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 conflict.
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 within society.
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 some backstory—which, 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 to use.
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 finally brought 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 reputation?
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 character growth.
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 harder.
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 www.plottopunctuation.com.