Before I tell you how to give your characters flaws, I’m going to go over the definition of a flaw.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, this is the definition of a flaw:
A fault, mistake, or weakness, especially one that happens while something is being planned or made, or that causes something not to be perfect.
Instead of focusing on the definition of ‘a weakness that causes something to not be perfect’ as the definition of a character flaw, I want to focus on ‘a mistake that happens when something is being planned or made’.
Don’t think about what would make your character imperfect, think about what they could do to mess things up– to add conflict to your story.
Conflict comes from the problems that characters get into, the challenges they must face, and the subversion of normality in their lives.
A good story has plenty of conflict, and conflict can be driven by the traits that characters have. Whether or not those traits are deemed good or bad is subjective to the moralities of society, but any personality trait can cause conflict.
For example, a trait that is considered to be good is loyalty.
Loyalty can be easily perverted by someone being too loyal to an idea or person, to the point where they can not change their ways, even if that idea or person is wrong.
Loyalty can also be a flaw in protagonists, as it can cause a morally righteous character to remain true to an impure system.
On the other hand, traits that are seen as bad can actually create good circumstances for characters.
Greed can cause great power and wealth in a capitalistic society. Though it may be seen as an immoral trait, it can give characters an upper hand in a story, or give them the motivation to do things they normally wouldn’t do.
Greed can also cause a protagonist to acquire the funds, materials, or equipment necessary to defeat an antagonist.
Traits that are considered good by society vs. traits that are considered bad is up to you in your world building process.
Here are 7 ways ‘good’ personality traits can cause conflict:
- Bravery can cause characters to end up in situations that they have little chance of winning, and can cause characters to ignore their better judgement.
- Optimism can cause characters to ignore problems, which will lead to those problems coming back to bite them in the butt. Remember Murphy’s law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
- Cooperative characters can be coerced by both protagonists and antagonists to work for them, causing conflict between those doubting which side these cooperative characters are really on.
- Selfless characters can easily take the selflessness too far by ignoring their own needs, in the favor of other characters’ wants.
- Thoughtfulness in characters can lead to overthinking, which can create lots of self-doubt and prevent characters from doing what they need to do. Thoughtfulness can be a good inner demon.
- Forgiveness in characters can lead them to forgiving even the most heinous acts, and allows them to be easily manipulated by others. When taken to the extreme, forgiving characters can become an asset to assertive and manipulative characters.
- Honesty can cause characters to offend others. Another way honesty can cause conflict is by a character who needs to lie (maybe they’re undercover?) revealing who they truly are, possibly jeopardizing an entire mission or quest.
When you want to know how a ‘good’ personality trait can cause conflict, try and imagine a scene in which that trait is the worst possible attribute to have.
Often, when trying to create conflict, taking characteristics to the extreme is very effective. That’s why I find the fewer dominant personality traits characters have, the better.
Instead of having 10 different personality traits that blend together into very subtle amounts and rarely affect the story, try giving your characters around 3 dominant traits that can be used to cause lots of conflict.
For example, a character who is extremely resilient, controlling, and obsessive can become very present and memorable.
A character who is a bit funny, tactless, helpful, reckless, creative, dramatic, and confrontational can be a difficult to remember as all of their non-dominant personality traits blend into something bland.
To make that character better, try making their personality focused around three traits.
For instance, a character who is extremely confrontational, dramatic, and creative can really take the spotlight in high pressure scenes.
You may also want to experiment with personality traits that conflict between characters.
Here are some personality traits that will cause conflict between characters:
- Nosy vs. uncooperative
- Haughty vs. cowardly
- Superstitious vs. judgmental
- Weak-willed vs. decisive
- Humorless vs. playful
- Catty vs. easygoing
While these traits aren’t strictly opposites, they do create tension, especially between characters who are on the same side.
Remember that flaws are personality traits that cause conflict in your story. Don’t be afraid to make traditionally ‘good’ traits work as flaws, or traditionally ‘bad’ traits work as advantages.