If you want people to like your character, then they need to be a little unlikeable.
I know, I know, that sounds like a contradiction. But a lot of people think that creating a character means making the perfect person for readers to fall in love with. Except nobody falls in love with perfect. A person who has no flaws, no rough edges or bad habits, isn’t only unrealistic but, let’s face it, they’re boring.
And if there’s one thing you don’t want your readers to be, then it’s bored.
Readers are unlikely to eagerly follow the journey of someone who already has everything all sorted, because the point of a story is that they want to be there when your character figures things out. A reader will want to watch your character grow and change with their mistakes.
So how do you create someone who is flawed, but likeable? A character who has a lot of bad traits, and yet has readers caring about what happens to them?
This guide is here to help! We’re going to delve in to why a lack of character flaws will flaw your story, how to turn two-dimensional characters into well-rounded people that readers will root for, and what the difference is between flawed and villainous.
Why It’s Important To Add Depth To Your Characters
Characters are the core component of any story. People are interested by a plot, but they stick around for the characters.
Stories essentially have two sides: the conflict of the plot and the internal conflict of the character(s). And both are equally important. In fact, scratch that, the character side is probably more important. ‘But my book is an action story about deadly space aliens,’ I hear you say. Okay, but . . . who are these deadly space aliens? Or the people they’re at war with? What do they want and why? What is stopping them from achieving it? Enter: character flaws!
Character flaws are the thing that prevents the plot from being resolved instantly, hindering a person’s ability to defeat their bad guy (or whatever the central conflict is) outside of the forces they can’t control. If you have a character who knows what to do in any given situation and always makes the right decision, your story is going to be over pretty quickly. You want to keep the reader guessing.
A flaw is a way to add depth, not only to your characters but to your plot. These flaws create external and internal conflicts, sending characters down different pathways and affecting their relationships with each other (and themselves). Really, plot and flawed characters work hand in hand.
When I start a book, I always start with the people I want in it. Sure, I have a rough idea of the storyline I want, or the world I’m thinking of creating, but the first thing I ask myself is: who would live in this world? What would happen to them in it? And, most importantly, why do they do the things they do? Their flaws, their past and present conflicts, help build this profile and impact how they’re going to journey through the worlds we create.
A character simply cannot be stagnant; they must go through a journey. I don’t mean a physical one, but an emotional one. Your characters have to end up somewhere different to where they started so readers feel a sense of accomplishment. Overcoming their flaws is the way to do this.
What Constitues A Character Flaw?
So what is a character flaw?
Simply put, a character flaw is some kind of fault. A fear, a weakness, maybe even a bias. It’s a thing that affects the character and how they interact with the world around them.
A lot of the times flaws can be simple habits or quirks, sometimes they can even be physical (like scars). They can also be based on morals (or lack of!), and rigid personality traits that end up inhibiting them as they progress through the story and serve as hurdles on their way to happiness.
We’re going to look at examples of the three main kinds of character flaw a little further down, but a great way to think of what constitutes a flaw is to examine real life personalities. Think about the people you’ve interreacted with — whether it’s friends, family, or even a mortal enemy or two! — and what quirks and traits make them who they are.
Are they rigidly stubborn? Do they have a nervous tic? What was the first thing you noticed that set them aside from everyone else? The best way to create a realistic character with flaws that shape who they are, is to become something of a Frankenstein and take pieces from a bunch of people to create someone new!
And, as we’ve discussed above, at least one of these flaws should impact the plot, fuelling a conflict within the character and between them and others. Perhaps your character’s flaw might be that they have a desire for vengeance that overrides everything else, including allowing them to be truly open with close friends.
Whatever it is, you should make sure your reader knows why a flaw exists, so they can build sympathy with your character and understand their actions and what leads them to behave the way they do. This way they will be a lot more forgiving of any mistakes your character makes.
Though remember, characters don’t have to be likeable to be relatable. Or relatable to be likeable. A lot of us love a good villain, even if we can’t relate to their murderous tendencies (at least . . . I hope not!). Your readers can love to hate someone because at least they understand them and they feel authentic (in a sense. None of us can know what an authentic alien is if you’re writing sci-fi, but writers are nothing if not good at imagining!).
And if your character is a villain, don’t be afraid to lean into that. We just need to know why. They can’t want to take over the world just because they feel like it. They need purpose, logic, and a fatal flaw (more on that below!) to have driven them to that point. Remember, nobody is the villain of their own story. So why is your character the villain of someone else’s?
When crafting a character I always ask myself two questions: what is the flaw they see in themselves? And what is the flaw that other people see in them? These are two very different things, both of which impact who a character has become and where they will go next.
Character Flaws: Examples
Now broadly speaking, there are three different types of character flaw. These are: minor flaws, major flaws and tragic flaws.
Minor Character Flaws
A minor flaw is usually pretty insignificant. It helps differentiate your character somewhat from other people within your story, but doesn’t tend to impact the actual plot.
Good examples of minor character flaws are:
- Habits like knuckle-cracking or biting their nails
- Forgetfulness or lateness
- Shallowness or vanity
They can also be quirks of a character, like overusing a specific phrase. And sometimes a minor flaw can be physical (maybe your character has an old scar from childhood, or a limp).
Major Character Flaws
Now a major flaw is different, because that’s what is going to cause a problem for your character at some point in the story. A lot of the time major flaws are moral failings, and they’re going to be the obstacle in your character’s growth. This is the thing they must overcome in some way to achieve their goals. It’ll also likely to be the source of tension between them and the other characters in the story.
Good examples of major character flaws are:
- A fear of being vulnerable or letting their guard down
Major flaws are internal conflicts within your character that cause ripple effects as the story goes onward. Unlike minor flaws, which tend to stick with your character and be an essential part of who they are, major flaws are hurdles for your character to overcome in order to better themselves. For side-characters they are also the cause of shifting allegiances.
Tragic Character Flaws
And lastly we have the tragic flaw/fatal flaw. This is the thing that will lead to the demise of your character if not resolved. Think of it like their Achilles heel. Tragic flaws are the most important parts of a character’s story and the very thing they need in order for their arc to be completed. And if you’re writing a tragic hero, this is going to be the crux of their story.
Good examples of tragic/fatal character flaws are:
- A need for vengeance that causes them to disregard anything else, even their own safety or the safety of those they love
- Misplaced loyalty to someone unredeemable
- Self-sacrificing nobility that makes them risk their lives unnecessarily
- Pride/ego so great that it leads to grave mistakes in judgement
Tragic flaws are pivotal to the climax of a story. In villains, these flaws will lead to their eventual demise. In heroes (and anti-heroes!), it can do the same; leading to their deaths when they fail to overcome them, or when they overcome them too late to save themselves but are able to save another character instead (thereby giving them redemption). Tragic flaws don’t necessarily always have to be fatal, but they will always lead to some kind of serious downfall and great misfortune.
Writing Flawed Characters
The best characters are those the readers can connect with, because they understand why a character has gone down the path they have and where they might go next. If a character has no flaws and is all-too-perfect, your story will fall flat because the only conflict is external and therefore can be solved by anyone. You want your readers to know why your character is the right person for this story to centre around and what makes them so interesting. Character flaws keep a story going, ensure continuing momentum, and set your character’s journey apart from anyone else’s!
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