Make Your Characters’ Flaws Work on More Than One Level
by Jason Black
We’ve all heard the warning that
characters who are too perfect—who have “Superman syndrome”—are
difficult for readers to believe in and are boring to read. Thus,
we are well advised to give our characters some flaws. Still, while
it’s all well and good to have a character who is afraid of the
color yellow or who simply cannot remember anybody’s name until the
third time he hears it, does that really help your story? If that’s
all the flaw is, probably not.
Novels rely heavily on the strength of
the central conflict, the conflict that drives the whole plot
towards the climax. The reader’s perception of drama and tension
comes from that conflict, and from the degree of challenge the
protagonist faces in addressing that conflict. We experience drama
to the extent that we are genuinely uncertain as to how the conflict
might turn out. This is where your character flaws come in.
Pick a flaw that makes the job harder.
By itself, a character flaw works on
one level. It makes the character more believable and sympathetic.
You can make it work on a second level as well by choosing a flaw
that directly impedes the protagonist from addressing that central
When looking for a good flaw, I like
to brainstorm around two aspects of the story. One is the details of
the plot, settings, clues, and specific events in the outer story
arc. The other is the protagonist’s personal attributes, his or her
age, occupation, socio-economic status, and all-around situation
Story arc flaws
Working with story arc and plot
elements, imagine you’re writing a murder mystery where you know
that the climactic scene is going to happen in a disused subway
tunnel deep under Manhattan. In fact, many of the book’s clues will
be found in the pipes and tunnels beneath the Big Apple. No problem!
Make your detective be afraid of going underground. This requires
of course, you won’t reveal too early—so let’s say that your
detective and his brother used to go caving when they were kids.
Only, the brother died when the two accidentally triggered a
cave-in. Now he’s terrified of being underground. The memory of his
brother creates a suffocating, claustrophobic fear of the millions
of tons of soil and rock overhead.
This is a flaw that directly impedes
the detective’s job of investigating the crime scenes and catching
the killer. It also creates a fun reversal in the fact that despite
the detective’s experience in operating underground, which ought to
serve him well, his phobia blocks him from putting that experience
Protagonist’s personal flaws
Working with the protagonist’s general
qualities, imagine you’re writing a high school drama with a
sophomore girl as your protagonist. The story’s central conflict
revolves around a garden-variety misunderstanding between her and
another student, of the kind that happen all the time between
teenagers. The misunderstanding spins totally out of control and
into a huge rift that divides the student body into two camps. In
the climactic scene, where the core of the misunderstanding is
into the open, the resolution will
depend a lot on how the rest of the students feel about the
protagonist and her antagonist. Reputation is everything in high
school, so why not give the girl a flaw that undermines her
For example, maybe she fibs. She’s
basically a good kid, honest about important things, but she tends
to exaggerate the little stuff or embellish events to her own
advantage. Her peers aren’t stupid. They know she does this, and
simply take everything she says with a few grains of salt. Perhaps
the initial misunderstanding could have been overcome easily, except
that the girl fibbed just a bit so as to make herself look less
culpable, and in so doing kicked off the escalation of the whole
situation. When the big climax comes around this flaw can come back
to bite her. People will be a lot less likely to believe her version
of events—even if she does back off and tell the truth—because of
her reputation as a fibber.
Both types of flaws raise the drama and tension.
These two types of flaws are different
in an interesting way: In one, the character is obviously aware of
his flaw. The detective is perfectly aware of his fear of
underground spaces. In the other, the character may be blind to
it. The girl may not recognize how her actions are sabotaging her
reputation. Both options create drama.
In one, we watch the detective fight
against his phobia, wondering with each new scene whether he’ll be
able to summon the nerve to step underground. A succession of
failures, perhaps with increasing consequences from each, pushes the
drama higher and higher.
In the other, we watch the protagonist
create a situation where her self-image is increasingly different
from how others perceive her—an
“outer to inner” character arc. The drama comes from readers’
knowledge that this will come back to haunt her. The tension rises
as we wait for her house of cards to come crashing down.
Be smart about the flaws you pick.
Both of these character flaws work
because they turn the characters against themselves. They make each
protagonist into his or her own obstacle, and create uncertainty
about how the central conflict will turn out. These flaws also work
because they tie the outer story arc to the inner character arc;
addressing the story’s central conflict becomes an exercise in
So give your characters flaws. Do it
to make your characters believable and sympathetic. But be smart
about it. Find a flaw that works on two levels. Think about your
plot, and think about your protagonist. Find a flaw which is both
intriguing to the reader and which makes the protagonist’s job
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Jason Black is a book doctor who has helped over 50 novelists
improve their work in the past two years, has appeared at the PNWA
Summer Writers Conference in 2009 and 2010, and is writing a book on
character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read
his blog, visit his website at