The most relatable characters are ones who mirror real people, meaning they are complex individuals with a blend of strengths, failings, attributes, and flaws. Of these four, flaws are often the most difficult to figure out, because knowing which negative traits will emerge in someone means exploring their past to understand who negatively influenced them and what painful experiences they went through. It also means digging up unresolved emotional wounds which have left dysfunction and fear in their wake.
Flaws, or negative traits as they’re also called, are unusual in that the person who has them probably doesn’t view them as dysfunctional and instead believes these traits are helpful and necessary. Why? Because these traits are very good at creating space around your character. And when your character goes through life afraid of being hurt again, keeping people and experiences distant when they seem like they could lead somewhere painful is exactly what your character will want to do.
So, what does this look like?
Let’s take a character who dropped the ball in the past. He was babysitting his nephew, feeding him in the high chair, and the phone rings. He goes to retrieve the phone from his jacket pocket in the other room, and a scream sounds from behind him. His nephew wriggled free from the chair and fell, breaking his arm.
Mom and dad are alerted, and they are not happy.
Moving forward, our character, once the brother who always helped out, stepped up, and volunteered, becomes the guy who shows up late, loses or breaks things, and is always “busy” when asked. What happened? What caused this change?
Easy, that situation with his nephew, and the fallout that came after for not being there when he should have been.
By becoming irresponsible, unreliable, and self-absorbed, what are the chances someone will ask him to take on a big responsibility again? Pretty low. And as long as he’s never the one who has to come through, he’ll never have a chance to fail and disappoint like he did when he was caring for his nephew.
Logically, he was only out of the kitchen for a moment, and whether it were him or the child’s parent, probably the same thing would have happened. But when a person fails, they often take it to heart, blame themselves, and don’t ever want to be put in that same situation (because they’re sure they’ll only screw up). Adopting a character flaw or two will ensure he’s never going to have to worry about dropping the ball again.
Well, heck, that’s great right? No, not at all. Because while his flaws will keep people from requesting he be responsible in some way, he’s also denying himself the chance to be responsible and have a better outcome, which leads to growth and being able to let go of the past. It may also cause friction in his relationship, and even for him to not be there for others when he really wants to be, all because he’s too scared of making a mistake again.
Flaws are normal and natural. We all have them, and so will a character. And in order for them to solve their big story problems and succeed, they will need to examine what’s holding them back…their flaws, and the fears that caused them. So don’t be afraid of giving your character some flaws. Remember, the most relatable characters are those who think, act, and behave just like real people…and that means they’ll be far from perfect.
Now, some writers tend to rush character development in their eagerness to get words on the page, and randomly assign certain flaws without thinking about why they might be there. Unless these aspects of a character’s personality are fleshed out down the road, a character can feel like they lack depth. So make sure you know the “why” behind a flaw…it will help you understand what’s holding them back in the story, how they need to grow, and will point you toward conflict that will trigger them in negatives ways so they become more self-aware. After all, your character won’t realize his negative traits are a problem until failure because of them is staring him in the face.
How do we decide which flaws are right for a character?
1) Make Friends with the Character’s Backstory
Backstory gets a bad rap, but the truth is, we need to know it. Understanding a character’s past and what events shaped them is critical to understanding who they are. So brainstorm your character’s backstory, thinking about who and what influenced them, and what difficult experiences they went through that soured their view in some way, damaged their self-esteem, and cause them to avoid certain people and situations. This isn’t so that you can dump a bunch of flashbacks and info-heavy passages into your story to “explain” the source of a flaw. Rather, this information is for you as the author so you better understand what motivates your character, what he fears, and how his goal will be impossible to achieve until he sheds his flawed thinking and behaviors.
2) Poke Your Character’s Wounds
Past hurts leave a mark. Characters who have experienced emotional pain are not eager to do so again, which is why flaws form to “protect” from future hurt. A man who loses his wife to an unfortunate infection picked up during a hospital stay is likely have biases toward the medical system. He may grow stubborn and mistrustful, refusing to see a doctor when he grows sick, or seek medical treatment when he knows something is deeply wrong.
This wounding event (his wife’s death) changed him, affected his judgement, and now is making him risk his own health. Had his wife survived, these changes would not have taken place. Knowing your character’s wounds will help you understand how flaws form in the hopes that the character can protect himself from being hurt again.
3) Undermine Your Character’s Efforts
In every story, there is a goal: the character wants to achieve something, and hopefully whatever it is will be an uphill battle. To ensure it is, think about what positive traits will help them achieve this goal, how you can position the character for success. Then brainstorm flaws that will work against them, making it harder. This will help them start to see how their own flaws are getting in the way and sabotaging their progress.
4) Look for Friction Opportunities
No character is an island, and so there will be others who interact with them or try to help in the story. Maybe your character has certain flaws that will irritate other people and cause friction. Relationships can become giant stumbling blocks, especially for a character who wants connection or really needs help but has a hard time admitting it. Make them see how the path to smooth out friendships and interactions is to let go of traits that harm, not help.
5) Mine from Real Life
We all have flaws based on our own experiences, as do all the people around us. Some are small, minor things, others are more major and create big stumbling blocks as we go through life. Flaws are often blind spots, because the person who has them doesn’t see them as a bad thing, just that they have reasons for acting or thinking a certain way, meaning it’s okay. But whenever things don’t go well and we’re frustrated, there’s a good chance one of our flaws is getting in the way.
So, if you’re feeling brave, look within and find the bits of yourself that may not cast you in the best light. Do you get impatient easily? Do you feel like you always have to be in control? Are you sometimes a bit rude, quick to judge, or you make excuses to get out of responsibilities? Thinking about situations where our own behaviors crop up and cause trouble can help us write our character’s flaws more authentically.
If you need brainstorming help…
Don’t forget, one of our guides covers all of this and more. The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws explores a vast collection of personality flaws and breaks down each, showing you how they might cause your character to think, feel, and behave in a certain way.
It also helps you better understand how flaws can be used, their role in character arc, and the growth that will be necessary for a character to minimize or defeat a flaw if it is holding them back from achieving their story goal.
If you’d like to get a feel for what’s in this book, zip over here to see a list of the flaws we cover, and a few sample entries. Happy writing!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.