Character Flaws

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.

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Originality (AKA: How the @#$% do you come up with anything new anymore?)

A couple of years ago, I decided I would sit down and write a novel. I had always been told that I was a good writer, and I really enjoyed writing, so I figured that the rest of my life would be simple: I would finish the novel sometime in college, it would jump to #1 on the bestsellers lists, and I’d be able to graduate with no debt, a steady stream of income, and a firmly established foothold in my dream profession.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m recently graduated and living back in my parents’ house, and I’ve just created this blog because I decided my already substantial list of diversions from job hunting wasn’t quite big enough.

As you may have noticed, there are some slight discrepancies between my plans and my reality. So what happened with that novel? Why didn’t it work out?

Well, I went home, and I started to put together an entirely new world. It would have elves, and dwarves, and goblins, and humans. The major characters would be a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits and a mentor who would undertake a quest to defeat the Evil Overlord and prevent The End Of The World As We Know It. The protagonist was an apparently unremarkable farmboy who grows to be a warrior and leader after learning of his special destiny and secret parentage. It was going to be epic.

It also sounded incredibly familiar.

As someone who had criticized works in the past for being a complete rip-off overly derivative of other works (no, you don’t get an obnoxiously placed link here), I wasn’t about to stand for the obvious similarities, but correcting them wasn’t as easy as I thought. I wanted to keep most of the elements of the Standard Fantasy Setting, but even many of those elements were far too reminiscent of other fantasy stories for my tastes. I didn’t want my story to be just another Lord of the Rings clone, but whenever I thought of a way to tweak the genre and put some distance between myself and Tolkien, I found some other fantasy series that had already covered the same ground (George R.R. Martin, for example, already began a darker and grittier fantasy series, while Terry Pratchett has the fantasy parody genre down pat). My dissatisfaction eventually became frustration, which in turn became resignation: if I couldn’t come up with something new, what was the point of writing to begin with?

Such were my thoughts when I made the decision to abandon the scraps of the novel I had cobbled together. Several years later, the originality thing remains a major issue in my mind, an almost insurmountable obstacle that looms menacingly over any attempts I make at novel-writing. And yet, I have to imagine that there’s a way around the problem of originality. New works of fiction are coming out every year, so surely it’s possible to write something that is both original and satisfying.

So, what’s the solution?

1. Recognize that nothing is completely original.

There is nothing new under the sun. Even that very sentence was stolen from someone else (fortunately, I don’t think God is in the business of suing people for plagiarism). This sounds depressing, but to me it’s actually a bit of a relief because it reminds me that it’s impossible to come up with a completely original story, which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to come up with a good one.

Some elements of stories are common simply because they’re the ones that resonate with people. The bad guy loses in the end. The good guy gets the girl. The hero makes a mistake and learns from the consequences. To call storylines like these unoriginal or clich├ęd is missing the point: they’re classic story elements because they work, and their prevalence is indicative of their success rather than authorial unoriginality. That doesn’t mean that they have to be played completely straight in every work, but they stand as good example of ‘unoriginal’ elements of storylines that don’t typically detract from a work’s quality.

All stories are going to share some (or rather, most) of their elements with many other works. Recognizing that takes some of the pressure off: there’s no need to make every single aspect of a novel completely new, and there’s no need to scrap some ideas because they are vaguely similar to something else.

2. Focus on the differences, not the similarities.

Maybe you’ve decided that your story is going to be traditional in the sense that it depicts a battle between light and dark, good and evil. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that can’t be all there is to your story. What sets your story apart from every other story that focuses on a similar conflict? There has to be something about your world, or your plot, or your characters that makes your novel stand out in order for it to be worth reading. The best novels/movies/TV shows/whatever are the ones that can strike a balance between traditional elements that many stories incorporate and the new ideas (or new combinations of old ideas) that make it different from other stories with the same elements.

3. Remember that everyone has their influences

This is similar to point #1, but having three entries in the list seems much more well-rounded than having two, so here you go. Creating a story that is basically a carbon-copy of your favorite novel is something that should be avoided, but perhaps even more damaging is to do exactly what I did and grow so dissatisfied with the similarities between your work and another author’s work that you give up altogether. It’s important to remember that just because there are similarities between your work and another person’s work does not mean they are identical. Even Tolkien drew heavily from a variety of works that came before him, and any modern author is going to have to do the same. There is a difference between ‘being influenced by’ and ‘completely ripping off of,’ and recognizing that can be the difference between being a published author and failing to finish at all.