The Four Types of Character Flaws

heartAs writers, we know our characters should have positive and negative attributes because in real life, each individual is a mix of both. Flaws are especially important as in the character’s weaker moments, they dictate their thoughts, actions and behaviors, leading to poor decisions and mistakes. Talk about fueling great conflict and tension!

So what exactly is a flaw?

In The Negative Trait Thesaurus, Becca and I define a flaw as: a self-focused trait that does not take into account the well-being of others, damages or minimizes relationships, and holds the character back in some way (denying self-growth).

There are several types of flaws that appear in fiction. Here’s a breakdown:

CORE (MAJOR) FLAWS:

These flaws develop as a result of painful experiences, reshaping the character’s view of his world and the people in it. His skewed vision will bleed into his dealings with others by coloring his judgement and driving his actions. He will also be more emotionally sensitive in situations that are reminiscent of hurtful past events.

For example, a character who has been taken advantage of (either during a large, wounding event or repeatedly in smaller ways) will likely develop mistrust. Perhaps once he was open and friendly, gave people the benefit of the doubt and took them at their word. But after bitter experience, his viewpoint has changed, and now he questions the motives of others during interactions, looks for hidden meanings and agendas, and possibly even assumes others are always seeking to take advantage.

Major flaws are literally life-altering, and a character’s reactions and behavior in most situations stems from a biased (and incorrect) belief (e.g.: all people are liars or takers, only out for themselves), which triggers a need to protect himself from being hurt.

LESSER (MINOR) FLAWS:

1NTMinor flaws have a lesser influence, and often stem from a major flaw. The character sees these negative qualities as just “part of who I am,” even though they cause inconvenience at times. During stressful moments, these flaws might complicate situations or impair judgement (e.g.: a character’s short temper causing arguments in the workplace and damaging relationships with his coworkers).

In the example of our mistrustful protagonist, a lesser flaw might be undiplomatic, meaning he says and does things that indicate his core belief that most people aren’t honest or deserving of respect or consideration. When dealing with people, he might say whatever comes to mind without caring if it offends, offer hurtful honesty or deploy sarcasm. Alternatively, a mistrustful character could be secretive, overprotective, abrasive or unfriendly.

FATAL FLAW:

In the scope of fiction, every protagonist has a fatal flaw that highlights an inner deficiency that is keeping them from feeling happy and fulfilled. At the start of your story, the character is somehow stuck, unable to grow, move on or succeed, or his life is lacking in some way. A fatal flaw stands in his path, keeping him from being complete and whole. Often the character is blind to their fatal flaw, or mistakes it as a strength.

Through the trials and tribulations that occur within your story (external & internal conflict), this flaw is revealed for what it is. The character sees how it is getting in the way, and that he must face and subdue it. When he does, he achieves self-growth and what once limited him now no longer does so. The character will emerge from the story whole, satisfied with who he is and what he’s achieved. This internal change (self-growth) is known as Character Arc.

TRAGIC FLAW:

Occasionally, a character fails to overcome their fatal flaw. Whatever is holding him back, he cannot move past it. Unable to face the possibility of being hurt again, fear defeats him, leaving him unchanged and still “stuck.” This is what happens in a tragedy, and is often the undoing of an antagonist. It is also deeply imbedded in the creation of a villain.

In THOR, Loki’s need for acknowledgement and praise was tied deeply to his sense of self worth. As such, watching the rise of his brother Thor bred resentment and jealousy. To obtain the power and recognition he craved, he betrayed his own people. Then, at the end of the movie, his inability to allow his bother to save him and once again “be the hero” led to his downfall. Loki let go of Thor’s grip, choosing to be consumed by the wormhole instead.

*  ~  *  ~

Because flaws play such a pivotal role, choosing the right ones for each character means understanding who they really are at their core. Just like with emotional expression, it’s easy to get caught up in the “usual” flaw choices, so try to think past the first ones that come to mind and dig deeper for more complex ones. Too, experiment with blending flaws! With so many to choose from, the combinations are endless, ensuring each character is compelling and unique.

Need help visualizing your character’s FLAWS? Try our Character Pyramid Tool.

Image 1: Modman @ Pixabay

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The Four Types of Character Flaws

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  2. James says:

    I am brand new to creative writing and taking a course. But I seem to be having great difficulty thinking up character weaknesses. Can you give some more examples? I keep think of thinks like, maybe they sleep late, or have diabetes.. is there a trick to coming up with weaknesses? Maybe think of another character in another book? But I don’t want to copy someone else’s characters either.. Are weaknesses always abstract or emotional? or could a weakness be, for example, a broken leg?

    • H, James. Congrats on taking the jump to creative writing. I hope you find it as rewarding as I have. There are different kinds of character weaknesses; some are physical, like the diabetes and broken leg example that you mentioned. For those, I think it would be best to think in terms of goals, since weaknesses always get in the way of a character getting what he most wants and needs. So think of what your character wants, and ask yourself: What about his body would make it difficult for him to achieve that goal? Maybe it’s obesity, a speech impediment, being too short or too tall, having diabetes or chronic sinusitis or bad breath…the possibilities really are endless.

      But the biggest weaknesses that block our characters are often their flaws. Angela and I have written a thesaurus on this, cataloguing the different kinds of flaws that might plague a character, what might have caused those flaws to form, how they might manifest, etc. To see them, just browse our list of entries for the Character Trait Thesaurus. If that looks like information that might come in handy, we expanded the list when we published this thesaurus in book format. It’s separated into two separate volumes, one for positive attributes and one for character flaws. You can find information about both books on our Bookstore page. I hope this helps. Best of luck with your writing!

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  5. Pingback: Article | What’s Your Flaw? WritersHelpingWriter’s “The Four Types of Character Flaws” | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

  6. Mostyn says:

    Hey – great content, so sensible, I feel like I am flawed in not thinking with such structure earlier. Was so motivated I bought all 3 character trait books – a great reference thanks…
    My reason for commenting was more to do with my journal notation. I copied a snippet of the Blog to my journal for reference and magic, there was a link included (I usually copy the text then the URL) – this really impressed me – would you be able to share the secret (plugin)?
    cheers
    Mostyn.

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  8. MJ Bush says:

    I’m hesitant to say anything, but it’s bugging me… the fatal flaw is the tragic flaw. What you refer to as the fatal flaw is actually an impeding or foundational flaw (not official terms).

    The fatal flaw is called fatal because it’s what leads to the character’s demise in classic tragedies. In modern times, it can simply be what causes the character to ultimately fail to achieve his goals.

    But a fatal flaw by its nature is not overcome.

    • I think it depends on viewpoint and definition. If coming from the viewpoint that the fatal flaw is the thing that will be the character’s undoing, then yes, in that respects fatal and tragic are the same thing–if the character refuses to reject it for the defective “emotional armor” that it is, there is only one ending: tragedy. However, if you view the fatal flaw as the trait that stands directly in his path, his “own worst enemy” so to speak, and this flaw and the fear it masks is rejected through the achievement of self growth, the flaw is not tragic as it failed to hold the character back.

      Think of a race car that is running out of gas. If the driver refuses to stop in the pit and fill the tank, it will result in him losing the race. But if he maintains his car as needed, a lack of gas is no longer a factor in the outcome of his race. It will not be his undoing.

      I don’t know if this will help convey my meaning better: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FatalFlaw

      And don’t ever hesitate! 🙂 I don’t mind clarifying where I’m coming from. This is a difficult ( should I say grey area?) because in my research “fatal” and “tragic” are sometimes used synonymously, and other times not.

  9. Julie Musil says:

    Angela, boy do I need to crack open my character flaws book! And I’ll check out the pyramid. Thanks!

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  11. Shelly says:

    I know what I’m getting myself for Chrismakah.

    Tweeted and shared!

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  14. Maris McKay says:

    Great post 🙂 It should be helpful for my NaNo novel. I like that you used Loki as an example (just saw Dark World, so his character arch has been on my mind)

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  16. Mart Ramirez says:

    Love it! Thank you so much! Can’t wait to start a new project and put the books to use 🙂

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  18. Staci Troilo says:

    I love the new books. They made wonderful additions to my collection.

    The Thor/Loki situation is an excellent example of how a single character flaw can grow and fester in a person until he not only turns on his own people, but causes his own demise. I think sometimes we make our villians one-dimensionally evil, and forget to let them start with a smaller weakness that grows out of proportion. Great post!

  19. Jami Gold says:

    I’d never consciously thought about how we can categorize flaws into 4 buckets that way. Great insight–thanks!

  20. Interesting lesson on flaws. Thank you. I’m going to have to think about this some more as it relates to my wip.

  21. Rosi says:

    Very helpful, as usual. I am at the Highlights Whole Novel Historical Fiction workshop this week, and this morning one of the instructors, Nancy Castaldo, started a resource list for all of us. The Emotion Thesaurus was the very first thing she listed, then we spent quite a bit of time talking about it. I will be adding this site to the list as well. Thanks for continuing to give us writers such great help.

    • Oh wow! I’m honored Nancy thinks so highly of The Emotion Thesaurus. Becca and I know emotion is difficult to convey accurately and in a fresh manner, and is one of the ways that can bog writing down. Our goal for the ET was to give writers a way out by providing brainstorming lists so they can figure out how to show an emotion and then get right back to writing. Glad it’s working!

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