Character Flaws: Why They’re So Important to Your Story [With Examples]
Maybe you’ve heard that your characters “should” have flaws. Or maybe you’ve come across terms like “tragic flaw” or “fatal flaw” in literature.
So what exactly is a character flaw … and why’s it important to your story?
What is a Character Flaw?
There’s no single definition of a character flaw – but in general, we could say that it’s some kind of imperfection or undesirable quality in your character.
Character flaws can stand in the way of your character reaching their goals – and they may well be issues that your character needs to overcome as they develop throughout the story.
Character flaws come in different sizes. Think about:
- Tragic flaw (or fatal flaw) – this is an issue so big that it brings about the character’s downfall – and may well kill them. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular Hamlet’s tragic flaw is often seen as indecisiveness: he weighs up different courses of action and possibilities to the point where he’s unable to take action.
- Major flaw that changes during the character arc – this might well be similar to a tragic flaw: the difference is the outcome. Your character manages to overcome their major flaw during the course of the story.
- Minor flaw that makes the character easier for us to empathise with. This flaw might be more of a quirk – they talk too loud, bite their nails, eat too much chocolate, are always running late, or similar.
Why Should Your Character Have Flaws?
There are lots of good reasons to give your characters flaws, including:
Making them More Relatable
A flawless, perfect character isn’t going to be very fun to read about. If your hero is brave, kind, clever, and never does anything wrong, then we’re going to struggle to engage emotionally with them.
Real people (including your readers!) have flaws. We want characters who are at least a little bit like us: people who aren’t perfect, who make mistakes, lose their temper, oversleep, get things wrong, and so on.
Making them More Interesting and Engaging
Sometimes, what might be seen as flaws are part of your character’s appeal. Perhaps they’re snarky or grumpy but we love them for it. Maybe they’re a bit too naive and trusting … but their open-hearted nature is a big part of who they are.
Driving the Plot
A character’s flaws can push the plot forward. Perhaps your character is chronically late … and something bad happens as a result (e.g. they lose their job or miss an important flight). Or it might be that something good happens: they meet someone they wouldn’t otherwise have met.
Giving Them a Character Arc
Bigger flaws will often form part of a character arc. We see the character overcome their difficulties – perhaps shaking off old, false beliefs about themself and the world, or truly conquering a character fault that was harmful to them and the people around them.
Do Villains Have Character Flaws, Too?
Villains certainly do have character flaws … in fact, arguably, they wouldn’t be villains in the first place if they weren’t quite deeply flawed.
A villain can have all the same flaws as a hero – and these flaws could potentially lead to their downfall. They could be cocky, overconfident, prone to angry outbursts (that alienate their subordinates), and so on.
You might also want to think about what your villain might consider flaws. Perhaps, deep down, they’re a kinder person than they let on. Letting this “flaw” show can make them more likeable or even more redeemable.
How to Create Flaws for Your Characters
Some well-meaning writing advice suggests that you can just pick character flaws from a long list. But the best character flaws aren’t simply tagged on. They arise from who your character is and from the problems they need to overcome.
Their flaws might come from something in their past. Perhaps they had critical, driven parents who pushed them to achieve academic excellence – and now they’re afraid of failure. Maybe they were badly hurt by someone they loved – and now they’re scared of starting a new relationship.
Their flaws could also relate to their greatest strengths. You might have a character who’s very intelligent … and knows it. Their intelligence is a good character trait, but their cockiness or arrogance isn’t. Or perhaps you have a character who has a keen mind for business. This is a strength – but if it leads to an obsession with money, that’s a character flaw.
When you’re discovering your characters’ flaws, think about:
- What negative experiences have they been through in the past?
- What great qualities do they have that could become warped, or taken to excess?
- What are their blind spots – their unconscious biases or assumptions?
- What negative ideas or traits might they have picked up from the society around them?
- What do they need to learn or overcome?
- Is this a flaw that they’ll conquer by the end of the story? (Major flaws often will be.)
- Is this flaw simply part of who they are as a character? (Minor flaws often fit here.)
Examples of Character Flaws in Literature, Film, and TV
Spotting character flaws isn’t an exact science. Readers might identify different flaws in characters based on their own experiences, values, and even prejudices.
But here are some clear and commonly accepted character flaws from literature and pop culture:
Character Flaws in Literature
1. Scrooge’s Greed, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
Scrooge’s greed and focus on money as a good in itself is a large part of A Christmas Carol. At the start of the book, he’s a crotchety, penny-pinching man who refuses to let his employee, Bob Cratchit, end the day a couple of hours early for Christmas … and he’s grumpy about letting him have Christmas day off.
The visits of three ghosts (of Christmas Past, Present, and Christmas Yet to Come) open his eyes to the suffering of others and also to his own loneliness. By the end of the book, he’s a changed man, treating the Cratchits – particularly Tiny Tim – with kindness and generosity.
2. Emma’s Snobbish, Self-Deluded Nature, Emma, Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s Emma isn’t, on the surface, a very likeable character: in fact, Austen herself described her protagonist as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Emma meddles in her friends’ lives, particularly when persuading her (lower class) friend Harriet to turn down a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, who Harriet likes, because Emma thinks the (higher class) Mr Elton likes her.
3. Othello’s Self-Doubt, Othello
Othello’s tragic flaw is often given as “jealousy” – but a more modern interpretation is that he’s not jealous so much as deeply insecure. Arguably, he’s internalised the prejudices of the (extremely racist) society in which he lives, and that makes it all too easy for him to believe that Desdemona doesn’t truly love him.
In the end, Othello is convinced – without a shred of real evidence – that Desdemona has been unfaithful. He suffocates her, convincing himself, “she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” Too late, Emilia (Iago’s wife) enters and explains that Iago has been lying to him.
Character Flaws in TV and Movies
4. Tony Stark’s Self-Obsessed Nature, Marvel movies
I really like Tony Stark as a character: he’s funny, clever, brave, and underneath the cockiness and arrogance, he’s clearly a good person. But in the earlier Marvel movies, his arrogant, self-centred nature makes it hard for him to see when he’s on the wrong path (in selling weapons initially) and also leads to character conflict (particularly between him and Captain America in Avengers).
He never loses his irreverence and cocky attitude – it’s part of his appeal as a character – but he certainly becomes less foolhardy and much more able to put others before himself, culminating in his self-sacrifice to save the universe in Avengers: Endgame when he takes the Infinity Stones from Thanos and uses them.
5. Dexter Morgan’s “Dark Passenger”, Dexter
Dexter’s “dark passenger” – his desire to kill – is very much part of who he is, and it’s central to the books and TV show. Multiple times, we see Dexter try to overcome it, but he never can. He channels his psychotic urges into killing serial killers, people who’d otherwise be getting away with their crimes, but it also causes irreparable harm. Characters who are close to him die or are hurt, as a result of his actions, and there are also very few people who he can truly open up to and show who he really is.
6. BA Baracus’s Fear of Flying, The A-Team
In the A-Team (a TV show that ran during the 1980s), BA Baracus, played by Mr T, is incredibly strong and tough – but afraid of flying. The others usually have to knock him out or trick him to get him onto a plane or helicopter, which happens fairly frequently in the series.
This can (and is!) played for comedy, but it can also be used to complicate the plot.
Character flaws, done well, are hugely important to your story. They can drive the action, make your characters more real and likeable, or even simply provide some comic relief.
For more help coming up with flaws and developing your characters in general, check out these articles:
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
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