Do Character Flaws Need to Be Overcome?

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I am a (shamelessly) devoted reader of Mythcreants, so first I want to thank you guys for the always wonderful advice!

Now, to the meat of the sandwich: I keep wondering this, but do ALL character flaws need to be overcome?

In my book, the protagonist has been raised in an unpredictable environment, developing a lack of empathy (ergo the flaw of unmercifulness). She thinks duty must be placed before any emotional need, since the “Family” (something like alternate-Earth mafia) saved and educated her. She is vengeful, since it keeps opportunists at bay.

She will have a character arc about her unhealthy view on sacrifice and duty. However, her other flaws are what has kept her alive in a world riddled with “politics” and death.

Should I change that about her?


Hey Danny, great to hear from you! We’re flattered by your praise and will do our best to answer your question.

In the abstract, no, not all character flaws need to be overcome. If a flaw doesn’t seriously impede the character, then it’s just part of their personality, and it might seem a little odd if the character suddenly decided they needed to change.

On the other hand, if a flaw causes the character serious problems, then the audience will expect that flaw to at least be addressed, if not necessarily overcome. Consider Lt. Commander Worf from the Deep Space Nine episode Rules of Engagement. Worf is on trial (an extradition hearing, technically) because he fired on a Klingon ship without identifying it and that ship turned out to be a civilian transport. This episode highlights Worf’s flaw of being too quick to use violence, and we know that it hindered him, since he blew up the wrong ship and is now on trial.

Worf is eventually cleared of the crime through plot shenanigans, but at the end of the episode, he and Sisko still have a moment when they acknowledge that Worf made the wrong choice and needs to learn to be less trigger happy. His flaw isn’t totally overcome in that episode, but he takes a step toward mitigating it. Of course, it also works to have a character completely deal with their flaw. This is just an option if you want to be more subtle.

In your story, it’ll come down to which aspects of the protagonist’s personality end up hindering her. If, for example, she takes vengeance on someone she shouldn’t have and it makes her situation worse, readers will expect some kind of acknowledgement to provide satisfaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean the protag has to stop being vengeful, but she should probably modify her ways a little or else the audience will feel like they were left hanging.

Something else that can cause audiences to expect a character to overcome their flaw is when that flaw causes them to do something obviously immoral. For instance, if your protag decided to get vengeance on her enemy’s entire family, that would seem like something that needs to be addressed even if it doesn’t directly hinder her. Of course, it’s also likely to make a lot of the audience just hate the protag and want her to fail, so we generally recommend avoiding that sort of situation unless it’s critical to your story.

Hope that answers your question!

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  1. SunlessNick

    Danny, that was a great question.

  2. Matt

    Can you do an article on strong female characters and how some modern movies/shows/books fail at this, as well as how to do one correctly?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you asked this, Matt, because it gets at something we feel very strongly about. The reason Mythcreants has never done a post on how to write strong female characters, or any other type of female character, is that we think it’s the wrong way to approach the problem.

      For the vast majority of stories, female characters don’t need to be written any differently than male characters. Talking specifically about how to write women gives writers the idea that they’re some kind of strange alien species, and leads to advise that’s useless at best and harmful at worse. This is how you get female characters who either seem like weird space aliens.

      The main difficulty (male) authors have when writing women isn’t actually knowing what to do, it’s avoiding sexist tropes and stereotypes. We’ve got plenty of articles for dealing with that, and I can recommend a few if you’re interested, but otherwise our standard character advice articles apply equally well.

      The only reason we think we need so much advice for writing female characters is because we’re used to viewing male as the default. In fact, the best thing for most authors having trouble with a female character is to write the character as a man, then change the pronouns afterwards. This way you can be sure you’re writing the character as a person and not a “female person.”

      • Cay Reet

        I’m agreeing with you 99% there, Oren. The last percent is down to the idea that changing the pronouns will be enough. There are a few very specific things men do when writing women which are, perhaps, not solved by changing the pronouns only. One big problem is that men don’t look up stuff which biologically only happens to women (like periods) or that they don’t put much thought into some womanly bits (such as what breasts actually mean for your body’s balance and movement). They end up with a big-breasted woman who still doesn’t wear a bra and runs around with no repercussions, when every big-breasted woman out there knows you only do that once, because afterwards your back is killing you and you might have accidentally head-bumped some kids or given your face bruises (slight exaggeration). Some womanly things, like makeup, heeled shoes, behaviour of breasts, and more have to be found out first, because they’re not part of a man’s regular life.

        On the other hand, because we get to see the male perspective so often, women have it a lot easier to write men. All we need to know in most cases is already laid out for us.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          So you’re absolutely right that male authors have written some truly terrible depictions of periods and breasts, no argument there.

          However, I believe that writing the character as a man and then changing the pronouns would still address this problem nicely.

          If the character is written as a man, the author likely isn’t going to be focused on the character’s periods or breasts. If they aren’t mentioned, the reader will simply assume the character handles that along with all the other little parts of life that don’t usually make it onto the page like eating and sleeping.

          The exception would be if the author wants to write a story where large breasts or periods are important to the plot, but most male authors aren’t trying to do that. If they are, then they just need to do some research.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, it depends. If the author portrays a time far from our own or in a fantasy world (so in Mythcreants’ regular spec-fic settings), some things might really not prove to be a problem, because things are different there.

            But take clothes as a simple example. Women’s clothes have had the tendency for a long time to become tighter and thinner – forcing women to wear several shirts or sweaters above each other in cold weather now (they’re also much easier to damage). Women’s clothes have less pockets than men’s clothes, so unless your character always dresses in men’s clothes (and she still needs women’s shoes, because men’s feet are shaped differently), there will have to be a handbag or something similar at some point (because of the lack of pockets).

            If your woman is supposed to be a spy going into a casino or to a party, things are a lot more difficult for her than for Mr. Bond and his male colleagues. She will have to wear evening attire, which for women is inescapably a dress and heeled shoes. Yes, you can learn to run in heels (well-worn ones will suit you better there), but fight in them? Not going to happen, going down a steep slope in heels is already a challenge.
            A dress will restrict your character’s movement much more than a man’s evening suit. Not to mention dresses aren’t cut in a way that allows for hiding weapons and tools and, while body-searching visitors is frowned upon, the aforementioned handbag or, more likely, clutch purse, will be checked (no, evening dresses, like almost all dresses, are designed without pockets on principles, so you don’t get to put stuff in your dress’ pockets). Clutch purses aren’t known for their spaciousness and guns and tools need a bit of space which can’t be seen.
            In my first Knight Agency novel, I solved the space problem with having Jane’s male colleague keep the guns under his suit jacket and the heels problem with having her chuck off her shoes before the fight started. You need to keep in mind that there is a difference there and plan action accordingly.

            Women’s clothing is also much less standardized than men’s clothes. If you are a man and you know your clothing sizes for trousers and shirts, you can blindly pick something and buy it right away (at least with more casual wear). For a woman, the sizes are different in every store and every clothing line. We don’t spend hours trying on clothes because we love it so much, but because half of the pants which are nominally our size are either to big, to small, to narrow, or too wide. And, no, you don’t have to put in a long part about her buying clothes, but a woman saying ‘just hand me a size X pair of pants and a size X shirt’ after a fight left her clothing in tatterns and wearing them right away isn’t going to work – it would for a man.

            And, as I’m reminded every time I play Hitman (I love their soft reboot), 47’s quick clothing changes would be even less believable for a woman in his job (although I dare say a woman of average height and with unclear ethnicity would fare better in his job than a 1,90 bald guy with a barcode tattoo).

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Again, you’re absolutely right that in real life women face a lot of extra challenges when it comes to clothes, right down to a lack of pockets.

            But in fiction, none of that has to be important unless the author wants it to be. In a Bond-Casino type story, you could absolutely write a great story about how female spies deal with the extra problems of restrictive dress codes. I would read/watch that story in a heart beat.

            Or, you could simply create a story where the Casino doesn’t have a gendered dress code, implicitly or explicitly. This is what would happen if you wrote a Bond story but then changed Bond’s pronouns. This female spy also wears suits, and its no big deal in this setting, either because the Evil Casino is forward thinking, or because this story simply takes place in an idealized version of reality. Stories do that all the time and no one notices.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes and no.

            There is no difference in traits between male and female characters. Every character can, as far as I see it, can have every character trait. There also are no differences between general behaviour or moods, unless society enforces the behavioural differences. Those are the 99% where I agree with ‘just write a guy and exchange pronouns.’

            There is, however, and in most societies is going to be, a difference in the way the lives of men and women play out. There are differences between what men and women face daily. And those are the 1% where I don’t agree.

            And as far as the evil casino is concerned – the female spy will still need three hours to get their evening suit together, because the different parts will never fit on first go (women’s bodies, due to the breast- waist-hip ratio come in a lot more variations, so a standard suit is almost guaranteed not to fit in some area). A tailor or seamstress can help here, of course. They will have more trouble with a shoulder holster than the male spies (which is why Jane wears her gun in her waistband), too.

            What I think would be a good idea when it comes to an article about ‘strong female characters’ would be to make it clear that physical strength alone doesn’t make a strong character and that a traditionally feminine character can still be a strong character. Perhaps a general article on what ‘strong character’ really means?

          • Dvärghundspossen

            LoL As a slim, flat-chested woman who always wear men’s clothes, I could really have made ALL the mistakes Cay talks about…
            But I agree with Oren that in lots of stories these things don’t really affect the plot anyway.

  3. Cay Reet

    About the actual topic of the character flaws (sorry for going so off-topic on the difference between male and female characters):

    In the world you describe, I’m not even sure if those things count as character flaws or are more of coping mechanisms. They’re survival traits in the surrounding you describe your setting as.

    Your lead is unemphatic, because empathy is a risk where she lives. She has learned that vengeance helps her avoid problems long-term (not only by killing, but also by making others more weary of attacking her). If she’s going overboard with that, it can turn into a flaw and it should be addressed (but doesn’t necessarily have to be overcome, unless that’s a main topic of the story). If her missing empathy has a huge impact on her personal life (because she longs for friends and can’t make them or something similar), this also needs to be addressed, but if it just keeps her from regretting deeds she has to do to survive, it’s more of a survival trait and doesn’t have to be overcome.

  4. C

    And for the love of all things sacred, don’t use a disability or mental illness as a character flaw.

    You can have a disabled character with flaws like anyone else. A deaf person who is selfish, an autistic person who hates accepting advice, a wheelchair user who is a know it all, somebody with epilepsy whose self esteem issues cause them to bully others, somebody with PTSD who doesn’t respect authority, etc.. Those are flaws to work on without erasing or overcoming their disability.

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