In the late 15th Century, the literary genius William Shakespeare wrote the play, As You Like It. In it, his character Rosalind asks, Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing? And the answer to her question is -Yes. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing. In excess a good thing can do us harm. For example, one chocolate bar is good but an entire case is chocolate suicide! The same axiom can be applied to characters.
The temptation of writers when creating both their protagonist and antagonist is to make them so incredible that its incredibly difficult to believe in them and to become attached to them. Part of being human is that we are not perfect. The same is true of the characters writers create, they must be imperfect. This imperfection is what makes your character relatable, likeable (or disliked), and “real” for your readers. Imagine if you create a heroin who has no flaws. She is smart, creative, well liked, healthy, a good fighter, compassionate, thoughtful, humorous – a female Sherlock Holmes without the drinking problem, social awkwardness and rude remarks. All-in-all she’s the perfect heroine and…she’s boring! Readers hate her and no-one wants to read a single word about a perfect girl who response and reacts perfectly to everyone and every situation. She makes us feel sick. But…add some flaws, an intense phobia of dirt or a quick temper, and suddenly she is redeemable, likeable and the reader cares about her.
Before you go wild and give your character a hundred flaws, remember Shakespeare’s axiom, “too much of a good thing” can do us harm. It is good for your characters to have flaws, just not so many they are are complete mess and we, as readers, wonder if it’s even possible for this character to make it through a single moment of a day let alone an entire novel of 300-500 pages. Give your character a few key flaws. Flaws that make the reader wonder if this flaw will cripple him/her in a situation, will it actually destroy them, or will it make the situation worse. In essences, the flaw creates tension and the opportunity for the character(s) to change. The main character must undergo through some change from the beginning of the story to the end, and this can be made possible by the character facing a fear, overcoming a particular shortcoming, or doing something they didn’t think they could do.
Like your protagonist, your antoagonist must have flaws that threaten his/her intentions as well but this does not necessarily mean the antagonist changes for the better. What it could mean is that the flaw heightens their dark side, threatens the success of their “evil” deed or even results in their demise. Flaws are vital to a character and to a story.
Think of Captain Jack Sparrow from the thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable, Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack is an eccentric, heavy drinking pirate determined to get his ship, The Black Pearl, at all costs. We, as viewers, expect pirates to be ruthless, unsympathetic and heartless, but what threatens Jack’s dark reputation is not his drinking (another flaw) but his kind heart. He puts himself into danger time and time again for the people he supposedly doesn’t care about. His character is flawed and we love him and root for him, hoping and cheering him on to freedom, to get his ship and to sail off with a ship load of treasure. It is from Jack Sparrows actions that we see there is more beneath the surface of this character and we see this immediately in the opening scene of the story when he dives into the ocean to save the drowning Elizabeth Swan. This is what you must do as well. Create a character whose flaws connect readers to them in such a way that we feel an affinity for them and want to follow their story.
Choosing the right flaws and the right amount of flaws is the tricky part. The flaws you engineer for your characters must, in some way, become critical to the plot (and certainly the crisis) of your story. Sometimes it is the little flaws that cause the greatest tension and/or destruction- such as Jack Sparrow’s soft heart. Some little flaws may be someone who is overly flirtatious, steals small things, obsesses over things or people, insecure, acts as a know it all, is pushy or is a push-over, or has difficulty building relationships. Any one of these little flaws given the right situation can create tension, complexity and possible disaster! My suggestion, pick two (maybe three at the most) small flaws that you can build upon and around. And voila! You have a flawed character that isn’t too flawed!
For fun, watch other people noting their flaws. You will find that, more time than naught, it is the small flaws that cause the greatest trouble for a person. I suggest you begin a running list of flaws so when it comes time to engineering your character and their flaws you can draw upon these real life flaws. Remember, the job of a writer is to create characters our readers care about, can relate to and want to follow. Drawing upon real life character flaws is one way you can make this happen.
The perfect balance of positive and negative attributes create the best characters.
Until next time…happy Character building!
Here’s a wonderful song about Flaws I thought might inspire you or, at the very least, be enjoyable.