What Counts as a Character Flaw?

"A character flaw involves thoughts, behavior, and consequences."

Hello, writers! Let’s talk about a critical step of character creation: flaws.

If you read my piece on why readers like Glitter, you’ll remember that a likable character isn’t perfect. The readers don’t always have to agree with or approve of their actions, and their flaws make them feel a little more human.

Especially if you’re a beginning writer, you might feel confused or nervous about choosing flaws for your character (especially if you want your character to be likable). And that’s totally okay! This guide is meant to help you choose effective flaws.

Choosing weak flaws is a beginner’s mistake.

When you’re new to writing, you want readers to like your main characters. But you’ve also read that characters need flaws.

So you might decide to create a flaw that’s as likable as possible. Maybe the character is adorably clumsy. Or they’re laughably bad at a skill like cooking or slow dancing. Or part of their appearance looks awkward. That way the readers can smile and tut-tut, and you have a flaw that shouldn’t detract from likability.

Only readers tend not to like too-perfect characters. And instead of them seeing the character as charming, the character might be accused of being a Mary Sue.

While a beginning writer might stick to inconsequential character flaws, the truth is that an effective character needs at least one flaw that seriously impacts them in the story.

A strong flaw builds a more realistic character.

So clumsiness and a funny-looking nose count as “weak flaws.” They’re outside the character’s control, and they’re really not that bad in the scheme of things.

It’s absolutely okay to give your characters “weak flaws.” For example, my character Glitter (Elizabeth) White is a clumsy little girl who adorably mispronounces a few words. But if you want to write a nuanced major character, you need to give them at least one “strong flaw.”

So what counts as a “strong flaw?” It’s a pattern of beliefs and behavior.

  • The character’s beliefs or priorities are distorted.
  • The flaw influences the character’s behavior.
  • They could choose to behave differently, but they don’t.
  • The flaw has consequences: it impedes goals or relationships.

We’ll go over it using Marley Soong, a character from my supernatural short story “The Lonely Horse.”

Marley is an autistic, transgender young woman. When she’s not attending college classes or binge-watching TV shows alone in her dorm, she’s helping identify supernatural threats so they can be handled. Marley has a very large flaw: she doesn’t trust other people enough to get close to them.

Marley’s beliefs are distorted. She thinks people will view her negatively because she is different, even when they show signs of acceptance. And she feels uncomfortable whenever someone even acknowledges her gender (even to show support for her), because she’s so afraid of rejection.

Marley’s flaw impacts her behavior. She chooses not to pursue her crush on a friend, even though another friend is subtly egging her on. She doesn’t even tell her parents that she’s not a boy. Marley isolates herself to an extreme degree.

Marley could choose to behave differently. It’s definitely within her power to say “I like you, and could we go out sometime?” to her crush. She could choose to tell her parents that she’s a woman. (They’re shown to be loving.)

Marley’s self-isolation prevents her from having close relationships. She’s been single for goodness knows how long because she’s afraid to date anybody. She doesn’t mention having friends outside of work. She’s missing out on a relationship with her parents because she’s so afraid they won’t accept her as a woman.

This is a strong flaw. It gets in the way of her relationships, and it affects her goals too. Sometimes, Marley says or thinks something that is just plain wrong. As a reader, you aren’t supposed to agree with her all the time.

In Marley’s case, her flaw is so severe that it could be classified as a mental illness. (Isolating yourself from the world is pretty serious.) Not every character needs to be as deeply flawed as Marley is. It’s okay to choose one or two everyday flaws and go from there.

Let’s compare some examples of weak versus strong flaws.

Weak:

  • Alice is feisty. She stands up for herself and talks back at the villains.
  • Bob is shy. He’s a little timid around strangers. (Aww!)
  • Charlotte is autistic. Her quirky behavior is so darn cute!
  • Dan can’t cook. He burns everything. Silly Dan.

Strong:

  • Alice’s temper sometimes lands her in trouble. She occasionally goes too far and has to apologize for hurting a friend’s feelings.
  • Bob wants to be a pianist, but his stage fright is so severe that he can’t even get through a recital.
  • Charlotte is autistic. She’s afraid that she’ll never get a girlfriend because nobody will accept her, so she stays single even though she dreams of falling in love.
  • Dan’s house is in disarray. He’s perfectly capable of cleaning it; he just doesn’t see a problem with it. The mess and the odors scare away his guests… including romantic guests. Sigh.

These flaws all impede goals or relationships. That’s how you know they’re strong enough to be realistic.

A good flaw starts with beliefs, translates to choices, and creates negative consequences for your character.

How you handle the flaw determines whether the character is likable.

At this point, you may be wondering how to create a strongly flawed character who readers will still love. What if readers decide that the character is stupid or mean or not worth rooting for?

Rest assured, a flawed character can still be a beloved one. The way you handle the flaw is what matters most to your reader.

We empathize with people who struggle. Many things can be forgiven in a good person. Here are some traits of a good person:

  • They mean well, and are kind in general.
  • They feel remorse if they hurt someone.
  • They try to change their habits if they realize they’re in the wrong.

Remember Alice the hothead and Dan the slob? Let’s spin their stories in two different ways. We’ll make them unlikable, and then we’ll make them likable.

Version 1: Alice and Dan the jerks

First, let’s show flawed characters who are easy to dislike.

Alice reviews her sheet music. She’s played this piece at least a hundred times. But never before has she gotten it perfect. She wants this performance to be better than anything she’s ever done. So she studies the papers in the music room, trying to ignore the other students who are preparing for their own performances.

“I can do this. I can do this,” says a white-faced piano student. She thinks she remembers that his name is Bob. He’s sitting on a chair in the corner, breathing hard.

Alice looks up, frowns at him, and returns to her music. Should she rethink her dynamics on the 3rd page? Maybe a slower crescendo.

“I can do this. I can do this.” Bob is getting louder. His face shines with perspiration. “I can do this.”

“Be quiet!” Alice snaps. “I’m trying to think!”

Bob deflates instantly. He looks down at the sheet music in his hands. His lower lip shakes. His eyes shine with unspilled tears.

Finally he’s silent!

Hmm. What do you think about Alice’s behavior?

In this case, Alice’s rudeness seems unjustified. Bob is clearly struggling with a lot of fear, and the last thing he needs is for someone to be harsh with him. And when Alice upsets him, instead of feeling remorseful, she’s pleased that she got what she wanted.

Now let’s show another unsympathetic character.

Dan invites his friend Charlotte to his house. Charlotte’s autistic nose immediately picks up on a miasma of smells: stale takeout, wet dog odor, and something horrifying near the dishwasher. She covers her face with her hands in shock and repulsion.

Dan gestures for her to sit at the dirty table, and he begins talking at length about his dogs. Charlotte usually loves dogs, but she can’t focus in such a putrid room. She tries suggesting that they walk a dog, or go out to enjoy the nice weather, or anything! Anything to free her from these overpowering odors! But Dan ignores her and keeps talking on and on and…

After half an hour, Charlotte begins to hyperventilate. Is her asthma acting up? Is she going to have an attack? “I have to go!” she blurts, and she runs out of the house and into the yard.

Charlotte bends over in Dan’s yard, hands on her knees, gasping. Never before has she enjoyed clean air so much. Should she use her inhaler? Maybe she’ll give it a minute before she decides…

Dan follows her outside. “What is your problem?” he demands. “You’re so dramatic.”

Yikes! Dan isn’t acting out of malice here, but his actions are inappropriate. He traps Charlotte in an environment that is intolerable to her, he ignores her polite attempts to find a better location to chat, and when she finally abandons social niceties in order to escape, he blames her and calls her dramatic. (Which is an especially mean word to call an autistic person.)

Now let’s talk about why we aren’t fans of Alice’s and Dan’s behavior:

  • They show little consideration towards others’ feelings.
  • They harm other people (physically or emotionally).
  • They see their behavior as justified, instead of showing remorse.

Version 2: Alice and Dan the decent human beings

Now let’s retell the stories.

We’ll put Alice and Bob in the same situation, but this time, Alice will react differently after she loses her temper.

“Be quiet!” Alice snaps. “I’m trying to think!”

Bob deflates instantly. He looks down at the sheet music in his hands. His lower lip shakes. His eyes shine with unspilled tears.

Alice blinks. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I’m worried about playing my own piece perfectly, and I took it out on you.”

Bob sniffs.

Alice walks over and sits next to him. “What are you going to play?” she asks.

“Raindrop Prelude by Chopin,” Bob says.

Alice smiles at him. “I’m not familiar with that one. Why did you pick it?”

“It’s really pretty,” Bob says. “It sounds like rain, with a thunderstorm in the middle. It reminds me of this place my family used to go in the summer…”

Now we can sympathize with Alice. She still makes the mistake of snapping at Bob. But this time, she recognizes she was in the wrong. She apologizes, and she tries to fix things by chatting with Bob and distracting him from his panic. Thanks to her, Bob is calming down.

Despite her lapse in judgment, she’s kind to Bob. So we can forgive her.

Now let’s retell Dan’s story.

Dan and Charlotte chat cheerfully as he unlocks the door to his house. It’s been a while since Dan had a houseguest, and he bought some cookies from the bakery for the occasion. Bringing people over doesn’t always go well, but Charlotte is so sweet and straightforward that Dan figures it should go better this time.

As soon as Charlotte steps inside, a look of horror crosses her face, and she claps her hands over her nose and mouth.

“What’s wrong?” Dan asks.

“Uh… could we chat on the porch swing, please?” she asks.

“Yeah. Let me just get the drinks and cookies,” Dan says in bewilderment. He watches Charlotte run back outside.

Why did she do that? Is something wrong with his house? …Is this why women never seem to call him back after he invites them home?

In this example, Dan is trying. He pays attention to Charlotte’s feelings, so he doesn’t trap her in an intolerable environment, and Charlotte doesn’t suffer an asthma flare-up. He’s oblivious to the source of the problem (please clean your house, Dan), but he does care.

Now Alice and Dan are behaving well, and their flaws are no longer so terrible.

  • They pay attention to other people’s feelings.
  • They apologize if they realize they upset someone.
  • They try to make it better.

Likable characters handle their flaws responsibly.

Normal human beings make mistakes. We all have moments of poor judgment, vulnerabilities, and foibles.

An unlikable character will refuse to change their behavior, even when they’re hurting other people. They’ll feel no remorse, and they may blame circumstances or even other people when their flaws create problems.

A likable character will recognize that they aren’t perfect. They’ll try their best. When they mess up, they’ll apologize to anyone they’ve hurt, and they’ll make amends. They’ll try to do better next time.

We can empathize with people who are trying. And it’s much easier to forgive them when we know they don’t want to repeat their mistakes.

Keep in mind…

Some of you might figure this out intuitively, but I want to state it here just in case:

  • A major character should have at least one “strong” flaw. (This flaw may be overcome in their character arc, depending on what type of story you want to tell.)
  • It’s okay to give your characters “weak” flaws in addition to strong ones. Your character can be clumsy or terrible at baking if you want them to be.
  • Minor characters don’t need “strong” flaws.

Always use your best judgment, and feel free to adapt my advice to suit your story.

Happy writing.

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