So you’ve got a character, and he’s heroic, intelligent, kind, powerful, and handsome. In short, he’s basically the most awesome character ever, and he’s become your own personal favorite character. After all, how could anyone not like this guy?
And then someone points out that he’s not very realistic, and you’re in a conundrum. You see, the character you’ve just created is comparable to Jesus, except for the fact that Jesus probably wasn’t actually handsome. The fact is that there’s a very good chance (I put it around 100%) that all of your readers have flaws of some sort, and it’s hard to relate to a character who is good at everything. Also, apart from being unrealistic, stories with a perfect protagonist have a tendency to be, well, boring.
At least for me, there’s a tendency not to want to ‘ruin’ a character with a flaw. After all, I’ve often been annoyed by characters in a novel or show because they’re making a mess of things by not doing them ‘right.’ Yet most of the time, when I look at the character as a whole, I find that those annoying moments and the flaws they demonstrate make the character more well-rounded and interesting.
So what makes a good character flaw? What turns an ‘awesome’ character into an actually interesting one? I’ve got a few ideas…
1. Actual Flaws
I don’t care what anyone says, being ‘too perfect’ is not a flaw. Similarly, it’s hard to take anyone who says they’re So Beautiful, It’s a Curse seriously (and even when that is justified, it’s due more to other characters’ flaws). And good luck getting people to feel sorry for someone for having powers they wish they had. Just because you label it a ‘flaw’ doesn’t mean it’s actually a flaw.
2. Demonstrated Flaws
What’s the point of giving a character a flaw if it doesn’t even have any effect on the plot? Just as labeling something a flaw doesn’t make it a flaw, simply slapping a particular label on a character doesn’t make it part of their character. That’s what’s called an Informed Flaw, and just as actions speak louder than words, showing is more effective than telling. I mean, saying that someone is an alcoholic but never showing them drunk really isn’t any more useful than saying a character in a fantasy setting is terrible with computers.
3. Realistic Flaws
The best flaws, in my estimation, are ones that people can recognize. After all, the main point of having flaws in a character is to make the character more human and thus more relatable. I suspect that one of the best ways of doing this is to give your characters flaws that you recognize you yourself as having. If you’re anything like me, you have more than enough flaws to go around, and since those are the flaws you know best, those are the ones you’ll be able to write best–I’ve often heard it said that the best writers write what they know.
Another path to doing this is to think about your character’s backstory and traits that they have and how they might cause someone to react. For example, take the handsome Jesus character I mentioned earlier, awesome at pretty much everything. It’s probably safe to say that one of the many areas he excels at is having an enormous head, and maybe this extreme arrogance rubs people the wrong way. He can still be improbably good at a lot of things without feeling like a completely unrealistic character.
4. ‘Imperfection’ Flaws
I was recently watching a couple of episodes of a favorite show of mine, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it struck me that this show does a very good job of making its characters good at stuff without being perfect. It recognizes that the wise old mentor character doesn’t have to be perfectly wise and right 100% of the time, so instead of turning him into a walking crystal ball the show allows him to make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are downright foolish ones, yet the character still comes off as very wise overall. Likewise, the central character has a justified in-story reason for being very powerful, but even he is shown to have trouble when it comes to certain disciplines and he’s certainly not a perfect individual.
In real life, no one is ever 100% perfect at anything. Even experts slip up and make mistakes, and even the most mellow person occasionally gets really ticked off and says something they shouldn’t. The ability to make these moments seem realistic without undermining the key traits of the character is what marks a great writer.