Character Flaws and Other Things


This post is because of an interesting discussion in my writing group.  Most of the time when discussing characters, writers will say:

“What’s your character’s flaw?”

It’s a question that’s always mystified me.  The first thing I imagine is a checklist with flaw as a to-do item.

My answer, by the way, is “Not a clue.  I trust it’s in there.”

At least in my thinking, identifying a flaw is probably like hammering a nail on top of another nail (which is about as useless as it sounds).  Human beings do not have a problem with not having flaws.  Something is going to filter into that character.  It just might a subtle flaw.

Just searching for character flaws, I found sites that collected them–one had over 100!

The reasoning behind it is that a flaw ensures a well-rounded character.  But I think some of it originates with English classes.  We study one of Shakespeare’s characters to identify the flaws.  Critical analysis, and important critical analysis (probably missing from schools today) to understanding human nature.  Though I’m sure the writers of the books studied were just telling a story and not thinking “I have to make this character flawed.”

The danger of identifying a flaw as a major part of the characterization is that it makes it really hard for the character to grow and change.  The example we used was the TV series House.  The title character is a guy who doesn’t get along with anyone, yet is a brilliant physician.  Since that flaw was the mainstay of the show, it couldn’t change so it caused things around it to change instead.  It felt like the show lost its way after the first few years and self-destructed in its final seasons.

On the other hand, NCIS started out focusing on the positive traits of the characters.  They were identified early on and the show the stuck to them.  The positive traits allowed the characters to evolve and change over the course of the series, and yet, remain the characters that the viewers want to see.  One of the best episodes was when DiNozzo left, and it was such a perfect fit to the character that it felt very satisfying.

At the same time, not sticking to the core positive traits can feel like a betrayal to the reader.  There’s a writer I very much enjoyed at one time.  Character had a very strong moral sense of right and wrong.  Even though the Catholic Church had excommunicated the character, she still worked at being a good Catholic, questioning when her job pushed those boundaries.  Those were positive traits that really made the character come to life for me.

Until one book where the character was up against a wall for a ticking time bomb.  The only way she thought she could get information from another character was torture, and it was a particularly violent torture.  It really ruined the character for me.

If I had Gibbs Rule, Rule #1 would be: Don’t disappoint the reader by screwing up the characters!

My wanderings on my mystery novel have lead me to start a reverse outline to identify what day the scenes happen on.  I discovered I blew past the weekend like it wasn’t there. Since the story is set in 1947, the characters would have definitely stopped for the weekend…church, Sunday dinner.  It also identified some holes I’m working through.  Most of my other stories are pretty compressed–a lot of action occurs in a few days. This one is going to be at a more leisurely pace for me.  Meanwhile, creative brain was going, “I need action scenes,” and critical brain was going, “It’s too slow!”  Sometimes they both need a Gibbs head slap!

One thought on “Character Flaws and Other Things

  1. Pagadan April 23, 2019 / 12:35 pm

    Yes! Torture bad. Subtle is better, but it requires more work.

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