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Writing

How to Use Character Flaws to Enrich Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Readers love characters who are human, which is another way of saying they love characters full of imperfections. This stands to reason as imperfections lead to conflict, and conflict is a remarkably compelling driver of story. When you create characters in your own writing, it’s never a bad thing to imbue them with character flaws that undercut their positive traits. Such personality traits and bad habits will make your characters relatable, give them room for character development.

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What Is a Character Flaw?

A character flaw is a trait that prevents a character from being perfect. Sometimes this fatal flaw leads to a character’s demise or at least undercuts their character strengths and presents a prominent setback they must overcome. Any character can have flaws, including a protagonist, antagonist, love interest, confidant, deuteragonist, tertiary character, or foil.

Why Give Your Characters Flaws?

A character’s flaws serve many functions, particularly ensuring that the character is relatable and engaged in inner conflict. Carefully crafted flaws can do the following:

  • Make the character relatable to an audience of readers or viewers
  • Present an obstacle that must be overcome during the course of the story
  • Create character weaknesses that another character in the story can exploit
  • Create an obstacle that prevents a character from immediately solving a conflict
  • Set off a character arc that allows a character to grow and change
  • Provide quirks that distinguish characters from one another and make them memorable to audiences
  • Emphasize broader themes that are amplified via specific character flaws
  • Create comedy—from Homer Simpson to Michael Scott, the best comedic characters are hopelessly flawed
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What Is an Example of a Character Flaw?

In the Thomas Harris novel The Silence of the Lambs (and its subsequent film adaptation by director Jonathan Demme), Hannibal Lecter has what could charitably be called a personality disorder: He is a cannibal and a sadomasochist. Lecter’s character flaws, however, are somewhat offset by his brilliant mind, which he uses to help the main character, Clarice Starling, apprehend a serial killer tormenting Appalachia. Lecter is an example of how in fiction, even characters with the most severe personality flaws can embody a degree of three-dimensionality.

12 Character Flaws to Use in Your Writing

The array of possible character flaws is boundless. Here are 12 time-tested character traits that inherently generate conflict:

  1. Perfectionism: A finicky perfectionist is never satisfied. They can rarely accept that a project has been completed, and they rarely accept the finished work of others. Perfectionism is a great flaw for a detective, a doctor, or an office worker.
  2. A know-it-all attitude: An arrogant, self-righteous know-it-all has great potential to fall flat on their face, whether comically or dramatically. High school stories often feature a know-it-all foil to the main character. These archetypes work particularly well in comedy, especially when the know-it-all suffers from a broader lack of intelligence.
  3. An inability to move on from the past: Many police procedurals and superhero stories feature heroes haunted by their past, such as murdered parents or the victim they could not save. This major flaw presents obstacles as they work to solve crimes—but when the obstacles are overcome, the story’s happy ending feels earned.
  4. Laziness: Laziness is a flaw that leads to obvious conflict, some of which can be quite funny. Lazy sloth detectives and doctors can be either hilarious or the source of grave conflict, depending on the tone of your storytelling. A lazy character in a position of authority can generate a lot of tension for your plot.
  5. Physical vulnerability: Some characters suffer from a physical weakness that can escalate into a fatal flaw. Superman’s tendency to wilt in the presence of kryptonite hamstrings him, while the great warrior Achilles was undone by his fabled heel.
  6. Low self esteem: People who fundamentally dislike themselves make for fascinating characters. Jesse Pinkman’s self-loathing leads him down all sorts of dangerous paths in Breaking Bad. On the other end of the spectrum, the young adult author Judy Bloom has crafted gorgeous character arcs from youthful characters, like Linda Fischer in Blubber, who begin their journeys with low self esteem.
  7. Vanity: Vanity is the undoing of many real world characters, and so it also works beautifully in fiction. Politicians, artists, models, and athletes in stories are routinely undone by vanity as they gradually develop a bad reputation. Ordinary people can be wrecked by vanity as well, so it’s a common character flaw in many forms of fiction.
  8. Lust for power: Unbridled thirst for power has undone many a character, from Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness to Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Power is intoxicating, and characters who seek it are both relatable and easy sources of conflict.
  9. Lack of maturity: Many character arcs begin with a person in a hopeless state of immaturity who then grows over the course of the story. Immaturity can also manifest as rudeness, like when a bigmouth makes tactless remarks.
  10. Fear: Common in action dramas and comedies alike, fear—be it cowardice in the face of duty, a specific phobia of spiders, or an irrational fear—is a great character flaw that naturally drives a story.
  11. Hedonism: Some characters cannot resist temptation, whether that involves an illicit drug, food, or a fetish. Sometimes this excessive desire is due to addiction—it’s no secret that many famous protagonists are alcoholics—and sometimes it’s due to a general lack of self-restraint and willpower. For a character like Fyodor Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, hedonism and lechery make him both tragically amusing and subtly sinister.
  12. A gruff exterior: Some characters seem initially impenetrable because they are taciturn, standoffish, or even hostile and lewd. Typically these characters house a vulnerable interior beneath their coarse shell. Bringing out that vulnerability and lack of self-worth can a strong driver of story.

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