What is a Character Flaw?

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Have you ever read a book or watched a television show and you just knew a main character was going to do something detrimental to themselves or someone they loved? In most cases, the character can’t help themselves; we may see the flaw and be aware of impending doom while the character goes about their business of intentional or unintentional sabotage. We have character flaws to thank for these moments.

What is a character flaw?

From a reader’s perspective, character flaws make a character more believable, dimensional, and can add tension to how a story unfolds. We follow along journeys of characters who may or may not be trying to evolve.

As writers, manufacturing or imagining how to insert or sculpt a fictional character’s flaws takes a bit more intention and willingness. After all, it’s hard to hurt the ones we love. Consider this: What would Gone with the Wind be without Scarlet O’Hara’s selfishness? Or Harry Potter without Harry’s anger or impulsiveness?

We do ourselves and our readers favors by crafting believable and flawed characters in our stories. It keeps writing dynamic, creates layers of complexity, and ensures that we make room for the unbelievable and unimaginable behaviors and occurrences that unfold in a story’s timeline. It gives us a chance to be with and react to events in real time. And if we — as writers — are reacting in real time to what’s coming undone, imagine how that comes across to the reader!

Exploring the types of character flaws

Not every flaw is major, and not every major flaw is fatal, but they can all play signature roles in character development. Let’s review the minor flaw, major flaw, and fatal flaw that can help create a compelling character.

Minor character flaws

Minor flaws are elements about a character that, although annoying, quirky, or eccentric, don’t contribute to a character’s eminent downfall or destruction. In Sex and the City, the character of Charlotte York is perpetually Pollyanna about the way she sees the world. Sometimes, readers and viewers wish Charlotte would get a clue or approach relationships with more practicality.

To Charlotte, the dating cup is always half-full, and this minor character flaw doesn’t prevent her from maintaining friendships or finding love; it’s just the way her perpetual romanticism plays out over the course of her story.

Major character flaws

One of the best examples of how to craft a character’s major flaws is Thomas Barrow of Downton Abby. Barrow’s flaws are layered, ever-present, and they consistently cost him opportunities for being liked. Even though we know Barrow is troubled — feeling like an outsider as a homosexual during a time when that was completely unacceptable — we watch Barrow’s spite, pettiness, jealousy, and need for control show up over and over again. In moments when Barrow could be nice or do the right thing, he reverts to his major character flaws at his own expense, which makes for a realistic character.

Fatal character flaws

Perhaps no author commands such exemplary use of a fatal flaw quite like Shakespeare. Fatal flaws are personality defects, or common human elements that, when played out to their extreme, directly propagate a character’s downfall. Excessive pride, hubris, or an unfailing ego are common fatal flaws which eventually cause a downfall in such a way that the character’s own part in the destruction is undeniable.

Romeo may be is Shakespeare’s most notable protagonist with the most cited fatal flaws: impulsiveness and romanticism. Romeo falls madly in love with Juliet upon first sight. Even in the wake of family turmoil, politics, and the murder of Juliet’s brother, Romeo impulsively acts out — out of love — without thinking of consequence. His final impulsive act prevents Romeo from reading a letter that would have revealed that Juliet had faked her own death. Thus, Romeo’s fatal flaws seal his own death.

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How to effectively use character flaws in writing

When you think about integrating flaws into your character’s development, imagine the character at their best and at their worst. Stories allow you, as the writer, to move from one end to the other, and the creation of everything imaginative that happens in-between.

The flaws are the behaviors that prevent the character from achieving what it is they ultimately want. Chances are the same flaw could be at the heart of how they move in the world, and how they respond to people and circumstances around them.

Ultimately there are several ways the flaw could unfold: either it’s something they aren’t yet aware of, but become aware of, and move to improve; the flaw is something they never become aware of and becomes their downfall; or, they might be aware of the flaw, and sometimes, they’re able to do something about it. Other times, their human nature takes over and they have no other choice.

Flaw pathways

For instance, if you’re writing a romance novel, a character’s flaw of being unable to trust people might be something that would prevent that character from falling in love. Every time he or she met a prospect they might love, they find a reason or way to affirm doubt or fear.

If you want your flawed character to evolve, perhaps you’d create a pivotal moment when the character sees they overreacted when an issue of trust was called into question. They might reflect, and as a result, prevent themselves from saying or doing something that could cause irreparable harm to the other character or themselves.

If you wanted your flawed character to remain mistrustful, never able to achieve a great love, you’d ensure they’d act out, say something, or revert to a protective behavior that would drive away the very prospect they hoped to love.

If the scene or moment allowed for the character to have some awareness, coupled by some natural reactive, protective, non-trusting human behavior, perhaps he or she would revert to their own human nature and do or say something potentially harmful to the other character. But at the moment of doing so, or immediately thereafter, become aware and take some action to repair the damage.

Character design and flaws

Questions you might ask yourself as you develop a character: Do you want them to know or not know — or become aware — of their flaw through their own story arc? Do you want them to have chances for reflection? Redemption? Is the arc of the story about how they become aware, what they continually do to face their flaw, or why they eventually overcome their flaws?

Free guide offer for Promote Then PublishHowever you approach these scenarios, it’s important to provide balance. If your character doesn’t trust others, as a rule, it’s important to create moments during which the character has glimmers of trust or makes efforts to become vulnerable. Show the character stretching or reaching for something out of their go-to reactionary behavior.

If your character doesn’t trust, offer scenes or moments of trust. If the character’s flaw relates to being highly egotistical, show rare moments of humility. Such balance creates believability, bolsters the layers of a story, and helps readers become invested in how a character does or doesn’t eventually overcome their flaws.

Nothing is more compelling in storytelling than a character who strives or fails. Imperfection is the stuff of life that enables us to grow, change, or be forever tormented by our humanness. The flaws we create for our characters help ensure that our writing remains dynamic, engaging, and ripe for a reader’s investment.

Common character flaws

Flaws come in innumerable shapes and colors. Your main character should have multiple personality traits that are explored throughout their character arc. Here are 30 positive and negative traits to consider — feel free to add more in the comments sections!

Quirky or endearing

  1. Gullible: always wants to believe
  2. Lazy: seeks to do the most with the least effort
  3. Shy: tries to remain hidden in the background
  4. Naive: believes what most people tell them without questioning
  5. Foolish: acts without common sense or discernment
  6. Spoiled: believes all belongs to them or for them
  7. Class clown: needs to be the center of attention and makes everything a joke
  8. Eccentric: lives life on their own terms
  9. Ambitious: works hard at all costs
  10. Romantic: seeks love above practicality

Dangerous or harmful

  1. Arrogant: has to be right all the time
  2. Bitter: cannot let go of the past
  3. Envious: always looks to what others have and is never satisfied
  4. Greedy: wants everything for themselves
  5. Possessive: claims ownership of people, things, ideas, and false realities
  6. Vengeful: seeks retribution even at their own detriment
  7. Abusive: consistently inflicts bodily, emotional, and/or psychological harm
  8. Racist or bigoted: feels superior and demeans others
  9. Intolerant: little to no willingness, patience, or compassion for others
  10. Manipulative: navigates, coerces, and persuades for one’s own end

Subtle yet substantial

  1. Indecisive: can’t make decisions about small or large issues
  2. Ignorant: chooses to see only what they want to see
  3. Hypocritical: says they will do or provide something, then do or provide the opposite
  4. Cowardly: uses fear for inaction or avoidance
  5. People-pleaser: places themselves in delicate or compromising situations
  6. Skeptical: never feels settled or trusting
  7. Meek: won’t speak their own truth or defend others in need
  8. Perfectionist: nothing is ever good enough
  9. Stubborn: won’t adapt a point of view or seek new information
  10. Helpless: allows everyone and everything around them to dictate their lives

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