Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 27, 2022

Writing Memorable Character Flaws

by Ellen Buikema

flawed and gnarled piece of wood meant to represent character flaws

A character flaw is an undesirable trait that negatively affects the writer's character. The degree of this effect will depend on the type and magnitude of the defect. Fortunately, the struggles caused by these imperfections often forge great strength of character.

Life is messy.

A perfect character has nothing to learn. The reader will find this person boring and unrelatable.

Weakness + Struggle = Growth.

Flaws—minor, major, and fatal— make memorable and captivating characters.

Three Character Flaw Categories

1. Physical

Cultural ideals determine beauty in a society, so let’s say, that in this case, flaws are deviations from the culture’s norm.

Beauty itself can be considered a flaw. In this study, beautiful women who wear makeup are deemed aggressive.

Any character can be assigned “flaws.”

2. Emotional or Personality

Shyness may seem like sensitivity. In reality this trait may be due to a lack of self-love.

Neediness may appear as emotional openness and end up causing co-dependence.

Need for control might look like discipline but can be punishing.

3. Ideological

A character’s ideology is the set of beliefs and values important to the character. These principles can be a flaw as well as a source of attraction.

Characters might find each other’s ideologies fodder for jokes, at least initially. But the reality of these views can easily create conflict.

Character Flaw Types

Minor Character Flaws

A minor character flaw has minimal impact on a character’s life. Some may be lovable, others maddening. Minor imperfections can move the plot along.

These flaws distinguish your characters, making them memorable. They don’t impact the story but can affect dialogue or reactions to scenes. Examples are as follows:

  1. Being perpetually late.
  2. Poor decision-making skills
  3. Gossiping.
  4. Lazy and unwilling to do things.
  5. Spoiled.
  6. Spacey.
  7. Preoccupation with one's physical features.
  8. Poor hygiene.
  9. Naive.
  10. Clumsy.

Examples in novels

  • Clumsy – uncoordinated and fumbling; often accident-prone. Example: Bella Swan in Twilight.
  • Naive – easily fooled or persuaded to believe something. Example: Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land.
  • Spacey – having one’s head in the clouds; absent-minded. Example: Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter.
  • Spoiled – bratty and self-centered as a result of overindulgence. Example: Mary Lennox (at first) in The Secret Garden.

Sometimes flaws aren’t negative as they serve to cause a roadblock for the character, leading to character growth.

Major Character Flaws

A significant character flaw can damage the character and the people within their reach in a physical, mental, or moral manner. These character flaws can drastically impact a character’s life and the lives of those around them. Here are some examples:

  1. Addiction – drugs, gambling, smoking, sex, serial killer.
  2. Recklessness.
  3. Possessive.
  4. Deceptive.
  5. Short-tempered.
  6. Greedy.
  7. Narcissistic.
  8. Revengeful.
  9. Weak-willed.
  10. Inconsiderate.

Examples in novels

Short-tempered – quick to anger. Example: Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Possessive – overprotective and controlling. Example: Edward Cullen in Twilight.

Weak-willed – timid and spineless. Example: Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter.

Inconsiderate – caring little for the feelings of others. Example: Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes.

Fatal Flaws

In a fatal flaw, the character possesses some trait that brings a person to their downfall and eventual death. Here are some examples:

  1. Addiction – drugs, gambling, smoking, sex, serial killer.
  2. Recklessness.
  3. Cruelty.
  4. Deceptive.
  5. Resentful.
  6. Narcissism.
  7. Revengeful.
  8. Lust for power.
  9. Paranoia.
  10. Obsession.

Examples in novels

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is fanatical obsession with killing the whale causes him to be reckless.

The protagonist suffers from excessive pride, in Macbeth, and murders the king. He then becomes paranoid, which causes him to order the killing of more characters.

Captain Hook is obsessed with Peter, in Peter Pan.

Ned Stark, in A Song of Ice and Fire, has a fatal flaw that is a positive character trait: he assumes that others share his sense of honor. This mistaken belief leads to his demise.

A Few Suggestions

If you’re pondering a character, here’s a fun character generator you might enjoy playing with for a bit of inspiration.

Using this list can help you find flaws to build your character.

Make the flaw seem reasonable to your character. Bad guys often don’t see themselves as bad guys. Antagonists’ flaws (greed, dishonesty) may seem like strengths (ambition, cunning) to them.

Think about flaws that make sense for characters’ goals and create the personality traits that are aligned with those goals.

Do you find that you gravitate toward particular flaws in your characters? Do you have a preference for lovable flaws or maddening ones? What are your favorite character flaws?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay

12 comments on “Writing Memorable Character Flaws”

  1. That trait generator is fun, Ellen! I usually find that my character traits show up organically as I write (and rewrite) scenes, but it's always nice to have an alternative for those days when the muse is vacationing!

    1. Hi Colleen,
      This was my first time playing with the generator. My characters tend to form themselves, adding dimensions as we pants our way through the story. But I agree that the trait generator can be a nice assist.

  2. Excellent post, Ellen! The examples are spot-on and thought-provoking. I especially liked the inclusion of Sherlock Holmes, who would give a friend just a touch of a poison to observe the effects. In fairness, he would take it himself, too. I'm still deciding about the character flaws I have introduced. Anyway, thanks!

    1. Hi James,
      Sherlock Holmes is an interesting character to be sure!
      I'm glad you've enjoyed the post.

  3. The generator is fun! I love toys. The flaws in our characters help make them more believable. Thanks for this wonderful post!

  4. I love all these cool little tools, Ellen. That character trait generator is fun. My favorite trait - "often gets into fights with other people without meaning to." I totally want my nun to do that!

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