Characters need flaws to humanize them. When we try to follow this advice, sometimes we populate our stories with characters who are perfect except for one glaring issue, such as selfishness or insecurity. But how many of us have a single weakness?
Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s instructions in the Garden of Eden, every human has been born a sinner (Romans 5:12). Our parents don’t teach us how to lie. From the moment we learn to talk, we know how to twist the truth to avoid trouble. “They go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3). We rebel against authority, hold grudges, and refuse to share our possessions. Apart from God’s intervention, our sin nature takes over. “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8).
Romans 3:10 declares that “there is none righteous, no, not one,” and Jeremiah 17:9 warns us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” This applies to our protagonists as well. The most upstanding person in the world is still a sinner who faces temptation daily.
To fully develop our characters, we need to understand how sin nature infects their thoughts and actions. When we put in this extra effort, our stories will become more real.
1. Flaws Become More Complex
Unlike the characters who deal with one fault at a time, sin nature isn’t limited to a specific area of our lives. If we’ve broken one commandment, we’ve broken them all (James 2:10).
However, the line between believable and overly gritty characters is extremely fine. Since a character’s circumstances influence his sin preferences, we can balance him out by poking into his background, choosing one major flaw, and brainstorming related bad habits. This pushes past the superficial, adding diverse layers to the character, and sets the story apart from the mainstream.
A man raised by an alcoholic father might struggle with the same addiction. But he also probably abuses relationships and squanders money. Though he doesn’t want to imitate his father, his sin nature causes him to stray. Alcoholism can lead to a myriad of vices, both obvious and subtle.
The Girl with No Name by Marina Chapman effectively couples inherent sin with backstory. It’s the true story of how the author spent her early childhood isolated from people and raised in the jungle by monkeys. After being discovered and learning to speak, she ended up as a street child in Columbia.
She hadn’t been exposed to human concepts of sin. Yet, when she returned to civilization, she had a taste for it. She avoided getting a job, relished pickpocketing, and took pride in her street smarts. She learned most of these skills during her time with the monkeys, but her behavior went beyond basic survival when she started to enjoy—and even prefer—a wild and dangerous lifestyle.
When we tie flaws to backstory and the current situation, we create multidimensional characters readers can empathize with. They’ll see that they’re capable of similar mistakes if their sin nature is left unchecked.
2. Characters Become More Unique
Protagonists with multiple shortcomings will stand out from the average heroes filling bookshelves. But their idiosyncrasies distinguish them from other characters in the story.
For example, my youngest sister loves her dogs. If anyone dares to say they’re getting fat, she puts up a fight. It’s one of the many quirks that makes her unique. If someone tells me my dog is overweight, I’d probably agree.
Sin nature causes us to get annoyed at ridiculous things, and when characters have these reactions, it reveals their values, insecurities, and history. The technique should be used sparingly, though. Fifty scenes where Izzy defends her dog would be tedious to read. But a few scattered throughout the story will gain laughs and give her an identifiable trait.
Though tropes and archetypes can be overused, we all tend to like the mentor who trains the chosen one and the comic relief sidekick because they’re recognizable. Defining your character’s sin nature helps readers solidify her in their minds. A girl who flies into a fury over an insulted dog is much more memorable than one who is simply labeled a hothead.
3. Conflict Becomes More Intense
A semi-perfect hero is unlikely to heap trouble upon himself, meaning that the author has less opportunities to grab readers with nerve-racking moments. If he has a sin nature, he’ll be more susceptible to petty disagreements and misinterpreting someone’s intentions.
But don’t go overboard. If a wonderful character suddenly commits murder, that will be unbelievable. However, an easygoing character can have a stressful day where she snaps at her boss. Sin nature seeps through the best of us, so small outbursts are completely plausible. When the protagonist slips up, other characters may retaliate by snubbing her or starting rumors, which increases the conflict.
Tension can also be achieved even if the character resists temptation. Sin nature doesn’t automatically override a person’s sense of right and wrong. We decide whether to indulge in sinful desires or run in the opposite direction. Although a character may manage to stifle his carnal instincts, if the battle is an ongoing one, the story will be loaded with internal conflict.
In Stephanie Morrill’s latest novel, Within These Lines, Evelina knows the Japanese relocation is unjust, but she thinks her Italian heritage will discredit her if she speaks against it. Her inner fears keep readers on the edges of their seats until she finally gathers the courage to stand up for her convictions. When a character wrestles with sinful impulses, the possibility of both victory and defeat builds momentum so that readers continue turning pages.
Life Is Messy
As readers, we long to connect with characters who screw up as frequently as we do and feel the bite of regret. Authors writing from a Christian perspective are especially equipped to produce those compelling characters.
Our culture believes that humans are generally good and truly wicked people are rare. As Christians, we realize this is false. Therefore, we’re obligated to present the truth in our stories—not through dramatic preaching, but by crafting well-rounded characters who display sin’s curse, the healing that repentance brings, and the change they experience when they turn to the One who can cleanse them.
Margaret Heffernan said, “There is no more powerful weapon than honesty.” Showing mankind’s fallen state through fiction could have a greater impact than the most eloquent sermon. Don’t be afraid to highlight the brokenness. The goal is to create characters readers can relate to and grow alongside.
You may need to experiment to figure out how much detail is enough. No one wants to read every bad thought and struggle that occurs in a day. By focusing on a few areas for each character, you’ll establish consistency, add depth, and infuse life into paper souls.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.