Why Your Flaw is not Flawed Enough
And how it’s preventing you from finding real conflict in your novel
Ugh, that interview question – what are your weaknesses?
And then, ugh! The answers!
‘I’m a perfectionist.’
‘Sometimes I work too hard.’
‘I’m too detail-oriented.’
‘My team have said I’m quite demanding of them.’
What would happen if your character were being interviewed. Here are some common answers I see, when I ask writers to describe their characters’ flaws. They are:
and often end up becoming conflated with their strengths. So, for example, a curious character just happens to make for a great investigator. The stubborn individual stands up for what’s right. And the reckless person takes the risks needed to complete the goal. Hmm. Flaws? Not so much.
It’s my suspicion that the reason we shy away from giving our protagonists deep flaws is that we like them too much. We want them to do well. We want them to ‘get the job’ and so we turn their weaknesses into strengths. Which isn’t wrong …
But flaws can be the key to crafting an engaging character, and subsequently, a gripping story. So maybe we need to be a bit more ruthless when crafting these ‘people’.
Let’s look at why, in one word:
Internal conflict: If only I wasn’t so addicted to TikTok I could get off my butt and solve this murder mystery
External conflict: If only you weren’t so closed off to other people, we could be in a relationship already
Societal conflict: If only you weren’t so painfully introverted we could hang
Compared to the ‘lite’ flaws, above, being an addict, having a stone-cold heart, or staying in your room day and night to play Fortnite aren’t traits that are necessarily going to help your character reach their goal. They are ‘deep flaws’ that will need to be overcome, conquered, or managed if the character is going to grow and fulfill the promise of the premise you’ve set up for them.
Let’s look at some deeper character flaws in action:
Han Solo – utterly selfish and driven by a desire for money. This doesn’t change, but he puts it to one side to swoop in and clear the way for Luke to destroy the death star. He doesn’t have to, but he does.
Piglet – bubbles with anxiety, but leans on Pooh to give him strength. His anxiety is a constant hindrance in his life so, he has to manage it by relying on others (in this example, it’s important to note that mental or physical health issues can be considered a flaw in terms of story. It doesn’t = bad. Rather, it’s something with the potential to create conflict.)
Milton (The Mighty) – believes he is too small to be able to affect real change. He should stick to dark corners, as his dad told him. He can’t be physically bigger. But he can think bigger.
But what if my character is stubborn too? And reckless? And inquisitive and …
Layers of flaws are what make us human. And, assuming you’re writing a human character or one with human traits, they should be layered too. What often prevents writers from doing this is the fear of their character being UNLIKEABLE
We want readers to fall in love with our characters, not be horrified, offended, or even mildly annoyed by them – don’t we?
Or do we want them to be relatable? To seem real, to feel like a mirror reflecting something in ourselves. Is that the problem? We don’t want to be shown how we’re flawed?
Often, I see children’s writers shy away from creating fully rounded, believable, deeply-flawed characters, especially child characters. Whatever the reason, here’s my CTA: step away from the urge to be nice for a moment and show your reader something altogether more realistic. Let’s be honest, all the kids I know have some manner of deep flaw – maybe they’re lazy, messy, self-absorbed, have issues with authority, they don’t listen, they get jealous, they can be cruel, spiteful, selfish … hold on, did I say all the kids I know – make that all the people I know. It’s what makes us worth rooting for. It’s what makes us beautiful. We all have deep flaws, and your characters should too.
Want a pair of eyes on your characters, and feedback on ways you can make their flaws drive conflict? Get in touch.