Crafting three-dimensional characters is a complicated process involving a distinct voice, engaging descriptions, consistency, and a significant amount of luck. Why luck? Because a reader’s ability to connect with your character will depend on his own life experiences. He’ll only form a bond if he can see similarities between himself and the character. If both your reader’s parents are alive, the orphan trope won’t strike a chord. However, if he went to school with a beefy jerk named Moe, he’ll empathize with a bullied fifth grader.
Guessing what circumstances readers will identify with is tricky. You might nail it, but often you’ll end up estranging readers with backstory, which won’t carry a character through a novel. You need to tie readers’ hearts to your characters with a stronger and more reliable thread. And what does everyone share? Flaws. Choosing and developing flaws in your characters will make them relatable to anyone who’s imperfect. Sound like people you know? Let’s investigate how to add the right type of flaws then.
1. Flaws Should Be Inherent
When writers create characters, brainstorming tends to follow this pattern: “Handsome? Check. Smart? Check. Strong? Check. Oh… He needs a flaw. Hm… Well, I’ll give him anger issues. Check.”
But that’s not how character flaws should work. In the real world, our weaknesses, sins, and dark secrets aren’t tacked onto our otherwise faultless selves. Our flaws are a deep part of us, impacting our insecurities, interaction with others, goals, lifestyle, habits, and thoughts.
When you’re ingraining a flaw in your character, don’t start from the outside and move inward. Begin at your character’s core. What are his defining moments? If he’s an orphan, maybe he’s searching for love in the wrong places. If he grew up poor, maybe he’s materialistic. If he was raised in a cushy environment, maybe he’s afraid of the real world.
Once you’ve decided on an origin-based flaw, consider how it affects your character’s goals, interactions, and grocery lists. Keep in mind that subtlety is best. Anger problems are more relatable when the character is slamming his fist on a bathroom counter than when he’s pinned someone against the wall with a double-barreled shotgun.
2. Flaws Should Be Serious
Beginning writers frequently give their characters flaws that lack importance. Their characters are either superheroes with harsh tongues or beauty queens with scars on their cheeks. Those kinds of flaws aren’t enough to forge a connection with readers.
We all struggle with anxiety, lust, depression, etc. If the hero’s worst flaws are superficial, that will distance readers instead of binding them to the character. Every character doesn’t have to be prone to murderous rage, but the flaw must be consequential, not something that can be shrugged off.
3. Flaws Should Be Costly
The flaws we wrestle with in life exact a heavy price. Damaged relationships, wasted time, and physical harm are often direct results of our inner demons winning battles. If your characters don’t suffer losses because of their flaws, they’ll seem unrealistic. Real people commit real mistakes that have real consequences.
4. Flaws Should Be Sympathetic
For a flaw to be sympathetic and not just repulsive, it must be normal. That might sound obvious, but for some reason many writers are tempted to try creating a scarred and twisted antihero. That’s a hard task, and a separate discussion from character flaws. Since most readers aren’t fueled by murderous rage, that flaw won’t help you accomplish your goal.
Show your character fighting his flaw. A guy who cusses out his friend will instantly disgust readers. A guy who hates his temper and writes long apology letters that he can’t bring himself to send will engage readers equally quickly.
Weaknesses are more interesting than strengths. Character flaws raise unspoken questions that we all ask ourselves in difficult moments. Will we overcome? Will we stay the course? Will we run the race? Do we even want to?
Spend time building your characters around their flaws. Allow their shortcomings to shape them into broken, beautiful people who readers will love and follow through your story’s triumphs and trials.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.