The Flaws In Detail

It occurs to me that when creating characters, most people get in trouble because they heard somewhere they must give their character a flaw and almost randomly decide to throw a flaw in. These “flaws” are almost always either totally out of place, so you end up with a superman who likes to kick puppies, a charity coordinator who likes to drive while drunk (though he never hits anyone) and a starship captain who picks his nose.

And to all this – if not utterly put off – the reader says “Wait, what?”

Sometimes you decide you don’t want your character’s flaws to be merely cosmetic of “something minor” and you get even worse – the great inventor who beats up women for fun, say. And then your reader goes “Ew.”

Stop whining and wringing your hands and saying “but they told me the character couldn’t be perfect.” To begin with the only reason they told you that is because you were Mary Sueing it, weren’t you, having a character who was a reflection of yourself and who could go into your world and fix everything without any effort. Yeah. I knew you were. Here, have my handkerchief. Almost everyone does that to begin with.

The thing is, if you’re not trying to keep your character perfect and if you make sure that he can’t solve things without hardly moving a finger, and if you give him real problems to face, his “flaws” will show, because you’re not perfect, so unless you rig the game, you can’t create perfect.

However, if you still can’t see it, I’ll give you a hint: most of us have the flaws of our virtues and have flaws in proportion to our virtues. Take Athena in Darkship Thieves – she’s brave and strong, it’s what kept her alive. She’s also unreasoningly violent. Or take Heinlein’s Friday (someone was convinced that’s where I got Athena, or that the themes were similar. They weren’t. She had to deal with ‘not being human’ but that was a SHORT part of the book, because for most of it she doesn’t know. Friday does.) Friday is inhumanely perfect. Her flaw is that she knows she’s not human. Take Jarl Ingemar also from Darkships, with whom I’m dealing in the current book (don’t ask.) His virtue is that he’s possibly the greatest genius the world ever created. The flaw is that he regards everyone else as lesser beings even if he tries to fight against it.

Alternately, your characters can have the flaws of their upbringing. Tom, in the Shifters series, was kicked out of the house at sixteen. He knows what it’s like to be lone and friendless so he compulsively rescues strays of various kinds. And if you think that isn’t a flaw, you’ve never done it. Let alone those that will metaphorically bite your hand, you could endanger yourself and those you love by extending charity and help against all rational advice.

Alternately, still, they can have the flaws of their situation, which is often the problem. Say, a character in a Stalinist society will have to engage in double thinking, with all the stains this leaves in the psyche. He might be engaged in a great work – say, revolution – and have to turn someone else in to live just another day.

Anyway – flaws work like that. And then they seem integral to the character and not a sprink from the “flaw shaker” whether the character needs them or not.

Questions? Comments? Rotten oranges?

5 responses to “The Flaws In Detail

  1. The origin of the Must-Have-a-Flaw trope may be someone reading his favorite novels from fifty years ago or more and assuming that now unfashionable behavior was inserted by the author to give the hero a flaw. The Simak novel with the villainous bowling balls – those guys were driving drunk from beginning to end, and I know being pursued by killer bowling balls would make anyone hit the booze, there was no sign that this wasn’t the way they acted before. And don’t start me on “The Thin Man” by Dashiell Hammett – did urban Americans in the Thirties really down four or five bottles of hard liquor a day, starting the second they got up (which in that novel could be anywhere from midnight to early afternoon)? And I mean the second the hero got up, when he actually felt he had to make an excuse: “honey, I need a drink to cut the phlem.” EW!

  2. Where do you get the flaw shaker? I need one for a character or three. Bastards keep turning their flaws into virtues.

  3. Frequently a flaw IS a virtue, and vice-versa. It all depends on the context. My daughter is ADD, which makes her a terror in the ordinary elementary classroom. But is also makes her a superb chemist in the laboratory, compulsive about adhering to proper procedure. The best insight we got into this aspect was from a book titled (IIRC) A Hunter In A Farmers’ World, which pointed out that the ADD are Hunters: alert to every minute change in the environment, ready to react to prey or predator. Badly adapted to modern factory schools, which are designed for Farmers: people capable of looking at the hind end of a mule from dawn to dusk.

    Sometimes a writer can take a stereotype and expand it. In the X-Men the character Quicksilver was a stereotypical hot-head character, because that’s easy to write and facillitates quick character identification. Then along came Peter David who asked “why is this super-fast guy so hot-headed? Must be annoying as heck to live in a world that forces you to slow down to a crawl! Voila, from a stereotype came a character flaw: he was no longer hot-headed he was frustrated living in a world that was the equivalent of standing in line at the DMV.

    Take characters and look for ways their strengths would make them difficult — got somebody who’s super-smart? What’s it like to live with somebody who knows everything? Got a character who needs to be loving, caring and empathic? What if the person their with just wants to be left alone and allowed to brood?

  4. I am reminded of point-buy RPGs where a player gives a character WTF type flaws just to get more points to spend on beneficial things.

    Hmm. This advice works for antagonist characters as well. Or, as I heard elsewhere, villains are the heroes of their own stories.

  5. Speaking as someone who spilled the hydrochloric acid in lab class, ADD in lab is very much a good thing. Good analysis, RES.