Welcome back to part two of our Creating Memorable Characters mini-series! Today we’re talking all about character flaws and how you can make them a driving force for your plot.
Missed part one of the series? No problem! You can click here for a brief overview of the series and an introduction to what makes characters memorable.
How Character Flaws Became Ranch Dressing
I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere along the way in the narrative of story creation, character flaws became the writer’s version of Ranch dressing.
Seriously, though. Think about it.
You bake a potato. You throw on some salt and pepper. It doesn’t quite hit the spot, so you add a little Ranch dressing.
Or say you order a pizza. Hand-tossed crust, pepperoni, easy on the sauce. You take a bite, but it just isn’t doing it for ya. What do you do? You dip it in Ranch dressing!
(If you’re some sort of weirdo who doesn’t appreciate the simplicity and wonder that is Ranch dressing, feel free to substitute gravy. Or sriracha.)
Now imagine you’re meeting with your critique group. You’ve turned over your latest WIP, and all eyes are on you as you sweat at the table, waiting for the verdict.
And the feedback’s good. Too good. Just like your new protagonist, the male CEO who’s on a mission to reverse climate change one day at a time. So what do you do?
You throw in a character flaw (obviously). Somewhere after the opening image but before that pivotal first turning point, you insert a board room scene. Our once lovable CEO wears Armani and drinks a double espresso as he tactlessly talks over his female counterpart to blithely express the exact same thing.
There. A hypocritical mansplainer. Everybody hates that guy.
Problem solved–you now have yourself a hopelessly flawed main character.
See? Ranch dressing.
But here’s the thing–unless your character’s penchant for mansplaining is keeping him from true fulfillment and a happy ending, then all you’ve done is made your hero an ass.
So what makes a character flaw functional and not just an overused Midwestern salad topping?
I’m so glad you asked…
How Character Flaws Create a Memorable Story Arc
If you read the introductory post to this series, then you already know that one of the pivotal ingredients for a truly memorable character is a rich inner journey.
As readers, we want to watch our heroes struggle. We want to see their drive and determination. We need them to persevere in order for us to truly connect with them. And that perseverance needs to be more than just “weathering the storm.” The struggle needs to be about more than the external forces at play.
So what if we rethink our understanding of character flaws? What if “flaw” doesn’t have to mean “negative personality trait”? In fact, what if we look at “flaw” as something deeper than even “personality.”
Today, I want to challenge you to stop creating personality flaws for your characters and instead start exploring flawed character thinking.
How Flawed Thinking Shapes Your Protagonist’s Journey
Unless your protagonist is born on page one of your novel, then your protagonist begins her journey with an entire lifetime of experiences that have shaped how she believes her world works. While some of these assumptions may, in fact, be true, at least one or two of her beliefs will be well and truly wrong.
It’s those select few false beliefs your protagonist holds that will determine her entire inner journey. These are your character’s flaws.
Take Beauty & The Beast, for example. At it’s most basic level, the Beast’s flawed belief is that his appearance makes him unlovable. While the Beast’s external struggle is to break the enchantment before the final petal falls, it is his internal struggle with his own flawed belief that is keeping him from breaking the enchantment.
At the beginning of the film, the Beast is so convinced of his inability to be loved that he has completely given up hope on breaking the spell. Even after he and Belle become friends, the Beast still doesn’t believe Belle could ever truly care for him. It is only after Belle returns to save him from Gaston’s mob that Beast finally realizes his life is worth fighting.
Now, yes, the Beast clearly has some pretty big personality flaws. He’s hot tempered, arrogant, and more than a little conceited. But those flaws aren’t what makes the Beast a memorable character. It’s the flawed belief that he is inherently unworthy of love that’s keeps the Beast’s story ingrained in our memories.
How to Create Pivotal Character Flaws in Your Novel
Chances are that if you have a work-in-progress, you’ve already intuitively given your hero a flawed belief that is affecting her story. Your job now is to pinpoint that belief and make it inherent to the success of your hero’s journey.
If you don’t know what that belief is, take a look at your plot. What has to change in your character’s life in order for them to have a happy ending? What is keeping that change from occurring?
Start big picture–my protagonist needs to convince someone to fall in love with him. Then ask, why can’t someone fall in love with him? Follow each subsequent answer with “why” until you reach the true root of the problem.
(Pro Tip: Having trouble digging through your own muddled thoughts? Write down this exercise as a scene between an interviewer and your protagonist. Answer each question with an “I” statement from your protagonist.)
Once you determine your hero’s flawed belief, find out why your hero thinks that way. What series of events led them to believe they were unlovable? Did a series of people abandon him as a child? Did he grow up wealthy and then lose his friends when his wealth disappeared?
Your character’s flawed thinking is the result of some deep pain (either one major event or a series of small events) from his history. Explore what could have happened that led him to think this way.
Finally, find ways to weave that flawed belief into the small decisions being made through out the story. How does this flawed belief affect his everyday life? How does it shape his response patterns?
Now that you that you know the flawed ways your character thinks, and how his thinking needs to change in order to reach a happy ending, you can know exactly what your character’s journey needs to be.
Congratulations. You’ve turned your character flaw into the heartbeat of your novel.
Ready for the next step?
Check back Thursday for the next installment in our Creating Memorable Characters series: Give your character a goal that matters. In the meantime, be sure and drop your newfound flawed beliefs in the comments below!