Written by JJ Barnes
Character flaws can turn a flat and unbelievable character into somebody interesting and relatable. I explore why your characters should have flaws, and how to still make them likeable.
The Problem With Writing No Character Flaws
Your Protagonist is who your audience will be riding along with, the person who they need to connect with and understand, as they move through your story. If your Protagonist is so flawless that your audience cannot relate to them or understand them, then you will lose your audience.
It’s important to remember that everybody makes mistakes. Everybody does bad things and then lives in regret and learns from it. Everybody is carrying damage and scars that cause us to behave in ways that can hurt others. Our damage and our flaws are part of our humanity, and if you’re representing a character that is allegedly human but carries none of these flaws with them, then they will not read as human and your audience will not connect with them as human. They’ll be more interested in and connected to the peripheral characters who are carrying all these flaws, and who we can see ourselves in.
The Writer’s Vanity Project
The other problem with writing a perfect character is it can come across as a vanity project. When you read or watch a story about a perfect person, it’s easy to assume that the writer, that’s you, is trying to represent all the bits they love about themselves and turn them into a person.
Male filmmakers who make action movies about flawless heroes who can tackle a romantic relationship as easily as they can defuse a bomb are particularly guilty of this.
Popular Characters Without Character Flaws
The only thing to counter this argument is the popularity of characters such as Superman and Captain America. If you think about the negative response from the DC fandom to Superman breaking Zod’s neck in Man of Steel, it shows the commitment the fans have to keeping Superman as this flawless angelic figure. Captain America is also perfect. Even when the situation is complicated and other characters disagree with him, such as in Captain America: Civil War, you can see that Captain America is always trying to make the right choice for the right reasons. Even if you disagree with the choices he’s made, they’re not made out of selfishness or evil.
People get tired and stressed, and all the energy we spend trying to be the best versions of ourselves gets drained, and that’s when our bad sides are more likely to come out. That’s when we’re like to snap, and that’s when we’re likely to make mistakes. If you are writing a character, in the style of Superman or Captain America, who never gets tired and drained, then it makes sense that they’ll never get so tired that their dark side is able to come out.
As I say, the popularity of these characters counters my argument about character flaws. But personally I find Superman and Captain America to be some of the least interesting characters.
Your Audience Might Feel Alienated
If you do choose to write a flawless character, for whatever reason, perhaps the important thing to consider is your audience. A superhero fandom might embrace a flawless character, but if you’re writing a story about a mother, you’re less likely to find audience sympathy.
If I read a book about a mother who is perfect, always calm, never shouts, never cries, I am going to feel irrationally angry about that character and not connect with her at all. I will be unlikely to finish that book because it won’t read as real to me.
However, if you write a story about a mother who sometimes struggles, and worries, and gets frustrated, and can’t always sit on the floor playing for hours, then I will be right there and invested and caring about her enough to follow her story to the end. And making your audience care enough about your Protagonist so that they stick around is the name of the game.
In a similar way, if you’re writing for teenagers and you write a teen who is always making good choices and doesn’t screw up, your teenage readers won’t understand them because teenagers are always struggling with life and making mistakes along the way. Character flaws are a key part of the growing up experience, both in fiction and reality.
Flaws Allow Us to Learn
The arc your character goes on, from making mistakes to learning and improving, is an interesting and exciting part of a story. If your story starts with a perfect character, be they an action hero, mother, or teenager, then where can they go? They have nothing to learn. The character arc is far more interesting as they become better people, than just seeing them perfect in the beginning, and staying consistent and unchanged by your story to the end.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose