Being a little vain, as I described in the last post, is just one of Mister’s flaws. He also gets frustrated and asks for help with things he could do himself, hits when he gets angry, and doesn’t sleep well. Sometimes these flaws, especially the hitting and the not sleeping, really bug me. Most of the time, though, I can accept them as part of what makes Mister a real person. And don’t even get me started on Husband. Lately he’s been walking around whispering, “If you build it, he will come.” I know it is baseball season, but come on. It is probably not his tragic flaw, but it is a flaw none the less.
Characters are the same way. Without flaws, they aren’t believable. Unbelievable characters cause readers to become skeptical of the whole story. This skepticism doesn’t allow the reader to invest in the story, which means they’re probably no longer a reader. To add to Husband’s quote, if you build a flawed character, provided the rest of your story is also sound, readers will come.
These days, writers have to take flaws a step further. Publishers report to have seen to many cliched flaws like the damsel in distress or the handsome price who is also a snob. I’m not talking about resume flaws, either. Like “I’m a perfectionist” or “I work too hard.” While those are flaws, it is doubtful that they’re going to lead to a black moment for the character when things seem like they can’t get any worse.
Here is a list of some popular characters and they’re flaws from Wikipedia:
- Oedipus‘ downfall is directly linked to arrogance: Oedipus the King
- Macbeth suffers from hubris, leading to the murder of Duncan I of Scotland; he later becomes paranoid, leading him to order the deaths of Banquo and the family of Macduff: Macbeth
- Hamlet is indecisive and self-doubting, which thwarts him in avenging his father’s murder.
- Victor Frankenstein suffers from excessive curiosity, leading to the creation of the monster that destroys his life: Frankenstein
- Sigurd has a vulnerable spot on his back, where a linden leaf fell as he was bathing in dragon’s blood: Volsunga saga
- Agamemnon acts in greed when he takes Briseis away from Achilles: The Iliad
- Cyrano De Bergerac, despite his many accomplishments, suffers from self-doubt because of his huge nose which keeps him from pursuing the woman he loves.
- Marvin the Paranoid Android suffers from extreme depression, as well as extreme boredom due to his huge yet mostly inactive mind. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Tom Riddle has a fear of dying which causes him to make horcruxes, transforming him into the vile Lord Voldemort. Harry Potter
- Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes: Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Rocky Balboa thinks of himself as a loser who can’t go the distance in the boxing ring: Rocky
- Anakin Skywalker‘s anger and fear of losing his wife Padme eventually consumes him, leading to his transformation into Darth Vader: Star Wars hexalogy
- In Casablanca, Rick thinks of himself as an unfeeling cynic who denies the pain and disappointment from a failed love affair with Ilsa.
- In Vertigo, the detective played by James Stewart is afraid of heights and has to climb a tower.
- Captain Hook is obsessed with Peter Pan
- Roy Batty, as a replicant, is powerful, but has a very short lifespan: Blade Runner
- Oscar Schinder in the film Schinder’s List must overcome his greedy nature and find compassion to sacrifice in order to save his workers
As for my characters, my middle grade character is socially unaware and often does things that get her into trouble without realizing. While it is sometimes harder to really develop a flaw in a picture book, the whole story in I’M NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING is the character’s flaw, which is being afraid of the bathtub drain. I’m just developing a new character who is lacking self-awareness.
When I have an idea for a new book or new character, the first thing I do is complete a character sketch. My character sketch has been “borrowed” from a lot of resources including Gail Carson Levine’s WRITING MAGIC and Cheryl Klein’s SECOND SIGHT. It has things like what is in the character’s backpack or purse, the character’s matter of speaking, and what the character loves and hates. Some of the most important parts of the sketch, the parts I almost always do first, are what attributes the character has that will enable him or her to solve his or her own problems and the flaws that will lead to the climax.
Flaws are everywhere, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find inspiration. I like to start in the mirror.