04 October, 2010

Character Flaws--What They Are (Or Should Be)

I noticed that for almost all the posts for How to Write Compelling Characters there was something about character flaws. I called it "3-Dimensionality". (I just had to say that word again.)

And I agree.

The only question is--what counts as a flaw and under what context are they flaws?

For example, let's take an example of a character (I realize this is cliched--I'm using this for demonstrative purposes only): male, tall, handsome, glittery. (Maybe cut the glitter if you like.) Now, if I was going to give this person a flaw there are a range of things I could do to make him 3-Dimensional. Only, some things people might see as flaws are things other people don't see as flaws.

I, personally, am skeptical of male, tall, handsome, glittery (MTHG) characters. However, it seems quite apparent that a lot of people think that such people are pluses for society and quickly fall in love. Unless it's some subconscious need to bind yourself to the weird-y and strange, it's obviously not a "flaw" per se.

Another example is if I made this MTHG dude a fan of science and math. Now, some (me in particular--hehe) would see that as a big positive and simply contribute to the flawless side, while a lot of other people would see that as a drawback AKA flaw. (Geek alert!) Same if I made him a fan of P.E.; some people would be happy about this, others would not. (Jock alert!

(Note that these are stereotyped flaws--be sure to stay away from that!)

So here comes the first question: what are more "universal" flaws that people can relate with? To appeal to an audience (I am assuming that this is the idea when it comes to creating characters) then there has to be something that most people would say is a flaw.

For example, a crabby, snappy attitude in the morning. I think most people would agree that being super-grouchy in the morning is a flaw. Or a nervous habit of talking a lot when under stress and babbling when scared. Or jumping around when things are tense and jiggling and not staying still when things are bordering on really serious. Or having a constant fear of combat and backing off when pressured.

Those would be flaws more people could relate to than meeting a MTHG dude who loves studying molecules.

That sort of flaw-tackling strategy is important, in my opinion. When creating a character, be sure that the flaws of your character are people others can relate to and that they are significant enough to really matter. A lot of characters (MTHG dude was partly based on Edward from The Twilight Saga, Damen from The Immortals, and from other influences I've forgotten by now plus some stuff from off the top of my head) in new fiction don't have enough substance; they're handsome, but that's about it. They aren't real.

Another thing is that a character should have more than one flaw. They could be jittery, and that's a good flaw, but they should also have something else, maybe a smaller flaw, something not quite as important to the overall appearance of the character; for example, an iced-tea obsession. It's not as important, but it adds another facet to the character, another, smaller dimension.

The same goes the other way: too many flaws and the character is going to seem hopeless to the reader.

So all of you were right--flaws are important!

What do you think a "flaw" should be? Do you agree with this analysis? Disagree? Have a point to make?

-----The Golden Eagle


Tyrean Martinson said...

Flaws . . . well, I definitely think that fear is a good flaw, especially fear that keeps a character from saving the day in five seconds, and getting the girl in 10. Fear hidden with surliness is also good.

Another character flaw could be . . . annoying habits like whistling through teeth, laughing nervously, etc . . . more indicators of some inner struggle than anything else.

I also love reluctant heroes. They just seem a bit more realistic to me. I may have my crazy moments when I think skiing through a snowboard park would be fun, but in general many heroes in movies and books are just too willing to throw themselves off cliffsides without thinking things through to be true to life.

Great, thought-provoking post!!!

Misha said...

Great post.

I find vulnerability hidden by arrogance an interesting flaw...

But it's the devil to write.

Elliot Grace said...

...character flaws are the nemesis that make the person believable to the reader. No one wants to read of a perfect person living a carefree life, always on time, always saving Grandma's cat from atop the tree...it'll never work. Give the guy irritable bowel syndrome, or chronic migraines...anything that makes him human:)

C. N. Nevets said...

I think it's important for a character two demonstrate at least two kinds of flaws: those the reader can identify with or give a pass to, and those the reader actually objects to.

Grumbling in the morning... A physical challenge... A quirky habit... A bit of a flaw, something many of us can relate to, and most of could at least just include as a mark of imperfection that makes someone believable.

To ramp it up, though, and make a character truly interesting, it helps to have a flaw or two that is less easy for a reader to click with or approve of.

A woman that hates children? A man once or twice a year loses his cool and smacks his mom? A girl that watches porn? A boy that habitually shoplifts? Any of those could be an otherwise sympathetic MC, with some flaw that would make most or many readers uncomfortable and therefore interested to see how it works out in the course of a story in which they are the rooting interest.

Those are all extreme, but that's for the purposes of illustration.

Kenzy said...

This is a great post. A wonderful topic, I believe. :)

I think character flaws are an... interesting subject. Some flaws can definitely distance a reader from the character, like being a murderous psychopath or sparkling in the sunlight, but other flaws might make the character more interesting and relatable.
For instance, a character may act a certain way to get attention, love, money, or fame [really, the list goes on], but might actually have a seriously negative or positive disposition that they're pushing aside. I'm sure that there are people who can relate to that in some way or form.

But then, are character "flaws" a bad thing or a good thing? Really, it just depends on the character, and how the reader connects with it.

Hannah Kincade said...

I think flaws can be good and bad. I don't think that too many flaws would be a bad thing unless it made no sense to the storyline. If the character is supposed to be a mess and extremely flawed then it's all good, right?

I love your analysis though. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I think that as long as the flaw is not arbitrary, it could potentially help flesh out the character in the story, but sometimes those other flaws are nice (iced tea obsession may not help or hurt her chances with that special guy/gal, but it helps fill out the character for character's sake).

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think you nailed it - sometimes flaws to one person aren't flaws to another. And flaws can turn out to be strengths when the character is in the right situation.

The Words Crafter said...

I really liked this post. Flaws are all around us and within us. We just have to figure out how to use them in our characters.

How do they help us in our everyday lives? How do they hinder us?

Great topic!

Gail said...

Wonderful tips but if he's so handsome, can we give him a scar or something?

I know, I know...talking about character here not appearance.

DLCurran said...

What a great post!

Our small writers group had a workshop weekend a few weeks back and we did some character exercises. Simple enough, we had found the exercises online. One was making a character collage which we all found helped us visualize our characters better. But the other one was filling in a trait for each letter of the character's name. All mine (for MC) were positive, or mostly positive. I started filling in some questionnaires the next day. Clearly I didn't know him well enough! ;)

Again, great post!

RaShelle said...

Giving characters flaws is a must. In any good fiction, we want our characters to grow (hero) or become darker (villian). So these flaws will shape their arc. For me personally, I like when a character has a flaw that later becomes a strength - they've grown.

Of course, they will have other minor flaws, love twinkies or can't stop flipping hair when they're nervous, but you get what I mean. Yes?

N. R. Williams said...

Nice post. I am a doormat. Not to outsiders so much as to my own family members and they take advantage of me. However, writing a character that is a doormat is tricky to be fresh and not irritate the reader.
N. R Williams, fantasy author

NiaRaie said...

You're right about attractive physical traits. Not everyone wants a glittery tall guy. The writer may have meant for me to swoon, but now all I can think about is how unattractive I would find him in real life.

Quinn said...

I think you said it best and there's not much to add. It's really important to give characters flaws, but these flaws won't necessarily be viewed as flaws to everyone. Great post.

brave chickens said...

I've never thought about character flaws until I read your post. You worded it so nicely.
I suppose I'll start to notice character flaws in my reading now :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Tyrean: Fear--exactly.

Those would be good indicators of something beneath the surface of the character.

I know I'm not going to be throwing myself off cliffs any time soon. :P It's true that a lot of characters do things without really thinking about them realistically.

Misha: You said it. Oftentimes people are hiding something through their arrogant attitude; some weakness or secret.

It's definitely hard to write!

Elliot: Physical flaws are another type that is important. (I didn't think of that!) People aren't just crabby--they can be sick somehow as well.

C. N. Nevets: Good point! Being able to relate the flaw and ones that the reader will argue with.

Kenzy: Interesting thought there, that the character would be trying to hide something by taking on a whole new attitude.

Hannah: True. There are cases where a really flawed character would work for a story.

The Kangmeister: Flaws for the story and for the character--great way of putting it!

Alex: I find it fascinating when someone's weakness becomes their strength when the situation is right.

The Words Crafter: That's what writer's are for! :)

Gail: That would be another sort of flaw, and a two-birds-with-one-stone for MTHG dude--he'd have a visible flaw and there would some history to it.

DLCurran: That would be hard to do for me--my character's names tend to be pretty long! But it's a great writing exercise. Have fun discovering more about your character!

RaShelle: Yup! I, too, like it when the character's weakness turns into a strength, although finding the right plot and setting for such a transformation can be difficult.

N. R. Williams: It can be hard to avoid flaws that are common in literature and create something original.

NiaRaie: RL is what matters in the end! If it's not realistic, or true to life enough, then the story isn't as believable as it could be.

Quinn: Nope. Some are going to be flaws to a greater number of people, but I don't think there's any one trait that's completely universal.

Brave Chickens: I hope you find it useful!

Cold As Heaven said...

A passion for science and math does definitely add to the heroic and adorable side >;)))

Cold As Heaven

The Golden Eagle said...

Well, they're sort of my strengths and there aren't many (male) characters out there who are as handsome as, say, Edward's supposed to be and like math/science.