What would you say your greatest weakness is? Are you too honest? Too hardworking? Too punctual? Sheesh, this character flaw stuff is harder than it looks. That’s why we’ve devoted an entire episode to talking about it. We discuss what character flaws are, how they benefit the story, and how they can go wrong. Plus, why movies and TV shows can get away with highly flawed characters much more easily than novels.
Download Episode 289 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.[Intro music]
Wes: Hello, and welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: And before we started recording, we were talking about our greatest flaws, which are really our greatest strengths. Nobody works harder, stays up later or tries harder or better than we do! So really, you know, we are flawed, but still pretty awesome.
Oren: Yeah. My greatest flaw is that I’m too honest.[laughter]
Oren: And if you ask why that’s a flaw, I would say I don’t give a damn what you think.[laughter]
Wes: So today we’re talking about character flaws, something that we have talked about a lot across the site, but we thought it would be time to maybe devote our full attention to flawed characters and how to do them correctly. Because stories where everybody’s perfect are boring. Basically when we say a “flaw,” we mean that there’s some kind of character attribute that will hinder that character’s ability to do something.
Chris: When the trait sometimes hinders them and sometimes helps them, I’ve called it a “quirk” instead.
Wes: That’s way better. ‘Cause “flaw” is just so pejorative.
Chris: And quirks are fun, too. I think the difference is that when you have a flaw, you create the idea that change is desirable, and it sets more of a character arc up. Whereas I think with quirks, you can add interesting things to the character and not so much set up the expectation that they will change.
Oren: That’s good, because I was struggling with terminology. ‘Cause I was looking at how I would define a flaw, and it would be like, “a character trait that causes the character problems and then has to be addressed in some way.” And I was like, that also could apply to Aang’s pacifism in Avatar, the Last Airbender, which I wouldn’t say we would generally consider to be a flaw. A quirk in this case can follow a similar pattern, but is not considered to be negative. And your character can also have traits that in real life we might consider a flaw, but in the terms of the story, aren’t. Like, for example, Han Solo is arrogant, but the story doesn’t really treat that as a flaw; it’s just part of his personality. It’s just a trait he has. But he is selfish, which in A New Hope is a flaw that has to be addressed, because it’s holding him back from forming meaningful relationships with the Rebellion and helping overthrow the Empire. So we have to address that.
Chris: Whereas his arrogance, we never see that actually hurt him. Not actually a flaw.
Wes: It would be different if he were investigating something but he’s so arrogant about it that nobody’s willing to actually help him investigate anything. They’re withholding information because he’s just kind of a jerk about it. Then that’s actually getting in his way.
Oren: This is a little bit of a gray area, but you can have traits that feel like they should be flaws, but aren’t being treated as one because they don’t ever hinder the character. And then they’re not addressed. Because… I have a whole list of how this can work. And this is one of the things that I wrote down, is you can have a trait that should be a flaw, but isn’t. And we were talking about arrogance… with Han Solo, it generally works. He’s not super over the top to the point that you feel like someone needs to take him down a peg or two. With the character of Kvothe, from The Name of the Wind, it REALLY feels like that should be a flaw.
Oren: He’s SO arrogant. And just convinced he’s the best at EVERYTHING, including in the story of his life that he’s telling. I get people who tell me all the time that “well, it’s supposed to be a FLAW. He’s arrogant on purpose.” And I’m like, well, nobody ever calls him on it. It doesn’t hinder him in any way. So it doesn’t even seem like we’re setting up for something for it to be addressed in book two. And it took 250,000 words for me to get through that book. So if it didn’t address it at all in that time, I have no reason to think it will address it in the next book.
Chris: One thing to keep in mind: some flaws are just more despicable than others. So when people ask questions like, “well, how do I make my character not be too flawed? Flawed, but not TOO flawed?” So we’ve got that balance. WHICH flaws does matter. If you have a flaw that generates bad karma, then your character needs to balance their karmic scales. Do that karmic accounting. They’ve got to be punished for it, or else they’re just going to be really unlikable. And even so, that’s probably not how you want to start your character off. If it was a side character, then it’s probably okay if they have an unlikable flaw that they’re punished for. If it’s your main character, that’s not how you want to start your story. In this case, “arrogance” is this idea that the character is getting more credit than they deserve and just need to be taken down a peg… that’s bad karma. That’s the feeling like they should be punished, or there should be consequences to deflate their ego. Besides arrogance, there can also be the feeling that the character just is getting more credit than they deserve. They took credit for something that they were not actually responsible for. But the other one is just selfishness. You can’t have a character that is selfish without having them be terribly unlikeable. And it matters what you show in the story, and whether you show that selfishness hurting people who do not deserve to be hurt. If Han Solo is just like, “okay, I’m going to go off on my own and not fight in the Rebellion anymore” we don’t see, like, orphans starving because he did that (as an exaggerated example).[laughter]
Chris: Whereas, if you have a character who is selfish and you watch that character, like, steal from people? People that are poor? That’s not going to go over well. Those are, I think, the two big categories of flaws that… it’s not that you can’t do them for your character, but you really have to tread carefully. And you’re much more likely to be in the “too flawed” category if you choose one of those categories.
Wes: I do like this conundrum of creating characters that are “flawed, but not too flawed.” All I can think of is, have you met people? We all have flaws and, you know, maybe I get some kind of karmic retribution for my procrastination, but not yet! When you’re talking about selfish… A selfish character that I think is done very well is Eleanor, from The Good Place. She’s INCREDIBLY selfish.
Chris: The writers were really, really skilled in portraying her. I would be afraid if, you know, an average writer came to me and was like, “yeah, I wanna do Eleanor.” I would fear for that person. Because I think that was a really tricky thing to pull off, where they had to very carefully frame it so that it was funny, instead of actually, like, feeling bad.
Wes: But they do a nice job, I think, with Eleanor of that “flawed, not too flawed” component. It’s part of her. A lot of her selfish behavior depends on the context of the situation, where she can be self-serving for small things, or larger things where she runs away from responsibilities to protect herself, or she makes minor lies up just to get out of doing something. And I think showing how a flaw can be more dynamic like that goes a long way to just balancing somebody out. You’re not only bringing in this flaw when you need some action to happen—“it’s time for their flaw to show up and obstruct the scene so we can move on after generating some conflict…”—no, it needs to be CONSISTENTLY PRESENT in the text.
Oren: There are also two very important elements of Eleanor’s character that I think contribute to her working really well, despite having this very pronounced flaw that might not fly in other characters. First thing, which is something that authors CAN emulate, is that when the story starts, Eleanor has already died, and in a particularly embarrassing way. So that is a kind of consequence. Now, we learn about these things in kind of an odd order. We find out the way she died before we find out that she has this very selfish flaw and that she did all these very selfish things, including hurt other people. Like, she did work for a company that sells fake medication to old people…
Chris: But we never actually see or meet any of those old people. And that’s important.
Oren: Having her die in a very embarrassing way creates a certain feeling of karmic justice for what she did. And she is portrayed by an extremely charismatic actor. And that is the part where authors are going to struggle, because if you don’t have that actor there to play your character, better hope your wordcraft’s real good.
Wes: [laughs] REAL good.
Chris: You know, when we see flashbacks, there was a specific woman she hurt, but we make sure that woman is not likable. So we don’t feel too bad about this shame campaign against her, basically. We have a situation where she overfed somebody’s dog, the dog ends up just being a fat dog. Again, we’re taking off the hurt so that we’re not feeling too bad about the pain that she caused other people. And also, you know, there’s a fair amount of “hey, she was just kind of a lonely person, because she was not nice.”
Wes: That’s a good thing to bring in because “flawed, not too flawed…” A lot of our behaviors are conditioned by our environment and what is present and what is lacking. And if you have a character who is exhibiting selfish behavior because they’ve always had to be self sufficient, it’s easier to see where that’s coming from and build sympathy.
Chris: When it comes to that balance… There are some writers who just make characters that appear to be all flaws. I don’t know if it’s in response to the fact that there are also lots of writers who really don’t want to give their main character, or one of their characters, flaws. And so there’s a lot of “hey, you need to give your characters flaws!” And then some writers hear that “hey, you need to give your characters flaws” and just make them ALL flaws. But that does happen too, where it’s like, “Hey, remember that your character should also have strengths, and generally those strengths should outweigh the flaws…” It doesn’t HAVE to—again, we can have Eleanor-like situations—but that’s also important. And in any given story, usually you choose ONE issue for that character to work on and bring out THAT flaw, as opposed to having five different flaws. Probably not going to be able to fit in five different character arcs. That’s probably going to be hard.
Oren: There is a myth that your character MUST be flawed, or they will just be boring. And that’s not true. What characters MUST have is a balance of candy and spinach. And flaws are one way to give a character spinach. And they’re a good one, and a venerable one, but they’re not the only way. And there are a number of perfectly good characters who you can’t really say have any specific flaw.
Chris: There are some interesting cases out there of characters that are technically almost flawless, but other tricks are used to give them spinach. And it actually works out pretty well.
Oren: Well, I mean, what flaw would you say that Frodo Baggins has? He does get taken over by the Ring at one point, but I’d hardly call that a flaw. He’s the most able to resist it, and eventually he isn’t able to fully hold it off anymore, but he’s a fine character anyway, because he gets spinach from other sources. In that he’s a hobbit, and he’s in a world of people who are much bigger than him, and he’s trying to get by. I picked Frodo because he’s a book character. There are more TV characters like that, but I just wanted to explain, because a lot of people think their character NEEDS to have flaws and try to introduce a flaw to a character who really doesn’t need one, and who they have no particular interest in having an arc about it. So it’s just something that I thought was important to get out there.
Wes: I like Frodo as an example because, you know, there are moments where you might be tempted to consider it a flaw where he’s despairing, but you can’t say he’s even prone to that because it happens so far later in the story. But Samwise is always there to kind of, like, bolster him back up. And there’s always the external effects of the Ring dragging down his willpower.
Oren: In order for that to be a flaw, we would have to feel like Frodo is just a downer.
Wes: And we don’t.
Oren: Also, I would argue that you probably want to be careful making “being sad” a flaw because depression is a thing, and people have good reason to be sad a lot of the time. Careful with that.
Wes: A good version of that would be if your character is prone to melodramatic catastrophizing. But probably don’t recommend that because… you should listen to our podcast on melodrama.
Chris: Another thing that I would say that compensates for not having flaws is if your character has some other emotional journey. Because I do think that in most stories, particularly long ones, you do want your main character to have some kind of character arc, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean their character arc is a flaw that gets fixed—any kind of emotional journey where they are unhappy for X reason, and that’s resolved, works as a character arc. So they still have that emotional depth. They still have an emotional issue to resolve, and that can provide something that a flaw might otherwise provide.
Oren: Another potential issue that is important to know about is the flaw that is continually recognized, but never addressed. And this would be in characters like Neelix, from Star Trek Voyager, who is bad at everything. And people are always commenting that he’s bad at stuff, but he never improves. They do stop emphasizing how bad he is at stuff after a certain point, but there’s never a moment when you’re like “well, now Neelix feels like a competent member of the crew!” And to be fair, Neelix is so extreme in how bad he is at everything that short of a character reboot it’s hard to imagine how that would work. That’s just something to watch out for.
Chris: Side characters that are used for comedy and are incompetent for the purpose of comedy, really create a lot of problems, ‘cause it’s way easy to go too overboard with them, and they just become annoying and never grow.
Oren: Korra is another example, one that’s a little bit less over the top. Korra has a flaw, in that she is prone to violence and uses violence when she really shouldn’t. But it always works for her, at least for the first two seasons—you could argue that it gets kind of addressed in three and four, but it really feels more like a character reboot to me than actually addressing it. And that’s one of the reasons why in the first two seasons Korra is kind of annoying, is because she has what seems like a flaw, but it’s never addressed, right. It never feels like she improved. She just kind of keeps doing it, and everything’s fine.
Wes: If your character just punches her way through all of the plot problems, then maybe you need to re-examine that.
Oren: Or you could just make a plot where punching is the correct solution. The reason why Korra is irritating is because she’s dealing with these delicate socio-political problems, and she’s like, “Imma punch my way through ‘em!” And it just happens to work out for her.
Wes: When I was looking at definitions of character flaws, they would also point out things like a character flaw is a “moral failing.” I don’t really care for that language at all, but you can see how some shows will try to make what is really NOT a flaw try to be perceived as one. And something that comes to mind… It’s Scott in Teen Wolf. I want to say Styles, always, because Styles…
Chris: ‘Cause he’s a better character. [laughs]
Oren: Styles’s flaw is that he keeps stealing the show from everyone else.
Wes: Scott… the way he becomes an Alpha is basically by sticking to his principles of “I’m not going to ever kill anybody.” And they keep trying to throw problems at him, up until that point where he walks through a barrier and transforms into an Alpha, to try to push him into killing somebody, and saying, like, “Oh, he’s just, like, too principled. We’re going to get him. And we’re going to turn him.” I felt like that was a little cheap, unnecessary complication to a not very complicated character.
Chris: I think he became an Alpha using spunk. This is very, very common in stories. I think it’s because it’s considered the easiest way to create a turning point, is when you have a character who could be discouraged, and then they… they rally, and they’re like, “No, I’m not gonna give up. I’m going to push further!” Right? We have this scene where he’s pushing through this magical barrier—that’s what you were talking about—you know, as he pushes hard, he, like, transforms into an Alpha. And because of the barrier, to me it’s like, Alpha through spunk! That’s what that is. And you see it enough times, and it just gets very tiresome. It’s not satisfying anymore because, why now? I also think our stories overemphasize willpower a little bit. I don’t think that’s healthy to just [imply] that some people just… as a person your will just wasn’t strong enough.
Oren: The whole like, “well, he won’t kill…” I don’t know if that’s a flaw exactly, but it’s certainly a trait that writers sometimes like to create conflict over. I find that to be kind of tiresome in a lot of stories. In a lot of stories, there’s so much suffering and death going on that the main character being like, “I refuse to kill!” feels kind of silly. I mean honestly I had that problem with the end of Avatar, the Last Airbender. There’s a war going on. And I know we don’t ever show anyone dying, but LOTS of people have died. Drawing the line at “well, I refuse to kill the Fire Lord ‘cause killing a person will be wrong…” Avatar did that about as well as it could, because it established that Aang wasn’t specifically against killing JUST the Fire Lord. He wouldn’t kill anything. And that happened to be putting him in a difficult position, but it was still kind of like, uh, can we get someone else to do it? Maybe Aang can beat him up and then Zuko can just finish him real quick?
Oren: I feel like that would be a solution to our problem. You know, I’m sure Toph will do it. It’s fine.[laughter]
Chris: I think the idea is that his principles are challenged, but in challenging his principles, it starts to make his principles look not so great, but they are not treated like a flaw, right? It’s still treated like a strength.
Oren: I do want to talk about the flaws that the character doesn’t actually have. ‘Cause this can happen sometimes, if you don’t set things up properly. My example is from The Wizard of Earthsea, in which the character Ged is supposed to have a flaw where he’s overly arrogant, or overly power hungry, or impatient. And later on in the story, he does definitely get it. But early in the story, there’s this moment where he talks to this lady, and he’s still an apprentice with the first wizard he’d met, and this lady tempts him into going to read dark magic because that’s the purpose of women in this book. He goes and does it, and it’s like, “ohh, Ged, you shouldn’t have done that! That was your flaw!” …but he was never told not to read this book, because his mentor wizard is just this infuriating jerk who refuses to tell him anything. And then the book pretends like that’s wisdom. So in that case, that just seems like a reasonable thing to do. It’s like, well, okay, I’ll go read this book. There’s no instruction saying I shouldn’t. And it’s a book. Reading is what a book is for. How was I supposed to intuit that this was the book I wasn’t supposed to read? Later on, LeGuin actually does show him having this flaw, where he has been told that you should not try to summon the spirits of the dead, but he is goaded into doing it by his rival—that’s also a similar plot to what happens in Name of the Wind, incidentally—but that’s an actual flaw, whereas earlier, we were just kind of acting like he had a flaw, and he didn’t.
Chris: it reminds me of that one episode of The 100, where it’s supposed to have a character arc for Bellamy, he just seems like he’s right. And this is a situation where some of the other protagonists want to go and rescue their friends. We’ve specifically established in the show that that is genuinely dangerous. Like, the last time they tried to rescue somebody, three people died. It’s not that kind of show where “oh, we’ve got to rescue people against all odds!” and then they do it and it’s fine. And they set up a genuine situation where that just seems like a bad idea, and he’s supposed to be a coward? By not wanting to rescue their friends. But that, again, doesn’t seem like it matches the situation. And I suspect in that case, they were afraid if they actually made him a coward that he would have seemed not likable enough. We’re supposed to still like this character that is supposedly a coward.
Oren: I honestly feel like that was more of a situation where they didn’t think about the precedent that they had set from last episode. TV shows do this all the time. And writers do it too sometimes, where they’re like, “I set up these rules, but that was last time, and I don’t want to work by those rules anymore, so I’m just going to assume that you guys won’t remember that.” And I think that’s what was happening. He was supposed to be scared, and then he’s supposed to overcome being scared, and they just forgot that this was a super grimdark world where you don’t sacrifice people on the vain hope of maybe saving someone.
Chris: Certainly they are trying to use the idea—the convention in stories—that it’s always a good idea to rescue somebody no matter how unlikely it is that you’ll succeed and how likely it is that you’ll die, just in this context it did not work out.
Oren: And that’s a trope that’s annoying in the best of times. Things don’t always work out. And they always go with, “well, someone might die, but in general, the idea that you should always take that wild shot, no matter what it costs, because if you never take it, you’ll never know if you would have succeeded or not.” Like, that’s terrible life advice. That’s an awful way to live your life. And it’s just a bad idea. So it’s really frustrating to see characters portrayed as having a flaw because they want to take the more pragmatic route, because the writers of course can then arrange the world so that the version of events they want to be true is what happens. That’s how writing works.[laughter]
Chris: [laughs] One thing that I want to mention is how far to take a flaw in hindering a character. ‘Cause this has also come up where—as I’ve discussed in a post I had about reasons why characters are frequently unlikable—you don’t want a character that is just creating all of their own problems because of their flaw. Usually problems in a story are used to give the character some sympathy, but if the problems are their fault, it won’t generate sympathy. So your likability will be lower. It’s also just frustrating when a character is just blatantly creating their own problems, OR when their flaw is bad enough that there’s an obvious solution to a problem that they are just ignoring. If they desperately need money, and that’s driving the plot, and they could just ask for that money, but they’re too prideful? Yeah, that’s a genuine flaw, and you could imagine somebody doing that… it’s probably going to be frustrating. Because it’s too far in the hindering them direction, you know—we’re gonna lose sympathy for that character.
However, what you can do, I think, is have an outside problem that is not the character’s fault—that comes from circumstances beyond their control—and then the flaw can either make it so it’s harder for them to resolve that problem, or sometimes they can even make it worse by the way that they respond to it, if they don’t respond to it in an appropriate manner. With that last one, if you do it throughout the entire story, and it’s really bad, the audience could get frustrated, but I think you can do it sometimes and it’ll be okay. For example, if your character just is a jerk who alienates everyone and that’s the source of their problems that no one likes them, that’s not going to work, but if the character is outcast for reasons that AREN’T their fault, but then they also make that worse because they’re not peaceful, or are easily provoked when people treat them bad, and that makes them more outcast, that’s fine, generally.
Oren: What I’m getting from this is that flaws can be very useful for creating conflict, but you generally want to use them sparingly.
Chris: If it’s entirely the flaw, that’s probably going to be an issue.
Wes: If you are focusing on the entirety of the flaw as being instrumental to the story, then boy, have we got a thing for you! It’s called the tragic flaw. I think the Greeks called it Hamartia. I don’t speak Greek, but, [spells it out: ἁμαρτία]. If you’re thinking of Macbeth, whose tragic flaw is ambition, and he decides to kill ONE person to get more power, and then has to keep killing people, and then eventually it overthrows him. For a more contemporary example of a tragic flaw, you might consider Ned Stark. We all liked that guy. His flaw was really a sense of duty, tradition, that kind of stuff that kept putting him in worse situations until he gets his head chopped off. If you’re doing that kind of story, note that those flaws NEED to be tragic. There’s really not redemption if you’re going to make that kind of the crux of any particular character’s or story’s arc, because if you’re doing tragic flaws, they need to end in some kind of tragedy. The redemption thing at the end is not part of that.
Oren: There are different ways that you pitch this depending on what kind of tragic flaw you’re doing. Like if we wanted to compare Macbeth and Hamlet—if we want to use two Shakespeare examples—with Macbeth, pretty much the entire problem is caused by Lady Macbeth and Macbeth deciding that they are going to kill the king, but you can also just tell from the dialogue in that scene that these are like not really supposed to be the good guys. You might sympathize with them a little bit, but they aren’t supposed to be good people. There was an authorial endorsement that it’s okay to dislike them. Whereas something like Hamlet, whose tragic flaw is his inaction—he waffles around too much—but in that case there is a problem that is caused by something else. And the problem is that his father was killed. Hamlet’s flaw makes that worse. Whereas if we’d watched this entire story generated by Hamlet being indecisive, I think that would have been frustrating.
Chris: And I would be a little worried about trying to create another Macbeth. When it gets right down to it, you can create a story with satisfying catharsis by having a character that is bad, then is punished—the karmic scales are balanced and it means they are punished at the end—but most readers, most audience members are not really interested in those stories. And it does feel like previously with tragedies we had more of a cultural standard and cultural expectation for them, whereas I do think that’s a harder sell. Not that they aren’t great stories. But it’s definitely a harder sell today to get an audience on board with reading that kind of thing.
Wes: We’re all flawed people, but the most prideful of us generally will still accept help after enough pushing. And I’m probably not going to let that be my entire downfall. I don’t know. I feel like readers have less tolerance for that because we see things as just more flexible. I’m not going to be like Oedipus and scorn the gods and trust in my own intellect over everything that everybody’s telling me, it’s just less complicated and it doesn’t… provide the satisfaction, like you said.
Chris: I should probably mention that when a beta reader exhibits frustration in a story that’s meant to be, like, a tragedy for instance, or dilemma, with “you know, I don’t believe that the character would just do that” or “why don’t they just do this?” And sometimes they’ll do this in situations where you’re kind of scratching your head. It’s like, “if they don’t go into that dangerous area, their sibling will die.” “They should have found some other way out of it.” That’s often a response to somebody who the story is too dark for them. That’s not the right audience for your story. If you are doing something dark, there’s… somebody who’s a good fit for a tragedy needs to WANT and ENJOY that catharsis. And if you sit an audience member who just wants to feel good in front of that story, it’s not going to go well. There is, I think, a narrower audience for dark stories, significantly. Again, we don’t have tons of tragedies anymore. And so I don’t think the tradition for them and expectations for them are as common as they used to be. Not that there isn’t anybody who loves to consume those stories, but it’s definitely harder.
Wes: So as a means of just quickly wrapping things up here, if you want to develop genuine, impactful flaws for your story’s characters, then you need to make sure to start by just considering that character’s journey, and the story, and what you as the writer and what readers might expect of those characters. If you’re worried about readers not finding your characters likable because of their flaws, well, just remember that readers can forgive flaws provided that they’re able to sympathize with your character. Try to keep these things balanced, try to round people out, and just focus on sympathy and laying the proper groundwork for these flaws.
Oren: All right. Well, that sounds like a good way to end out the podcast. For those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber; he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo—she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week![outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?