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Character Development: Writing Realistic Personalities & Flaws

This is the second article in our Character Development series. Click here to read the first article: Character Death and the Ultimate Sacrifice.

The Black Rose by Jeff JonesIn writing a novel, many authors are concerned about their characters’ likability. Characters are often their creator’s darlings, and the last thing authors want is for the audience to dislike what they, personally, have poured so much of themselves into. Will audiences take to their character, or find them insufferable? Will readers care if the character hurts, or succeeds? If stories are about people—how does an author make one the audience actually cares about?

In striving for this likability, authors often give this character virtues they think audiences may find desirable: kindness, bravery, physical strength, compassion. But most authors also know full-well that a character who is too perfect will be subject to an audience’s disdain.

The way to increase a character’s likability, one could then argue, would be to give a character flaws. Alongside a hero’s laundry-list of strengths, an author feels obliged to throw a wrench or two into the mix. Writers can consult an exhaustive list of traits, from absent-mindedness to a hair-trigger temper, from dishonesty to pessimism. But in this form, it’s difficult to put these flaws into action. They are disjointed from the character, and may feel shoehorned in so the character narrowly avoids being “too-perfect.”

Kylin Zhang by lian yan fangAn author should be careful of this, and never underestimate their audience—far too often, audiences call out authors on this practice and accuse these characters of being idealized self-inserts. They point out characters they feel are unrealistic, and are quick to pounce on the types of flaws perfect characters often exhibit: clumsiness (but lovable clumsiness that never affects the narrative), hating their own “special” abilities (which give them edge over every character), or not being traditionally handsome/beautiful in their own opinion (and yet are still perceived positively by everyone else). Audiences know that being unattractive or clumsy aren’t real character flaws, they are shallow traits that don’t contribute to what really makes the character tick. Similarly, afterthought flaws like absent-mindedness or a hair-trigger temper aren’t of any consequence when they are used only on a surface-level, as they often don’t affect the plot or character’s social circle in any significant way. A single scene where a character says something rude (“and so they are hot-headed,” the author says) does not a personality make.

Maybe the trick, then, is not to focus on whether a character is likable, but whether they are realistic.

RESCUING THE WITCH by Sam CarrIn real life, a personality is made up of millions of experiences, memories, and relationships. Whether they be positive or negative, these experiences shape a person’s attitude toward the world around them, and the traits someone develops as a result of these experiences are all correlated. A past trauma, for example, may cause someone to become more compassionate of others, but also have them become warier of new situations. In this vein, a character’s flaw cannot exist independently of their virtue, and vice-versa, because they are one in the same. We can think of a character’s virtues and flaws not as separated entities, but as twin sides of a coin.

A character’s defining characteristics, for example, might be their pacifism and willingness to forgive. No matter the harm caused, the damage done, this character can find it in their heart to let go of their anger or need for revenge. Other characters may see them as a saint, and someone worthy of their admiration. If this were the end of this character’s development, they would quickly be accused of being too perfect or unrealistic.

But, consider this virtue as being only one side of a coin. Conversely, their willingness to forgive is also their greatest flaw. A villain has plagued this character for months, targeting their wrath only at this character—and they are forgiven. Nothing is done. When the villain changes course, and directs their rage to those closest to our admirable character, still they are forgiven. Our character stands aside, unwilling to compromise their morals in order to stand against evil. They are passive, and allow the evil to wreak havoc on those who are defenceless to stop it. Those who once admired our hero turn their backs, cursing them for their failings. This character’s strengths and weaknesses now mean something—the flaw is not some inconsequential afterthought to “de-perfect” our hero, but instead gives us a deeper understanding of what drives them. We see this character’s defining ability to forgive in moral conflict with itself. The hero’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Guard by wlop

A knight may be willing to go to the ends of the earth for his family, but his loyalty may force him to prioritize his family’s welfare at great cost to others.

A queen may be slow to anger and deliberative with important decisions, but may also be too slow to act before it’s too late.

A sister may be protective of her younger siblings, but may also react with disproportionate anger when someone hurts them.

Playing with Fire by Godwin AkpanA soldier may be admired for his compassion, but gets his team killed when he stops in dangerous territory to tend to the enemy’s wounded.

A powerful orator can inspire millions, but is unable to listen to what his loved ones tell him.

A revolutionary will stop at nothing until freedom is won, and so will not stop even when it’s clear that her actions are doing more harm than good.

A generous person gives until there is nothing left. A perfectionist can never finish anything. A hard worker works himself into the ground. These flaws are not tacked on as an afterthought, but rather are intrinsic to who the character is. As an author, look at what really drives your character at their core. What do you, personally, like about this character? What do you admire—their drive, their optimism, their charisma? Identify it, then search for the darker side. Imagine that strength pushed to its extreme, and how that would play out in your story.

And importantly, these traits must matter. If the darker side is never shown, or never has any consequences, it is just as worthless as a disjointed flaw. No one in real life makes the right decisions, thinks rationally, and reacts positively to everything one hundred percent of the time. Allow the darker aspects of your character’s personality to impact the plot, and don’t let it be solved right away. Let them react to their own issues, let them overcome the problems they have created. Make their “flaws” matter.

The greatest, most beloved characters are not perfect. They are realistic, honest reflections of our own humanity. Maybe as authors, we should be less concerned with our character’s likability, and more on their realism. We should be concerned with giving our audiences someone they can see themselves in, someone who exhibits the same fears and doubts as they do, someone who they can rally behind. If we can achieve that, maybe that long sought-after likability will come all by itself.

Title image by wlop.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Matt says:

    I think you make a good point about making a character’s flaws match up with their strengths. At the same time I’m not sure if realism is the right word. I feel that realism is often times over used in relation to speculative fiction, such as fantasy, because it isn’t applied to everything. The complaints about, say female knights, but ignore that, by all laws of physics, a good sized dragon would barley be able to walk, nevermind fly. I think what you are looking for is connecting the flaws and virtues of a character, which is realistic, but that’s not their primary good. Instead, it is making sure the character is relatable, which can be realistic or unrealistic.
    Thank you

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