Tips for Creating Character Flaws
There’s nothing more boring than reading about a perfect character. When a reader picks up a book, they want to read about someone who has gotten themselves into a bad situation and must figure a way out. They want to read about love gone wrong when a partner cheats or someone who blew the best opportunity of their life and has to fix it. They want to see how the most awkward boy in the school can get the popular girl to go to prom with him. Following a character arc is one of the main elements that keep readers turning pages— we want to see how the hero is going to solve their problems! In order for this to happen, you need to give your character flaws.
So what are character flaws? How are they used in fiction, and how do you create a flawed character? In this post, we'll define three types of character flaws and share tips on how you can create fictional characters with just the right flaws.
What is a character flaw in fiction?
A character flaw is any trait that prevents a character from being perfect. They're faults or weaknesses that cause problems for the character. Some are fixable while others are not. A character flaw can be as simple as a husband who forgets his wife’s birthday or as complex as a woman who plots to kill her husband’s lover.
There are three types of character flaws: minor, major, and fatal. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Minor flaws make a character distinguishable without affecting the story in any major way. These can be small imperfections or quirks, which might include being forgetful, stubborn, clumsy, absent-minded, gullible, naïve, meek, or mischievous. Minor flaws are ones the character, and the reader, can move past without causing major problems for the hero.
In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane’s insistence on seeing the best in people often results in her underestimating other people’s shortcomings. On the other hand, Elizabeth is overly judgmental of everyone. These minor character flaws are noticeable, but they don’t bring about the downfall of either character. They do, however, make for great reading and character development.
Major character flaws are more noticeable than minor character flaws and will cause serious problems for the character if they don’t change. Major flaws have a negative connotation and often include personality traits that are less than desirable. Major flaws might include arrogance, anxiousness, hypocrisy, adultery, and envy. These flaws make it more difficult for the reader to root for the character unless the character is able to change and move past these flaws.
In Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows, Kaz Brekker's major flaw is his inability to let go of his past— specifically the loss of his brother. His desire for vengeance often overrides his better judgment, leading him to take extreme risks and make morally ambiguous decisions. As the series progresses, Kaz's struggle to move past his trauma and open up emotionally adds depth to his character and creates a compelling narrative about the power of healing and redemption.
Fatal flaws are those flaws that bring about a character's downfall. These character traits will make or break your character. Fatal flaws can include abusiveness, hubris, addiction, arrogance, cowardice, selfishness, and vengefulness.
In V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, Addie’s wish is to find a way out of her pending marriage. In her fatal flaw of desperation, she makes a deal with the devil and agrees to immortality. This fatal desperation traps her in a life she can never get out of, one much worse than the marriage she was desperate to escape.
Now that you know about the different types of flaws, let’s look at how to write flaws for your characters.
Tips for writing interesting characters
Character flaws must be relatable and believable
Although every character must have a flaw, the flaw must be one to which the reader can relate. It must also be believable. In Jennifer Weiner’s All Fall Down, Allison Weiss becomes addicted to opioids as a method of dealing with the everyday stress of being a mother, a wife, a working woman, and a caretaker to an aging parent with Alzheimer’s. Even if a reader has never struggled with addiction, they can relate to Allison’s struggles because her struggles are believable and real. As the reader follows Allison’s journey, it’s easy to root for her and cheer when she overcomes her flaws.
Give the character a flaw they can (and must) overcome
Your hero's flaw needs to be significant, but it needs to be something they can conquer by the time the reader turns the last page. A reader might feel tricked if they invest in the hero’s journey only to find at the end, the hero fell victim to their flaw.
In Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, Rachel is an alcoholic and spirals out of control after her marriage falls apart, an illusion that she struggles to let go of. Her flaws are so severe that she becomes a suspect in a murder case. Rachel must pull herself together, let go of the illusion that was her marriage, and beat her addiction in order to overcome her problems and her flaws.
Character flaws allow them to go through a transformation
The flaw your character overcomes must force them to go through a transformation. Your hero shouldn't be the same person they were at the beginning of the book as they are at the end— though their character arc may be a positive or negative one.
Give your character an age-appropriate flaw
A good character flaw must be appropriate for their age. For example, a middle school-aged protagonist might outlandishly exaggerate their stories to impress their friends. In contrast, an adult might have a preoccupation with their career advancement, always gunning for the next rung on the corporate ladder. While both flaws stem from a need for validation, they manifest differently based on age and life experience.
Give characters flaws unique to their personality and backstory
The flaws you give your character must be a unique match to their personality and backstory. In Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, Kya Clark trusts no one and relies only on herself for survival after she is abandoned as a child by everyone in her family. This lack of trust includes school officials and results in Kya only going to school one day in her life. Her lack of trust later leads her to trust the wrong people while distrusting the right ones. This lack of trust gets in the way of receiving an education and making relationships throughout her life. These flaws are uniquely matched to Kya's backstory of being abandoned by her family and having to rely only on herself for survival.
Ready to create your flawed characters?
Now that you know what character flaws are and how to write them, it’s time to give your character just the right flaws that will allow them to struggle yet make a transformation by the end of the book. Make your character’s flaws believable, ones the reader can relate to, and age-appropriate. Make your characters' negative traits a unique match to their personalities and their backstories. If you use these tips to make your characters complex and three-dimensional, your readers will be rooting for them from the first page to the last!