One important part of creating characters is giving them flaws and weaknesses. I doubt anybody who’s interested in this subject needed me to say that, but I did. Perfect, invincible characters are boring and unrealistic characters, and I think that’s something most people who write know. Even when a writer does fail to give a character any real flaws or weaknesses, I’d assume that they generally didn’t mean to. So I’m not going to ramble about that specific point. But I am absolutely going to ramble on this subject.
This post is about both flaws and weaknesses, because although they’re two different things, they both have the same purpose in making it harder for protagonists to reach their goals, and they’re often tied together. Originally this post was just going to be about flaws, but I quickly realised I would find it hard to talk about that without mentioning weaknesses. I think they go together anyway, and characters need both.
I’m sure I don’t really need to define what I mean by flaws and weaknesses, but I’m going to do it anyway, just for the sake of a coherent post. So when I talk about flaws, I mean aspects of a character’s personality that are less than desirable, and by weaknesses I mean things that they don’t have much ability for. And they often can be one and the same. For instance, a character’s flaw may be that they have a quick temper, and that could become a weakness because it could cloud their judgement, and an antagonist might take advantage of that. And if a character refuses to acknowledge their weakness, like if they insist on going into a fight despite having no ability in that area and actually being more of a hindrance than a help, that would be a flaw.
An important thing with both is that they be consistent. Again, this is obvious, but it can be harder to do in practice. But if a character is supposed to have some defect and it never actually hinders them, then I think that’s worse than not actually giving them any in the first place. If a character is supposed to be debilitatingly clumsy, that can’t conveniently disappear when they need to be stealthy or win a fight. If they’re meant to be a bit stupid, they can’t work out difficult puzzles. Alright, maybe sometimes they might get it, but the general rule should be they fail at the things they’re supposed to be bad at, and if they do overcome it it should be a struggle.
That works the other way too. If there’s going to be something that’s going to impede a character at an important moment, it’s generally good if it’s something that’s at least been hinted at before. If they’ve got a crippling fear of heights which is going to pop up when it’s most dramatic, that shouldn’t be the first time it’s come up. Characters shouldn’t suddenly develop abilities just because they now need that ability, and it’s not really any better if they suddenly develop some weakness just to throw in a bit of extra drama.
I’ve gravitated towards weaknesses in those last couple of paragraphs. It’s a bit more glaring with weaknesses with flaws, but that doesn’t mean the latter is OK. As a general rule, things that are going to be important should be established in advance, and things that have been important in the story so far shouldn’t just vanish.
They should also impact and story and/or character in some way. They’re not really worth that much if they don’t. In real life, if a person is, for instance, rather selfish, then that is going to make people dislike them, and put a strain on friendships they do form. Even if your character’s good points outweigh their bad points – which, as a general rule, they should – the bad points should still impact them. If a character has obvious flaws, but everyone loves them anyway – or anyone who doesn’t love them is treated by the story as being in the wrong – then, once again, I find that worse than them simply not having the flaws. At least if a character is legitimately perfect, you can’t really fault the other characters for thinking they’re the most awesome thing ever.
And like I was saying above, if there’s something that would make some task more difficult, then it should. Getting past an impediment shouldn’t be a simple matter.
Now I shall move on to my opinions on the level of flaws and weaknesses a character requires, and what would be going too far. Because I believe it varies depending on a number of factors; who they are, their role in the story, how other characters behave towards them, what their skills and attributes are, the tone of the story, what the other characters are like, and probably other things too.
There’s two angles to this. Flaws and weaknesses that wouldn’t really be enough to balance out other factors, and ones that would go too far and render a character unlikeable. I’ll start with the first one.
So, if a character lacks insignificant flaws or weaknesses, that will be more noticeable if they’re treated as being particularly awesome or special in other regards. The term Mary Sue gets tossed about a lot. It’s supposed to refer to a character without any flaws, but it does get overused quite a lot. Sometimes, it’s just because someone just doesn’t like a story or character, and is throwing out every criticism they can, whether warranted or not. But other times, I get it. Sure, maybe the character’s bad at one or two things, and maybe they’re a bit thoughtless sometimes, but that doesn’t really count for much when they’re practically perfect in every other way.
Skills and attributes are the opposite of weaknesses and flaws, and while by and large you would want the good things to outweigh the bad, the difference can be too big. If you’ve got a character who’s pretty average, who’s a decent person who’s OK at life, but not especially great, they won’t need any massive issues to balance that out. But if they’re supposed to be a super special person who’s got quite a few things they’re really good at and everybody loves them because they’re just generally wonderful… well, such a character would be hard to work with, but if you’re going to make it work, they’re going to need some issue that can clearly be seen. It’s about balance. Again, you would generally want them to come down noticeably on the likeable and competent side of things, but the weight on the other side should be perceptible in comparison.
I hope that made sense. It did in my mind.
Another factor is the story. This time I’ll be talking more about going in the other direction, and going too far with your characters flaws or weaknesses. There can come a point where the character simply becomes unlikeable or annoying.
When that point is varies. One thing that affects it is the other characters, particularly the antagonists. You can’t expect the audience to root for someone who comes across as a worse person than who they’re up against. I’m not just talking about villains, I also mean characters readers just aren’t supposed to like, even if they’re not involved in anything really bad. If you want readers to root for your character in something, no matter how petty, you need them to come across as the better person.
And while you don’t want it be too easy for your characters to succeed at something, it should be plausible when they do. The antagonist might have an advantage, but if it’s too big of an advantage, then it could come across as a bit inexplicable if they lose. There’s ways to make it work, but you’ve got to be careful.
That’s not to say having completely evil and/or incompetent antagonists is a free pass to make the protagonists only a little better. But it does have an effect.
And then there’s the genre and general tone of the story. The protagonist of a dark and gritty thriller might get away with doing some pretty questionable things, but in a fluffy slice of life story you’d expect them to be a lot cleaner. And in the slice of life story, they can believably be OK even if they’re a bit rubbish at everything, but in a high stakes story they’ll probably need to be a bit better at life if they want to survive.
So, basically, discernment. I think that’s the general gist of this post. All characters need flaws and weaknesses, but you can’t make any hard and fast rules for the extent of them. That depends on the story you’re writing and how you want readers to react to the character. Unless you want your character to be unlikeable, or comedically incompetent or something, the good points should outweigh the bad, but how big of a difference is best is something that needs to be worked out.
So the sum total of all my rambling here is this; every writer has to work it out themselves. I just hope I’ve managed to come out with something that someone might find somewhat helpful.
Thanks for reading.