As 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:
Minor 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.
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.
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.
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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.