From Achilles to Frodo Baggins, all the best literary characters are deeply flawed and truly human, and no matter that they might be hobbits. Today I want to talk about how to bring that to your fiction. By “flawed characters” I mean characters with honest-to-goodness character flaws: things about themselves that hamper them from doing what they need to do.
If you want to build a character who’s flawed in a great, human way, look to his or her strengths first. Maybe you have a confident person in your work. Nobody’s going to deny that confidence is a good thing, but take it all the way out to its extreme and you’ll end up looking at arrogance. This can show up in a number of ways. Maybe the confident character believes that he or she knows best for everyone. Maybe he sticks firmly to the adage, “If you want something done, best to do it yourself,” and can’t delegate responsibility. Maybe she’s even angry with people who can’t do a thing as well as she can, or pities them. Maybe he simply believes the world owes him something.
A character who’s strongly moral might be rigid. A character who’s a great talker and socializer might be completely lost when left alone. These are superficial examples, so try to let your characters’ backstories guide you in your choices. How will their histories affect their strengths, and the way those strengths express themselves as weaknesses?
Any way you decide to go with it, remember that it’s not enough to simply tell us, “she’s confident, but that sometimes leads to arrogance.” The true test of a character’s flaws is to show them. As writers, we love our heroes, and it’s sometimes difficult to throw them against a real challenge to their personal power. A flaw isn’t a flaw unless it, and the character, is constantly tested—and sometimes, they’re going to fail.
I plead your indulgence while I use an example from my own work, because I know best what I was trying to do. In the beginning of The Service, I wrote a scene that pits one of the heroes, a talented young ranger, against the head physician of his order. Dingus is great in the wild, but he’s terrible socially, awkward to the point that he doesn’t like to be touched. It isn’t particularly fair to knock him into the supremely confident Reed Westinghouse, bearing an old, arrogant grudge against his Master, but life isn’t fair. The scene is a challenge for both of them, and the two bring out the worst in each other.
To write effectively flawed characters, you’ve got to allow them to fail, over and over. Let their flaws affect their lives and the people around them as much as their strengths do. Where Dingus fails against Reed, Reed fails when he slams into Dingus’s Master, a man with similar flaws to his own, but more authority and a strongly charismatic personality.
These character flaws can work for you in the most powerful way when it comes to including character development in your fiction. Some characters remain relatively static, and that’s not always a bad thing—a writer doesn’t always want to give a supporting character a strong arc—but your protagonist(s), I believe, ought to have one. When a character butts against his or her flaws and fails, it means much more when he or she succeeds in overcoming those flaws. Even if it’s in the smallest of ways, make it a big moment. Later on in The Service, when Dingus butts heads with Reed again, even if he doesn’t precisely “win” the encounter, he stands up for himself far more effectively, and I think it’s a meaningful scene for his personal development.
If you think of your characters this way, as spectra of strengths and flaws, and allow them to fail at least some of the time—if you allow your burdened hero to fall, or your angry, spoiled warrior to shirk his responsibility and destroy his best friend’s life—you can get more mileage from your people. In real life, the journey of personal growth is littered with backsliding and pitfalls, failures and fainting. The littlest victories can mean the world, and when you bring those elements to your writing, characters begin to breathe. Fatal flaws can kill characters in their fictional world, but for a reader, the right treatment of flaws brings a character to life.