The article before you is the first part of a short series I am starting on the importance of writing character flaws. This series is going to go more in depth than I usually do in my pieces on writing because this subject is important and has a lot of nuance. I may not release each part consecutively, but I will keep working on this idea until I think I have said enough on it.
Flaws Need to Matter
To any story the characterization of the protagonist is important. I know that sounds obvious, but weak characterization is a common problem in films, novels, & games. A significant problem is that of creating flaws for your characters. We frequently see characters that have no discernible flaws or have flaws that do not matter to the story. Creating flawed character is difficult but a vital aspect of not only character creation but storytelling because a character’s flaws should impact the narrative in a significant way. Flaws are important because they complicate the story and deepen the characters.
Unless you are trying to tell an empowerment fantasy, like a superhero or fantasy story with an effective villain (because they can complicate the story), you need to base your story around flawed human characters. Though, I would still reconsider telling that kind of story. A story is more compelling if the protagonist has to struggle with themselves in addition to their enemy.
Your character’s flaws need to complicate the story. For instance, if the protagonist’s flaw is that they are a bad parent, then the story needs to hinge on the family. There would be no point to the flaw, otherwise, because it does not impact the story. If you have a story about a cop solving a murder, making them a bad parent is pointless if they do not interact with their family at all. At the very least their family would need to be a subplot (a decent way to explore a character’s flaws). Just remember that subplots need to tie into the main story. If the cop in the example above has a gambling addiction that could start as a subplots that has significant impact on the main story, especially if the murder is connected to a casino or other gambling establishment.
Flaws Done Right
In the Legend of Korra, the titular character is brash and impulsive. These two traits alone, get Korra into a lot of dire straits. She is defeated several times, and worsens some tense situations because of her attitude. This creates engaging twists and turns, as Korra navigates not only the villains’ plots but her own mistakes. She is also more relatable, as a result of these flaws. We see her struggles and feel for her, while placing ourselves in her shoes.
A common tactic in several comedies, both romantic and regular, is to make one of the main character’s clumsy. Rom Coms like to make the female lead clumsy for some reason. Clumsiness is a comedy shortcut. Jessica Alba, in Good Luck Chuck (Terrible movie. Don’t waste your time.), is constantly stumbling and knocking things over. This causes Dane Cook’s character a lot of pain (seems promising, but still doesn’t make the movie worth it), but her antics have no effect on the narrative. A person falling down can get a cheap laugh out of the audience, but their clumsiness has no bearing on the story in any way.
A good set of character flaws, however, can contribute to both the story and the laughs if they are well thought out. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite comedies partially for this reason (it also has the best dialogue because Shane Black is the best). Robert Downey Jr. plays a super flawed character, Harry Lockhart, whose thoughtlessness practically drives the plot. In a scene where the two leads are trying to get vital information from a guard, Harry decides he is going to try to intimidate the guard with a game of Russian Roulette. He loads the bullet in one of his gun’s 6 chambers, spins it, and pulls the trigger, which makes the gun fire and kill the guard. He failed to think through the potential of his actions because he thought the gun only had an 8% chance of lining up the bullet with the firing pin. This hilarious scene (seriously, watch this movie!) puts a hitch in the story, as the protagonists need to now find another way to get the information they need. The most important thing to remember is that a character’s flaws make the story more interesting. Without Harry’s miscalculation the scene would have just been the leads asking questions and the guard giving answers, after a bit of resistance.
Flaws spice up the plot, making the characters have to work around themselves so they can address the more pressing issue. Flawed characters get in their own way, making life more difficult for themselves and those around them. Additionally, dealing with internal as well as external conflict gives the story more impact and makes the triumph more rewarding or the failure more tragic. Either way you wind up with a more interesting story about more interesting people.
Any thoughts, questions, or comments on this topic? Please ask. I’ll be working on this series for the foreseeable future, and I welcome any and all discussion, as I firmly believe character flaws are vitally important to storytelling.