You hear so much about the importance of “character flaws” or “fatal flaw” but how do you make this aspect of character intrinsic to the story? For starters, the flaws of a character are connected to past trauma and fear, but story-driving character flaws go much deeper. Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes, and while that fear was used for an onscreen laugh and recurring moments throughout the series, his ophidiophobia had nothing to do with driving the storyline of the movies.
To develop a character with fears and flaws that will drive the story (and honestly, every story should be a character-driven story) there are some important aspects to consider as you write.
Connect character flaws to the internal struggle and/or conflict.
Your character experiences an internal struggle as they make their way through the story. As readers, we love to watch as characters learn, change and grow. So, when developing a lead character, think of the character arc and the external (story) and internal (character) journey your protagonist will take—where she will start and where she arrives.
In White Oleander Astrid Magnussen needs to grow away from her mother’s influence and become who she really is, not the imitation that her mother has tried to make her. As Astrid journeys through various foster homes, we see her make mistakes by following what she’s learned from her mother. As the story progresses she begins to see her mother for what she is and finally decides to forge her own way in the world, all the better for having the confidence to leave her mother’s ways behind. The reader is rewarded when Astrid begins to understand her own true nature and follows her heart.
What character flaws will drive a story and possibly bring the protagonist to failure?
Make the character flaw and fear so important that if it were to be pulled out, there would be no story. In What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, the lead character, John Calvino carries a dark secret. When he was a boy, John’s family was murdered. As an adult, he keeps this secret to protect his children, but the reader sees keeping the secret as his inability to face the past. Calvino’s fear takes center stage in the form of the malevolent family-murdering spirit and drives the action of the book until the end. The story is inseparable from the lead character, which makes for a tightly woven external and internal plot.
In the Ken Bruen mystery series (The Guards, The Killing of the Tinkers, The Magdalen Murders, The Dramatist) Irish detective Jack Taylor’s alcoholic, drug-laden downward spirals and bad decisions are key to each story. Jack Taylor is a perfect example of a flawed protagonist who drives every story he is in and makes reprehensible decisions and mistakes. Yet readers still empathize and get behind this character although he lets us down time after time.
Make character flaws cause more than personal repercussions.
When the flaw affects someone else in the story world, you get a bigger story. Readers see this again and again with Bruen’s character, Jack Taylor. His wrong decisions and judgments become a disaster for others, and the reader feels Jack’s horror and guilt right along with him. In White Oleander, when Astrid has yet to overcome her mother’s influence, she unwittingly destroys her first foster family. Yes, she has help (from an alcoholic stripper foster mother and her pedophilic boyfriend) but acting and thinking the way her narcissistic mother has taught her, Astrid makes choices that harm herself and the other children in the family. The reader can’t help but become more emotionally involved with the story and at the same time, ache with Astrid as she shoulders responsibility for her actions.
Look for the connections…strength in character flaws and vice-versa.
In The Dresden Files books, Harry Dresden is protective to a fault. He jumps into situations and allows his protectiveness to rule his decisions, which often become a source of emotional pain for the hero. Using a character strength also as a character weakness is a great way to develop story-driving flaws. Go even further and push a positive trait to the dark side to create an antagonist or villain. A character who is strong-willed and reliable (good trait) also needs to be in control or becomes pushy (uh-oh, getting grey-area) and can also insist on his own way, becoming cold-hearted and abusive (ah, the dark side) to get what he wants. Take a principled, idealistic character with a strong sense of right and wrong and look closer. Is he relentless and obsessed? Judgmental, condemning, self-righteous?
By developing traits and flaws within a character to drive a story, you not only get wonderful, deep, empathetic characters, but the character will share the burden of telling and finishing the story right along with you.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.