Ink-Stained Scribe

Character Flaws - Make them Matter

Character flaws: those deficiencies and limitations we're supposed to give our characters to make them more human and accessible. We know we need them to avoid writing the dreaded Mary Sue, whose only flaw isn't really a flaw, because it never gets her in trouble or changes the course of her story. Seriously, y'all: how am I supposed to believe that clumsiness is negative when its only consequence is tipping her in the arms of Edward Cullen her love-interest?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on interpreting conflicting advice in which I discussed a story I had written and how I used a beta-reader's suggestion to root out the real problem in the story. That problem wasn't that the main character didn't have flaws, but that the flaw didn't matter enough to the story for the reader to feel satisfied. It was only really in writing that post that I understood what I had done. Lest I accidentally claim to having more genius than I actually possess, let me assure you that I didn't "get" the connection of flaw to textual evidence of it until I wrote it down. 

Aspiring writers hear all the time that their characters need to have flaws. What we don't hear so often - which is perhaps more the point - is that those flaws have to matter. What's the point of giving your main character a lightning-bolt scar if it doesn't get him recognized when he doesn't want to be, or twinge and burn when he's taking OWLs? So, how do we make the flaws we give our characters matter?

We give them consequences.

The flash-bulbs are going off in my head like two starlets are cat-fighting on my brain's red-carpet. I knew this about flaws already...sort of. All the components were floating around in my head, waiting for me to connect them. (Raven could probably wax awesome here and make a metaphor about molecules and covalent bonds in reference to this kind of discovery, but I'd have to wiki that sucker, and then she'd sneeze on my science-metaphor and knock it off its unstable little legs.)

Epiphany-moment: I can't just give characters flaws for the sake of having them; I have to make their flaws have consequences! The realization found me scrambling through my manuscripts to make sure there was evidence of the flaws I knew my characters had. And, holey-plots, Batman - there are some places I will need to make repercussions, which opens up a lot of new exciting story possibilities. 

The best part about this connection was the realization that I could follow it backwards, rooting through the text for consequences to flaws I hadn't realized were there. 

I knew that Bay was a recalcitrant busybody, but I never realized his itinerant ways stemmed from their own insecurities, from the grudge he holds against the town he grew up in, and the teacher who left him behind. Who knew Arianna was so impulsive, so rebellious, and that her resistance to taking suggestions from anyone she considers beneath her would land her in so much trouble? And Helena - the Magic-weilding Hellhound - I couldn't believe how fast her self confidence vanished when she wasn't kicking bounty-hunter butt. Boy, does that kick her legs right out from under her in regard to her relationship with her roommates. Then there's Procne - deluding herself about her brother's death because she secretly fears being alone.

Srsly. I could be here a while.

Another bonus about flaws with consequences is that they help me with another topic I really struggle with: theme. I rarely start out writing with a theme in mind, and if one manages to emerge from the text, it's watery and unfocused. But if I consider my characters' flaws...

Mark of Flight: Wisdom is not defined by class or appearance.
Hellhound: Overcoming insecurities to find one's humanity.
Beggar's Twin: Acting out of the fear of loneliness ultimately hurts more people.

I can change these into sentences that reflect major themes in my work! "A princess discovers that wisdom is not defined by class or appearance"; "a non-human girl overcomes finds confidence in her own humanity"; "a young woman defeats her fear of loneliness and puts her brother's soul to rest."

Wow. So, apparently my issues in finding the theme of my story had to do with that un-established connection between a flaw, and how it matters to the story.

*cue hard rock hallelujah*

Giving your characters flaws is not enough - they have to somehow impede your character from reaching his or her goal. Even if it's not part of the main plot, it's got to matter enough to the story that the reader can sympathize with overcoming their own drawbacks, even if they're not the same. Because people sympathize best with characters who have accessible flaws, it's important to showcase them by giving consequences to that flaw.

 Does your character have a scar? Have it cause insecurity, and have that insecurity make her angry. Have that anger make her use excessive force to dispatch an iddybiddy-bad-guy and draw the big bad closer. Sometimes it's useful to look at the plot, and tease out a flaw that might already be there, like an archaeologist unearths the skeletons-in-the-closet of ancient kings. Considering last week's post on character journeys, you can probably tell that I really like this "going backwards" method.

Your characters' flaws have to matter, and to matter, they have to have consequences that affect a plot or sub-plot of the story by hampering your character. Whether it's feeling unworthy of the love-interest, or having a fear of heights that keeps him from becoming a dragon-rider, these flaws have to mean something to the story.

What kinds of flaws have you given your characters and how do they show up in your story? Do you think of flaws before you start, or do they rise from the text as you write? How have your own flaws held you back or gotten in your way?

Image by Jeremy Brooks