No one in the real world is perfect, and so characters shouldn’t be either. To seem as real as you or me, they should have flaws and strengths, and these sides of their personality should line up with who they are, how they were raised, and reflect the experiences they’ve had to date, good and bad.
While we develop our characters, however, we need to remember that flaws come with a tipping point. If we write someone with an overabundance of negative traits and behaviors that are a turnoff, the character will slide into unlikable territory. And yes, if the goal is to make a villain, antagonist, or other character loathsome, that’s fine–mission accomplished. But if we want readers to be on their side, too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness, or propensity for overblown reactions can cause a reader to disconnect.
Like a joke taken too far, it’s hard to claw an audience back once they’ve formed negative judgments, which is why we want to be careful and deliberate when showing our character’s negative side. Antiheroes tend to wear flaws more openly and can be semi-antagonistic as they battle the world’s constraints, so this line of likability is something to pay close attention to if we want readers to ultimately side with them. Here are some tips to help you.
How to Write Flawed Characters
& Not Turn Readers Off
Show A Glimmer: no matter how impatient, uptight, or spoiled your character is, hint there’s more beneath the surface. A small action or internal observation can show the character in a positive light, especially when delivered in their first scene (frequently referred to as a Save the Cat moment.) It can be a positive quality, like a sense of humor, or a simple act that shows something redeeming about the character.
Imagine a man yelling at the old ladies crowding the hallway outside his apartment door as they pick up their friend Mabel for bingo, and then seeing him swear and fume at the chuggy elevator for making him late. Not the nicest guy, is he? But when Mr. Suit and Tie gets to his car outside, he stops to dig out a Ziploc bag of cat food and carefully roll down the edges into a makeshift bowl.
What? Here the guy seemed like an impatient jerk, but we discover part of his morning routine is to feed the local stray cat! Maybe he isn’t so bad after all. (Talk about a literal interpretation of “saving the cat.”)
Use POV Narrative for Insight: characters are flawed for a reason, namely negative experiences (wounds) which create flaws as an “emotional countermeasure.” Imagine a hero who stutters, and he was teased about it growing up. Even his parents encouraged him to “be seen and not heard” when they hosted parties and special events. Because of the emotional trauma (shame and anger) at being treated badly, he’s now uncommunicative and unfriendly as an adult. This type of backstory can be dribbled into narrative with care, as long as it’s active, has bearing on the current action, and is brief as to not slow the pace.
Create Big Obstacles: the goal is to create empathy as soon as possible, and one of the ways to do that is to show what the character is up against. If your character has a rough road ahead, the reader will make allowances for behavior, provide they don’t wallow and whine overmuch. After all, it isn’t hardship that creates empathy…it’s how a character behaves despite their hardship as that gives readers a window into who they really are.
Form a Balance: No character is all good or all bad. Give them a mix of positive traits (attributes) and negative traits (flaws) so they feel realistic, and ensure their negative traits contain a learning curve. For example, their negative traits may be good at keeping people and uncomfortable situations at a distance in the past, but in your story, they won’t help your character get what they want. Your character will have to see this for themselves, and it’ll only happen when that flawed behavior and way of thinking leads to poor judgment, mistakes, relationship friction, and other problems, the poor sap.
Eventually the character will see that they need to change up their behavioral playlist if they want to succeed, and this means letting go of the bad and embracing the good, opening their mind to a new way of thinking, behaving, and being. This is where their positives get to shine, so lay the foundation with qualities that may start in the background, but come forward and show them to be rounded, likable, and unique.
Of Special Concern:
Your Story’s Baddies
It’s easy to give an antagonist flaws because your intent is to make readers dislike them, but even here, caution is needed. Hopelessly flawed antagonists make shallow characters and unworthy opponents, so we want to also give them strengths (like intelligence, meticulousness, dedication, and discipline, for example) to make them formidable and hard to beat.
This forces your protagonist to work their hardest, and in a match up, nothing is guaranteed. Being uncertain about the outcome of these story moments is what will hold the reader’s attention to the very end.
To build balanced, unique characters and find traits, positive and negative, that will make sense for them, take a look at the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus Writing Guides. We created these to make character building easier for you.
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.