How to Write a Flaw & Why Your Character Needs One [Novel Boot Camp #3]

One of the best ways to create a realistic character is to give him or her a character flaw. Real people have problems, obsessions, emotional instability, and a whole host of flaws. Today I’m going to talk about how flaws can improve your protagonist and why a flawless character can be problematic.

For more information about the character arc and backstory, check out Creating Deep Realistic Characters.

Video Highlights:

  • A character flaw will make your protagonist more realistic and easier to relate to.
  • The character flaw is an integral component of the character arc. Without a flaw, a strong arc is not possible.
  • A horrible or unlikable flaw can be forgiven if the reader understands the backstory that led to the flaw.
  • Quirky or slightly negative personality traits are not flaws if they do not cause the character significant difficulty and if they do not tie in with the backstory.
  • The character flaw leads the protagonist to make bad or incorrect decisions that make it more difficult for the character to achieve his or her goal.

Questions to Ask About Your Novel

1.Does you protagonist have a flaw that impacts his/her ability to achieve the goal?

Your protagonist’s flaw should have some negative effects on his life. Maybe he is too guarded with his emotions. Maybe he is too stingy with his money.

The key to an effective character flaw is consequences. Stay away from “cutesy” flaws that don’t have any effect on his life. It might be fun if he always chews grape-flavored gum, but that’s not a flaw, it’s just a quirk. A flaw needs to actually interfere with the character’s life.

2. Where does your character’s flaw come from?

Many writers skip this step and don’t provide a compelling reason for their character’s flaw. If your protagonist gets drunk on the job, why does she do this? How does it connect with her backstory? A connection to a previous event can help legitimize and add richness to a character flaw. A strong connection with backstory is what separates a personality quirk and a true flaw.

If you have any questions about writing a flawed protagonist, please post it in the comments below.

Comment Question: Did you know your character’s flaw right away or did you add one later?

Workshop #1 critiques will be posted later today and every day this week. If you didn’t get a chance to submit last week, the submission form is still open!

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12 thoughts on “How to Write a Flaw & Why Your Character Needs One [Novel Boot Camp #3]

  1. Brett Mumford says:

    My main character’s primary flaw is her unwillingness to ‘play nice’, to be tactful. She won’t accept status quo to appease ego, or curry favour, if she believes she is right.

    She is ambitious to establish her place in her organization and believes she has found something new, original, and she is determined to earn her place by proving her theory, regardless of what she is told.

  2. moylobito says:

    Hi Ellen, do you have any tips on developing characters for short stories? 10,000 words or less).
    Taking into account that for a short story we’d have much less time/words available to develop a character as we would in a novel).

    • Bjorn Schievers says:

      You’d still have to develop the character. Whether you use Sherlock Holmes in a short story or novel he still needs to be developed. You just don’t mention things unimportant to the particular short story.

  3. nicolelochoa says:

    I unknowingly gave my protagonist a few good character flaws but, through the critiques I received, I realized that the boy I created was practically perfect. Ick, right?

    So, I did something I’ve been putting off for a while, I answered the 94 questions about each of my 4 main characters suggested on the Writer’s Write Blog. It was grueling, but has really impacted my novel. I took it serious and have 4 journal pages for each character and their parents and grandparents. I think the best thing it helped me do was to create a solid backstory for each of my characters.

    As a result, the boy I wrote finally has a flaw to his perfection. Through his backstory, I discovered that his younger sister had a serious illness that caused him to grow up at a young age. Excellent!!! I finally have something to work with.

    On a side note, before I began writing, I thought a character flaw was a bad thing. I thought it meant that an author had made a flaw in the writing of his/her character. 😂 Like I said, this is a learning process for me. My degree is in Kinesiology, we didn’t write a whole lot of character arcs in the gym.

    FYI-the questionnaire is called “Writers Write: The Character Questionaire You Need to Complete.”

  4. devindanell says:

    Well I sort of just started developing a main character to write and actually complete a novel (since I always divorce the idea three chapters in).

    But my main character’s flaw is her inability to explore and do things she’s never allowed herself to do (I figured this all out right now). She’s closed minded, passionate and determined to succeed in life (why? i still haven’t entirely figured that out yet) which leads to her belief that people can only disturb that path.

  5. nicolelochoa says:

    I just clicked on the link above, “Creating Deep Realistic Characters,” and walked through Ellen’s suggested exercise…this is what I came up with.

    “Due to the loss of the love of her life in a tragic accident, Sarah believes the only way she can find peace is to move far away from her home, and the place that constantly reminds her of how empty her life is now that Jeremy is gone.”

  6. Karolina says:

    Hi! I’m not sure if my protagonist’s flaw is good enough so I will be really glad for any piece of advice.

    My main character tends to make quick judgments about other people and to misinterpret some situations and events. It stems from the fact that before the action of my book his life was quite simple and everything was black or white. But now, he is in a land where nothing is as it seems. And this will cause a lot of trouble and bad decisions. To achive his goal he has to reconsider his view of who can be trusted, overcome his prejudices and change his attitudes.

    Do you think it can serve a function of the flaw? And sorry for any mistakes (I’m still improving my English which isn’t my first language).

  7. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    As the author, I find my character’s flaw is glaring. She is independent and relie son no one. She moves towards her goal out of self-determination. But she refuses to care deeply for others. She doesn’t trust anyone, and on the rare occasion she does, she certainly doesn’t ever allow those individuals to regain her trust. As she moves towards her goal, she discovers she has not built a future for herself, just a dream to be achieved.

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