The secret to creating perfect characters

Whether your writing is plot-driven or character-driven, there’s no arguing that strong characters are a critical element of any story. But how does one craft the kind of characters that draw readers in and inspire an emotional connection?

The secret ingredient for a perfect character

I’ve been on a bit of a self-study kick lately – reading all kinds of books, articles, and magazines on the craft of writing. I’m easily enthralled by essays on the origin of story, fascinated by discourse on the merits of one fiction structure over another, and find myself staying up late to read about the finer points of manuscript submissions, publishing platforms, and book promotion. I am a humble student, hungry to know more.

One of my recent impulse purchases was a slim Kindle book called The Screenwriter’s Fairytale: The Universal Story Within All Movie Stories by screenwriter and producer, Todd Klick. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I read his quirky “story template” that I grasped the importance of the character flaw.

That’s right. The thing that makes a character perfect is her flaw.

Seven circles of hell – three types of character flaws

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, there are three types of character flaws:

  • Minor: Surface flaws that provide texture but don’t influence the story. These might be things like a scar, a lisp, a nail-biting habit, or a propensity to re-tell movie scenes word-for-word after having had one too many glasses of chardonnay.
  • Major: Core personality flaws define a character and drive the story forward. Major flaws are not only an important part of character development, they are an important element of the story itself. Overcoming major flaws is a crucial part of each characters journey.
  • Tragic: Think classic Greek myths – these are the flaws that eventually lead to a character’s untimely demise.

Interestingly, a character is often blissfully unaware of her major flaw. Even though those around her might see it instantly, she doesn’t realize what it is that’s holding her back. She’s oblivious to the obvious. Before she can overcome her flaw, she needs to acknowledge that it exists and be able to recognize it.

Why character flaws are so important

Why, you might ask, would I want to give my wonderful character a flaw – minor, major, or otherwise?

Oh, dear writer, let me count the ways:

  1. Flaws make your character more realistic. Nobody is perfect. Nobody. Even that cute barista you’ve been crushing on has imperfections that would, eventually, show themselves in the light of day. The Real World isn’t perfect and glossy like an air-brushed spread in a fashion magazine. The Real World is full of pock marks and speed bumps and skeleton-filled closets. Character flaws help bring that level of reality to your story, making suspension of disbelief easier for your readers.
  2. Flaws make your character more human. Remember that girl from school – the one whose outfit was always perfectly put together, whose hair was always perfectly in place? She got perfect attendance and perfect grades and had absolutely perfect teeth. You didn’t like her very much, did you? As a rule, we don’t like perfect people. We can’t relate to them. We don’t trust them. Think about those creepy Stepford wives. When you give your characters flaws, they become more likeable. Readers can step more easily into the shoes of a flawed character, and when a reader puts herself in your character’s mind, she feels empathy and you’ve got her.
  3. Flaws add dimension to your character. Characters that are perfectly good (or, perfectly bad) are boring. Boring is the death of your story. Adding flaws allows you to build the “layers” of your character – physical, emotional, philosophical, etc. Flaws add interest. They give two-dimensional characters some meat.
  4. Flaws help create story tension. Even if you don’t spell out your character’s flaw, your reader will know instinctively what it is. Your reader will also have a sense of how that flaw might tip the scales for the character – help or hinder or doom her. Your character’s flaw is like a time bomb – your reader can hear it ticking quietly in the background, but never knows exactly when it will go off. Flaws keep us from assuming we know how things will turn out.
  5. Flaws increase reader investment in your story. Bottom line – because of all the aforementioned reasons, character flaws increase reader interest in finding out what happens next.

A few examples of character flaws

Taylor Lindstrom wrote a great post for the Men With Pens blog (one of my favorites) in which she asked readers to consider the role of the character flaw for Batman and Superman. In a nutshell, she contends that Superman didn’t have a true flaw, while Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) had plenty of them, making him the more interesting and human. I’d add that Catwoman is a deeply flawed character whom I happen to love. Her “broken” quality draws me in and keeps me rooting for her no matter what happens.

The protagonist in the movie Brave (which I loved) is young Merida – a princess who is anything but perfect. Her stubborn streak is the driving force behind the story – providing the impetus for the conflict between Merida and her mother, and ultimately leading Merida to make the choices that result in loads of trouble and a great story.

I recently finished reading A Song of Fire and Ice. Eddard Stark, a central character in this first book of the Game of Thrones series has a serious issue with honor. They say too much of a good thing can be bad. That certainly seems to be the case for this character.

Think of any movie or book character. Think of the television series you watch – what keeps you interested week after week? Is it the perfection of the characters? I doubt it. It’s their quirks and foibles, their flawed humanity, and the hope that one of these days they’ll overcome their flaw and rise triumphant.

 

The character flaw is a concept worth exploring. Are you putting it to work in your fiction? Do your characters have flaws? What kinds? How do those flaws influence your story?

21 thoughts on “The secret to creating perfect characters

  1. Is it because we, as people, are more prone to defeat or failures (both big and large) that we find it easier to connect with a character through these shared flaws?

    I thought Ignatius Reilly of a ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ was a largely exaggerated character who I didn’t enjoy for the first half of the book. I rooted for his downfall until when it finally came and at that moment, I think I was privy to the character’s major flaws. I ended up sympathetic for this large sociopath at the end, mainly because the writer was able to play my connection to his shortcomings to Ignatius’s favor.

    This is a great insight and shows that reader is more likely to let the sinner past the front door than the saint.

    • “… [the] reader is more likely to let the sinner past the front door than the saint.”

      LOVE that!
      (And I have to read Confederacy of Dunces … on my list!)
      TKS for stopping by.

  2. In one of my stories, the protagonist is actually hateful. She realizes this but can’t stop her own behavior. She’s a young teenager out of control, rejected by peers yet unable to resist rejecting a fellow classmate in the same way. There is an internal struggle at play; conflict with her desire to fit in socially. She judges this classmate harshly: “‘If she [Judith]wasn’t so dumb, she would refuse to wear the clothes her mother buys for her.’ Judith turns her head in my direction, straightens out her plastic headband and gives me a toothy smile hinting at genetic flaws. ‘I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want her talking to me. It’s bad enough I have to sit next to her.'”
    My protagonist isn’t likeable at all because although she refrains from outward expression of mean and hurtful things, she doesn’t recognize the demon within. Judith sees past this character flaw in my protagonist and through an inciting incident pushes the protagonist to a new level of compassion and understanding.
    Work In Progress – but in this story, the protagonist has a major flaw (internal) while Judith has only minor flaws (external) and these flaw will play against each other.
    I don’t know how you can write any story without conflict and the basis of all conflict is in human imperfection! No imperfecton = bland story.
    Terrific post!

  3. I don’t write fiction yet, but I do love your advice. It also makes me think that I’m onto a good thing because I’m writing about myself. Flawed? Let me count the ways. I will have to save this one it is a great post for future reference. Thank you.

  4. Great post! So much information and advice. I’ve never studied the nitty-gritty of writing as I have been …otherwise occupied until recently, and I never realised how much I was doing right in my own writing until I started applying myself to writing, and to learning about it. It blows me away to find hidden understanding of something you’ve never studied..Now I’m hungry to know more… Thanks for sharing! Blessings to you!

    • Thanks.
      The flaw is often obvious to everyone except the character. It’s a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees … or, just flat out denial. 😉

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