How Flawed Characters Create Meaning In Story

flawed characters

A plot with underdeveloped characters is little more than light and sound. No matter how good the explosions and spectacle, story is ultimately about character, and flawed characters are believable characters. After all, no one’s perfect.

It’s easy to think that the surface events of a story — the twists, chases, and explosions — are its point. The experience of following the plot through the eyes of characters makes it easy for us to get distracted by the thrilling scenes and the drama.

But “drama” doesn’t mean anything without a specific person for it to happen to. Even the most dramatic screenplays rely on character for their drama. Consider James Bond. What does a shark tank mean without a 007 falling into it? Bond films don’t pull in audiences and readers with high-speed chases and the fighting alone. The audience is more interested in how James Bond himself — with all his history, strengths and flaws — responds to, and overcomes, any given situation. Usually, Bond can only beat the odds by stretching himself to the very core. By thinking differently, acting differently, and changing.

Similarly, crime and detective dramas may seem, on the surface, as piecemeal problem-solving. But what really compels the consumer audience to engage is to uncover the motivations behind the crimes being committed: the ever-fascinating whys of human behavior.

Characters with flawed realities

To move beyond just fireworks — to give a story meaning — we need to see how the characters perceive the world and how the external world influences them, regardless of their perceptions. It is this clash that drives the story, and precisely how the external world collides with a character is shaped by that character’s flawed view of the world.

All human beings are flawed in their own individual and interesting ways. How they are flawed has a lot to do with upbringing, experience, trauma, and hard lessons learned. These are the experiences that shape the brain, and they are unique to everyone.

Inevitably, our brains develop to view the world through a lens honed by our own experiences — making it extremely hard to perceive the external world in any other way. When people tell us we’re wrong or cruel, it’s easy to be dismissive. After all, we know that we’re right. We feel it and can see evidence for it everywhere.

Flaws define characters. Who a character is is really just how they are broken, how they interpret the world with the faulty information they receive from their brains. At the start of all good stories, we are introduced to a protagonist with a set of established flaws. How they perceive the world around them helps us, as readers, relate to their struggles. Then, when the drama of the plot kicks the protagonist into action, we find ourselves rooting for them.

Identifying and accepting flaws

It is crucial to character development that a character changes as a story progresses. But what defines “change,” exactly? According to this flawed model of character, change arises whenever the protagonist admits they got their perception of the world wrong.

The characters we meet at the beginning of a story are — like all of us in real life — living in a naive and warped version of the world. Their perceptions are wrong but they don’t know they’re wrong. Yet. But they’re about to find out.

This means a protagonist must break down the very structures of their reality before rebuilding it again, giving them a new perception of the external world. Such a transformation is not easy. Actually, it is often painful and disturbing for a character to come to terms with their flawed view of the world and adopt a new perception of it. The reason such transformations are so painful is because, in order to change, we must first reject our own beliefs. What we believe in — what feels normal for us — are the building blocks of the flawed brain’s grappling of the world. They feel personal to us because our beliefs are who we are. But of course many of our beliefs will be wrong.

Pain and predestined personalities

In addition to shaping the brain from experience and real early life drama, our genetics also play a role in shaping our flawed brains. For example, it is believed that genetics may play a role in how agreeable, disagreeable, or introverted a person is. These personality traits also modestly affect how people respond to and behave in situations. For example, when unexpected change (the drama in a story) happens, different personalities may be more likely to deceive, flirt, or get aggressive in order to get out of a situation.

Catalog Hana BannerCharacters with different personalities generate interesting and unique plots. It is from character that goals, plans, and actions flow. And as characters go about acting in their own characteristic way, the external world pushes back, generating a plot specific cause-and-effect journey.

A disagreeable neurotic like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is likely to be grumpy to the world around him and will have to always deal with the pushback from his grumpiness. A part of the tragedy of Heathcliff’s condition is that a positive feedback loop inevitably occurs, and he will forever have to deal with hostility and disapproval, despite convincing himself in his own flawed reality that he’s rational and reasonable.

Bringing flawed characters to life

Characters seem real because they are flawed, like all humans are flawed. Due to a combination of nature and nurture, we all inhabit different realities. And when these different realities collide, that’s when a story’s drama happens. Sometimes, when we are so deluded, and the weight of the external world comes crashing down, we are forced to painfully reshape our worldview — but only into another flawed (yet more compatible) model of reality.

In many cases, a character is unable to change and is destroyed, like many antagonists are, or reverses back to an earlier state. But these are all just examples of how they — and we — are flawed.

In any case, a writer can deliver a character’s flaws in virtually everything they do. In their thoughts, dialogue, memories, desires, social behaviors, and emotions. Flawed characters make the same kind of mistakes, and similarly triumph in the same kind of ways. In the process, characters leave their imprints: “identity claims” (how they dress, show off, and otherwise display how they want others to think of them) and “behavioral residue” (the items left behind, like two dozen empty beer cans for the alcoholic).

Stories are rarely entertaining unless they have conflict, and conflict inevitably arises from character flaws. Flaws are universal and make characters relatable. It is through story that we can find meaning, but it is through flawed characters that we can create meaning.

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