Good characters can carry a mediocre plot through a whole book.
And by good characters, I don’t mean that they’re all saints…I really mean the opposite.
Characters need to be flawed. The good guys, the baddies, and everyone in between.
This makes them relatable—human. Flaws can turn a two-dimensional character into a living, breathing person.
And as a consumer of stories in all forms, I can tell you that the characters that have stuck with me are the ones that have traits and struggles that I can see in the real world and in myself.
But this idea of “flawed” characters can be misunderstood; sometimes with disturbing results.
What should a flawed character look like?
What should they not look like?
What are these flaws, anyway, and what do they mean?
Let’s tackle that last question first; it will help define the good and bad flaws later.
Ready? Read on.
The Four Character Flaws
You can think of a minor flaw as an annoying habit, like a character chewing their nails or making every conversation about themselves. (That second one hints at some bigger issues, too! Bonus!)
Compared to the flaws we’ll talk about next, minor flaws are little more than negative traits.
Characters who are central to the plot should have a few minor flaws; they breathe life into a character and make them jump off the page just a little bit more.
And I think that minor characters should have at least one minor flaw. If you add minor flaws and a unique physical characteristic to a minor character, it will help them stand out from the crowd.
Major flaws are so much more dramatic than a minor flaw!
A major flaw arises from a tragic event in the character’s past. They’re life-changing, and can result in physical, emotional, or mental flaws.
This painful event can warp their beliefs, which could change how a character reacts to a certain situation or personality type.
If a character is betrayed by a loved one, it could result in mistrust,—maybe even paranoia—or having a difficult time getting close to people again.
A fatal flaw is one that will make or break a character.
It is the thing that he or she must overcome to be fulfilled in life.
In your antagonist (the baddie), a fatal flaw will often be their downfall. Pride makes people think they’re better than anything that could come their way, and they might boast a little too loudly about their less-than-legal accomplishments.
For your protagonist (main character), their fatal flaw is a central source of conflict.
Before the plot reveals it to them, they may be unaware of this flaw—or even mistake it as one of their strengths.
Are they extra cautious? Are they one step away from a backyard bunker? Maybe they’re afraid of the unknown.
That could be problematic for a character who faces all of the adventures your plot throws their way.
Last, but probably my favorite, is the tragic flaw.
Simply put, this is a flaw that cannot be overcome.
A character burdened with a tragic flaw will remain stuck and unfulfilled in life.
The plot may give them plenty of opportunities to better themselves, but ultimately, they never change or grow. If you drew their arc, it might wiggle around, but it would be almost a flat line.
Tragic is the perfect word to describe it.
Javert in Les Misérables is the perfect example of a tragic character.
His tragic flaw is his need for justice. This need is so strong that he is unwilling to forgive others and, more importantly, accept forgiveness. It’s the ruin of him.
So what’s a good character flaw?
How can flaws go wrong?
You’ll have to wait around and see!
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What kind of flaw is your favorite?
Where did you first read or see it played out?