No matter how incredible of a plot a story might have, without equally stellar characters, the book isn’t likely to be too compelling. While there are many ways to develop interesting characters, one of the best ways is to give them credible character flaws.
The fact is, while readers love to be transported to worlds of make-believe, they also like the feeling that the characters they are reading about could be real. What’s more real than flaws?
Make Them Human
Often, writers will shy away from giving their characters flaws because they worry about making them unlikeable. But think about it this way: what do you consider more unlikeable—a person who never makes a mistake, always makes the right decision, and has unlimited talents—or a person who’s a bit more like yourself? We’ve all gotten in our way, regretted something, messed up a situation or felt insecure. Perceiving these very real human emotions in the characters we read about creates a powerful experience.
Readers crave characters that feel just as human as they are. It lends your story a layer of believability and emotion that doesn’t exist with “perfect” characters.
“My characters do have flaws!”—you might say. But do they really? Let’s take a look:
Minor vs Major Character Flaws
Not all flaws are created equally. Some flaws that writers create are the run-of-the-mill everyday flaws that have little bearing on the plot. These are called minor flaws. A character’s tendency to laugh too loud, or a physical characteristic that is a “flaw,” or being misunderstood…those are all examples of minor flaws. Minor flaws can be great for creating a well-rounded, nuanced character. They won’t accomplish the believability I’m talking about though.
In order to create believability, you’re going to need to reach for a major flaw. A major flaw is one that has a direct impact on the story or plot. For example, your character may have a trauma from their past they’ve never dealt with. Or they may constantly feel the need to strive toward unattainable perfectionism.
Major character flaws are the building blocks for a fantastic character arc. A character who needs to journey toward dealing with their inherent flaws is an interesting one. What’s more, these flaws often become obstacles toward their ability to obtain their goal in the plot.
Make the Unlikeable Likeable
But how do you get around the problem of presenting unlikeable characteristics and still having readers like your characters?
This is where you as a writer get to be a master puppeteer. First, you hook the reader and give them a reason to cheer for your character. Then, you introduce their flaws in a way that makes the reader want to see the character’s struggle.
In terms of plot development, this is often called presenting part of the character’s green world or showing a “save the cat” moment. Once we’ve established that the character is someone we want to cheer for, it’s all important to help the readers understand character motivation. If a character has a negative trait that isn’t rooted in a sympathetic motivation, readers aren’t likely to cheer for them.
Consider The Godfather. Michael Corleone doesn’t want to get involved in his family’s business…and yet he becomes a ruthless crime lord. Would readers like him without the character journey, though? If The Godfather began with Michael being ruthless and blood-thirsty from the start, readers would be less interested in his story. His motivation is what matters and what makes his flaws interesting to readers.
Creating flaws in your characters can open up all sorts of possibilities for your character’s journey. What’s more, with creating believable flaws, characters will become real and relatable to your readers. Those are the characters readers find interesting. They are the characters they are invested in.
Those are the characters they remember.