In real life, people have many flaws. Some we can correct; some we can mask and others we cannot correct. A big part of our personality involves overcoming, putting up with, and dealing with our own flaws. A big part of our lives involves dealing with and attempting to correct other people’s faults.
For example, I hate cars with loud exhausts. Should I recognize that I have a flaw and ignore the noise? Live and let live. Mmm, no. I despise people who intentionally change their cars/motorcycles to be louder. What do I do about it? Well…not that much. Is this a personal flaw? It certainly is.
When developing a character, it is essential to focus on their flaws. Readers need to know the reasons behind a character’s motivation and character flaws are the key to explaining decisions. Jane steals a car. Why did she turn to the life of crime? Has she stolen vehicles before? A writer must explain Jane’s ethics in advance so that her actions make sense.
Readers dislike actions without foundation. If Jane had a normal day and randomly stole a car, it would confuse the reader. What about a logical explanation? Jane needed money and stole a car. While logical, this explanation does not help. Lots of people need money, and they do not steal. Something inside Jane must allow her to be a criminal.
When I create a character, I think a lot about their flaws, and I like to point them out as early as possible. I also like to limit the number of characters flaws. For example, the principal character in a recent book lacks confidence, is a know-it-all, and has difficulty around women. His appearance, actions, and background are otherwise normal.
When he makes a mistake, we can directly trace it to the above flaws. Of course, in real life, people are more complicated with backstories that begin before birth. However, taking 100 pages to describe a character’s nuances would bore a reader.
I like flaws that people can relate to. For example, arrogance, low morals, lack of confidence, greed, perfectionist, workaholic, bad finances, gambling, and addiction. I stay away from complex flaws: mental problems, complex childhoods, evil influence, altered physics (non-human flaws), heavy religion and bullying. I also avoid controversial flaws: racism, sadistic abuse, and mental/physical disabilities. This can lead to hurt feelings and bad reviews.
In my experience, the flaws are the most important part of a character’s background. Picking the exact flaws takes a light touch and the mark of an excellent writer. Too many, few, heavy, light, complex, or basic will confuse the reader. Yet, not enough flaws lead to a bland character or a character that readers dislike.
For example, Superman. He has good looks, a superb job, a girlfriend, a friendly attitude and his only weakness is Kryptonite. John McClain in the movie Die Hard was an arrogant drunk with a terrible temper. When John wins, we can all get behind the fact that he overcame his issues. We expect Superman to win because he has nothing preventing him.
A character that overcomes many flaws seems unrealistic like they were cheating or got outside help. A character with silly flaws is also difficult to relate to. My good looks intimidate people. I have too much money.
In real life, flaws are a hindrance, and we spend a lot of time dealing with them, yet in a book, they are a fun part of the plot. Is that life imitating art? Or something else?
You’re the best -Bill
July 29, 2020
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