On Writing: Flawed Characters

One topic that I find particularly interesting, but happen to be particularly crap at is Character Flaws.

Good or Bad Diet Choices |

The reason I say this about myself is I do what I suspect many writers do, and kind of just generate characters in a sort of pantser fashion – not necessary lacking in flaws but perhaps lacking in well planned or designed flaws.

As many of you will know, most experts in fiction theorize that the best characters have one specific fatal flaw, something that isn’t just pertinent to the plot, but in fact the plot revolves around the character resolving. Whether that is a happy story about a character learning and growing beyond their flaw, a tragedy about said flaw finally getting the better of them and/or solidifying and becoming worse, or very rarely an exploration of how the character manages to go through their story without changing one bit.

One issue I think is that there can be a bit on confusion between ‘flawed’ characters and the characters fatal flaw or ‘wound.’ I actually want to focus on the former for this post…

The difference may seem like splitting hairs, but hear me out here. [:)] A flawed character is essentially someone that doesn’t risk being a Mary Sue, or turning a reader off for being unrelatably or annoying perfect. But the exact nature of a flawed character is kind of hard to pin down, like, do they just need to have some faults sprinkled about them to be interesting? Or just need to be as bad as the book’s readers to stay in touch?

In thinking about I came up with a weird realization. The issue isn’t exactly about how a character should be, but the nature of the author/story/reader relationship. Generally the goal of a writer is to be invisible, or at least mostly hidden until rare moments of impressing the reader. One of the most common ways that writers unintentionally reveal themselves is excessive or obvious moralizing or preaching.

Characterization is one way this happens.

You see, there really isn’t such a thing as a perfect character, not really. What there is, is a character that the writer obviously thinks is perfect. When as readers we get annoyed at an apparently perfect specimen, what I think really gets under our skin isn’t so much a character without a flaw, its that they are being portrayed as not having flaw when really there is no such thing.

For example, the classic boy-scout Superman. Superman is often a painfully dull character, not only for his seemingly endless invincible powers, but his even more endless boy scout morals. Some writers however, manage to pen great stories about Supe’s by finding moral or situational conundrums that challenge the hero and thereby test his character. It’s not so much whether Superman is great or not, its how a writer shows their skill at setting up a challenge for the character or not.

If writers don’t setup a challenge, if they send invincible warriors into easily won battles, or pit Sherlockian detectives against simpleton criminals the issue isn’t actually that the characters are too perfect, its that the writers have shown their hand in gushing over their prowess in what are effectively Straw Man situations. It is in part either an issue with the character or the situation not being challenging, but the problem, I believe, is that it feels like listening to the author’s ideas about perfection.

If my thesis holds true the issue isn’t trying to slap some flaws on your characters, but rather to make sure you are exploring THE flaws of your character, e.g. don’t make your heroic and handsome superhero a secret Pokemon Go addict to try and round them out, challenge the idea of heroic handsome superheroes.

Hope this one made sense – getting a little bit circular and winding reasoning on this one!

What are your thoughts on character flaws?

and… How are you holding up during the global pandemic?

3 thoughts on “On Writing: Flawed Characters

  1. “make your heroic and handsome superhero a secret Pokemon Go addict” — I came here to read about flawed characters, and I’m feeling so attacked right now.

    I think you’re right about the problem of flawless characters being that the writer thinks they’re perfect. As has been said, you can get away with any trope if you’ve earned it. Unearned gushing about how amazing and brilliant and suave and modest and stable-genius someone is just everyone else despise them (and, by extension, the writer as well).

    Liked by 1 person

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