choice.

The flaw is generally the basis for the character's internal arc, the thing that's holding him back at the beginning of the story, the thing most likely to stand in his way in the struggle, and the thing he must overcome in order to succeed. In a tragedy, it's the thing that keeps him from succeeding. To use a Star Wars example, I would say that Luke's flaw is impatience, which includes an inability to just let go and let things happen. He overcomes it to trust in the Force and blow up the Death Star in the first movie, but in the second it becomes a tragic flaw -- he skips out on his training and tries to face Darth Vader before he's ready. He eventually triumphs by just letting go and waiting -- turning off his lightsaber and letting the Emperor attack him, which is what turns Darth Vader around.

If you have writing questions, please ask! I don't have a stockpile of ideas at the moment.


Chicory said...

Hi. I just discovered your blog. Thank you for posting here as well as Livejournal. :)

This is a terrific post. I had to laugh at the `only flaw is that he doesn't know how awesome he really is.' Thinking about Star Wars, I'd say Han Solo's flaw would be blindness to the needs of others. That's what he really overcomes in the third movie when he's willing to step aside and just be a friend to Lea.

You mentioned how sometimes virtues can become flaws; have you ever seen it work the other way? I'm currently writing about someone whose flaw is stubbornness. She gets into serious trouble because she won't admit to being wrong -but in the end, her stubbornness is what keeps her going long enough to defeat the villain. :)

Shanna Swendson said...

I would say in that scenario that stubbornness isn't the real flaw. Her real flaw is the inability to admit being wrong. That would be what she has to overcome so that she's left with tenacity (the good side of stubbornness).

Anonymous said...

Hey, I found your blog while looking up specifically what this post is about "Character Flaws." Would you consider an insincere hero, as a flaw. A hero, who, does heroic deeds only to make himself look better, not out of any true concern or heroism. If so, how do you suggest this flaw could be overcome? I was thinking along the lines of seeing a secondary character's self sacrifice, as inspiration, but it doesn't seem right to me. Any feedbak you could provide would be appreciated

Anonymous said...


Shanna Swendson said...

I had to think about this one for a while, and I think insincerity is a very valid character flaw. It has the potential to really affect the character and the people around him. If he's insincere, he probably doesn't have a lot of close, trusted friends. It also probably makes him seem unreliable, if he says things he doesn't mean but people expect him to follow through. He could just be glib and slick, or it could come from a dark place, like if he learned at an early age to say whatever it took to appease an easily angered and abusive parent, and so from there he has the habit of saying what he thinks people want to hear rather than what he really thinks or believes.

I think the best way to bring about change in this character is to force him to see the consequences of his insincerity -- like if he's excluded from something because people can't count on him or if he loses something he wants because of his reputation for insincerity (he says something he actually means, and no one believes it). Or if something bad happens because someone who didn't know he was insincere takes him at his word.

For good movie examples of this kind of character, you can look at just about every character Ricky Gervais plays, as well as a lot of Jim Carrey and Greg Kinnear roles (when they're not doing "Hey! Give me an Oscar!" movies). Or the younger brother in any version of the movie Sabrina.