GUEST POST: The Role of Flaws in the Character Arc

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The Role of Flaws in the Character Arc

by Becca Pugliosi

A lot has been said regarding character likability and the importance of giving our heroes strengths. And it’s true: attributes like perseverance, loyalty, boldness, and responsibility can help a character achieve his goals.

But I would argue that for a character’s arc to be as complete and satisfying as possible, flaws are equally important. I can hear the gasps from some writers. My hero? FLAWED? I know, I know. Flaws are more often discussed in relation to the villain, but they serve an important purpose for the hero, too. Three purposes, as a matter of fact.

Flaws create conflict by directly interfering with a character getting what she most wants. In the movie Erin Brockovich, the heroine wants to nail Pacific Gas and Electric to avenge the people they have exploited, but she also wants to gain financial security for her family. While PG&E stands as a clear source of external conflict, Erin is also sabotaged internally by her trust issues—her inability to admit that she needs helps and her reluctance to express gratitude for those who have helped her. This flaw repeatedly causes trouble in her personal life and in her professional efforts.

When creating a character, think of what she most wants, then give her a flaw that makes it seemingly impossible to achieve that goal. Think Luke Skywalker and his lack of faith, both in The Force and in himself. Give your character the right flaw and you’ll dramatically increase the level of conflict in your story.

Flaws contribute to building reader empathy. Readers want to read about characters who are relatable, who are in some way like them. When they see a character on the page who struggles with dishonesty or doubt or self-indulgence, they see someone who has flaws like them, and they realize that if the character can overcome his flaws, then there’s hope for the reader, too. This interest equates to readers who keep turning pages, who are invested in the story because they care about what happens to the hero and seeing if he succeeds.

In your story, give your character numerous opportunities to rise above his weakness—and let him fail. Scenes like these will show readers clearly what the character’s greatest flaw is. They will see that in order to succeed, the flaw must be overcome, and they’ll begin rooting for the hero to be victorious.

Flaws create an opportunity for reader satisfaction. In a story, flaws exist to give the character an opportunity for inner growth. We cheer when the villain is conquered, but when we see a character master his greatest weakness, something more personal is born: satisfaction. The hero has done what we hoped he would do all along but what seemed impossible, thereby proving that any flaw or fault can be overcome—even our own.

Unless you’ve purposely written a tragedy, your character should eventually defeat or at least subdue his trademark flaw. If mastery of this weakness occurs during the final fight to vanquish the antagonist, all the better.

So when crafting your next great hero, don’t make him too great. Give him a major flaw that will make him relatable to readers. Provide ample opportunities for the character to overcome his flaw, but let him struggle—until the end, when he will master his weakness and become a better version of himself.

How about you? Can you think of an example of an excellently flawed character?

Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.