Perfect characters kill tension with ruthless efficiency. It’s really hard to get interested in what they’re working through, because it’s obvious they’ll succeed. Characters that overcome obstacles despite a serious handicap seem stronger than ones who don’t. It’s a lot more impressive to battle giant spiders if you have a paralyzing fear of them.
Flaws change the story’s tone and how your audience sees your characters. Here’s six possible options, each of which will change how the story will unfold.
Spiders, frogs, worms, blood, dirt, corpses, disease. These are all things people have trouble dealing with. Your character could have intense feelings that hinder them, keeping them from interacting with something in a normal way.
For example, if a character cannot stand dirt, they might obsessively clean their house until they drop from exhaustion. Perhaps they even clean other people’s houses without permission, making them seem rude and patronizing. A character with an aversion to dirt that gets lost in the woods will have a tough time, in a way that someone comfortable missing a few showers wouldn’t.
When should you utilize aversion as a flaw?
Aversions are often relatable, but less severe than the other flaws on this list. It’s a good choice if you want to focus on other aspects of the story or character, since it doesn’t require that the story be built around it, and won’t necessarily affect all areas of a character’s life.
Choose your aversions carefully, depending on the role you want a character to play in your story. After all, racism, homophobia, and sexism are all types of aversion. A character that is disgusted by the homeless will seem pretentious and uncaring; a character that is uncomfortable around the disabled will seem unkind. How they handle their socially-unacceptable aversion will dictate how the audience will feel about them.
Fear is a universally understood motivation, and therefore a good choice for a flaw. Fear brings anxiety, and anxious people will usually try to avoid the source of their fear.
Fears that arise from a specific source are called phobias. Enclosed spaces, social interaction, or a certain kind of animal can all be phobias for people. Any time they encounter that phobia, fear will follow. Frequently, the phobia brings about more anxiety than the stimuli would normally elicit. Spiders rarely kill or seriously hurt people, but many people are still terrified of them. Phobias aren’t always rational, and some may seem very strange.
Phobias differ from generalized fear in that merely thinking about a phobia may bring anxiety. Additionally, someone with a phobia may arrange their lifestyle and habits around their fear, doing all that they can to avoid encountering their phobia. A person who encounters an angry bear in the woods may react with fear and run, but someone with a phobia of bears is likely to avoid the woods in the first place.
While you have many options, it’s important to remember that some phobias are taken less seriously than others; for example, if your character has anthophobia,* it’s going to be hard to maintain tension. Absurdly irrational fears can kill gravitas and will drastically change the tone of the story.
When should you utilize fear as a flaw?
Fear is critical to horror stories, of course. Horror is defined by high tension, and it’s really hard to achieve if your character isn’t afraid of the monster.
Phobias can be easy to understand and can make your character more relateable. However, you’ll want to avoid them if you want to make your character seem extremely badass, as even mild phobias carry implicit weakness.
However, fear can be manipulated to make your characters seem courageous. If you have your character confront the source of their fear in spite of it, your audience will be much more likely to admire them. How your audience sees a fearful character depends entirely on how that character handles their fear.
A character with an addiction has a substance, habit, or a particular type of person they are obsessed with, and are unable to resist the compulsion. Over time, the addiction will take over their life, and both satiating and resisting the addiction will bring harm to them. Addiction is generally used in gritty, dark stories.
Addictions are cyclical; the addict moves from craving, to indulgence, to withdrawal, and then back to craving. This creates a strong theme of repetition. The addict may experience the cycle as a series of attempts to quit, alternated with lapses in “good” behavior. Feelings of shame and a need to conceal the addiction are common.
The character has a drug or substance that they have serious trouble going without, and there are physical or mental reasons (usually both) they won’t stop. Chemical addictions are frequently combined with criminal activities, since drugs are expensive and many of them are illegal to boot.
Drugs and alcohol are both valid choices. However, there’s no reason why you have to go by Earth standards. Perhaps there’s a potion your character imbibes that grants superhero-esque powers. Feel free to improvise, but remember two things:
- There’s a reason that stopping the addiction is hard. Otherwise, it’s not really an addiction. Withdrawal has both mental and physical aspects, and sometimes it can even be lethal.
- It’s detrimental to the user. Perhaps it’s not bad at low or infrequent doses, but an addict takes enough that it’s a problem. This problem could go beyond physical harm; a lot of drugs can affect temperament or brain function.
Instead of an addiction to a chemical, this is an addiction to a specific physical sensation or action. The character may use multiple channels to get their fix, or only one. Adrenaline junkies may do extreme sports, commit crimes, gamble, or some combination. Workaholics and nymphomaniacs, on the other hand, are hooked onto a particular activity.
These things only constitute an addiction if they adversely affect the character. Liking rough sex is a kink, but if you like it enough that it wreaks havoc on your health and relationships, then it’s an addiction.
When should you utilize addiction as a flaw?
Addiction is arguably the most powerful on this list because it ruins lives. It’s also really easy to make addiction detrimental – even the mildest ones are problematic by definition. Other characters will react differently to someone whom they know is suffering from addiction – ranging from blame, to sympathy, and everything in between – and you can use that to create conflict and tension.
However, addiction is a touchy subject that should be handled with care. While research is usually a good idea, I would especially recommend it if you choose addiction as a flaw.
In any society, there are always actions that are deemed inappropriate. Some are enforced by laws; others are merely considered rude and unwanted. Thievery, lechery, treachery, and spitefulness are all examples of behavior that is frowned upon by most cultures.
An important thing to remember when designing immoral characters is to be careful of any differences between your personal morality and the morality of the culture and time period that your character belongs to. If the town your character was raised in believes the woods are disgusting and must be avoided, but you go camping every weekend, make sure that your character’s immorality doesn’t accidentally reflect your worldview instead of their cultural influences.
When should you utilize immorality as a flaw?
Immorality is a complicated flaw; it is highly intertwined with personality and is also dependent upon perception, meaning it’s more difficult to use as a storytelling tool. However, it can allow you to craft grey areas for your character to reside in, which can be very intriguing for your audience. It’s also a great way to create tension in a story – an immoral character is going to run into trouble sooner or later.
The type and severity of immoral wrongdoing, as well as how it’s portrayed, can make your character more or less likeable. A villian who treats their enemies in ways that betray the Geneva Convention will be harshly judged, but a protagonist who has difficulty telling the truth may still be appealing.
Characters with poor judgement will routinely make bad decisions when confronted with certain situations or people. A lack of common sense, poor planning, risk-prone behavior, being a bad judge of character or unable to predict consequences are all examples of bad judgement – and all of them might well land a character in the woods with no tent, food, map, or reliable companions.
Whatever affliction your character carries, this type of flaw can have a big impact on the story. Unless the character only has poor judgment relating to a very specific topic, they’ll make unwise choices often. This means the character’s flaw will frequently affect the story in major ways.
When should you utilize poor judgement as a flaw?
Poor judgement will add more to the story than to the actual character. It’s less likely to make a character more complicated or interesting than the other options in this list. Its true advantage is that it allows you to direct the character to make decisions that the audience wouldn’t make.
This type of flaw is often used in horror stories. “We shouldn’t stay together to protect ourselves from the serial killer – we should totally split up to cover more ground!” It doesn’t seem sensible to most people, but it makes sense for a character with a history of bad choices.
That being said, you should establish early on that your character routinely has bad ideas. If your character makes some poor choices before the story begins, then what happens during the story won’t seem as unlikely.
Be careful about the ratio of bad ideas to good. Too many bad ideas, and you run the risk of reducing audience sympathy. Most people like to think they have good ideas, so they’re less inclined to identify with a character who keeps sticking their fork in the proverbial outlet.
Some people just suck, be it some or all of the time. Perhaps an army officer has terrible aim and can’t hit the side of a barn. Or a high schooler has a terrible time dealing with people of the opposite sex. A high-powered Wall Street businessman who’s the biggest fish in New York City’s pond could look very foolish in the woods.
Basically, the character has a shortcoming or a particularly hard time dealing with a certain situation (or all of them). They might be completely capable 99% of the time, but by introducing your character to said situation, they are reduced to failure and shame.
When should you utilize incompetence as a flaw?
Incompetency is really good at making your character seem weak. An incompetent character is a failure; no one is going to question that they have a problem. However, a high enough level of incompetence will kill sympathy.
Additionally, incompetence will affect the tone of the story. Unless handled carefully, your audience won’t take your character as seriously, and they’ll end up as comedic relief. If you work hard to maintain a serious tone, then incompetence can work in your favor. It will make any obstacles they face seem that much more imposing.
No matter which flaw you choose, make sure to keep a few important things in mind. First, make the flaw relevant to your story; there’s no point in telling your audience that your character is scared of bears if they never confront them. Second, think about how your choice will affect the character’s health, personality, and interactions with other people. If it doesn’t affect any of those things in a negative way, it isn’t really a flaw. Third, do your research and be careful. The more potent and gripping their flaw is, the more tact and caution you’ll need to portray it realistically.
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