Writing Homework #7: Character Flaws From Life

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I’ve tried several different methods of character building before, and I always seem to struggle with flaws.

Lists of flaws are invaluable for ideas, but if that’s your only resource, they run the risk of being an a la carte menu that won’t add up to a whole person–the flaws you choose might not complement each other (absent-minded but fanatical?) or illogical given your characters’ strengths.

Writers always steal from life, from the people they know, and now it’s time to flex that muscle on flaws.

So, for the exercise, think of someone you know and an obvious flaw about them–something that annoys you or makes your life difficult in some way. Write up a short summary of how the flaw presents itself to you, then speculate on why they might be that way, if you can. (Yes, you’re playing armchair psychologist. Don’t attach their real names to their flaws, if that’s a concern.)

Finally, extrapolate from there how a character might present the same flaw in other ways.

An example of mine:

Nancy is a perpetual competitor. If I’m not feeling well, she’s sicker than I am, or she’s been sicker longer. If I tell a story about an awful teacher I had in school, she’ll dredge up a story about how one of hers was worse. If I mention I went out to dinner somewhere nice, she’ll counter with a restaurant she thinks is better, or some incredible home-cooked meal her husband made for her.

I can rarely say anything in her presence that she will not try to one-up in some way. She has to have the last word.

Why? Probably insecurity. For whatever reason, she feels she is less than others, and makes everything about herself to feel important. But that’s not the only possibility–it could also be a true case of self-absorption, that she doesn’t actually realize she’s competing with others, only that she thinks we’re all interested in whatever she has to say and it never occurs to her not to share.

One motivation skews in favor of self-knowledge, and the other is more passive. They’d both be interesting, believable flaws for a character, but let’s focus on insecurity.

How might that more basic flaw present itself in other behaviors?

Nancy never lets anyone have the last word, but she doesn’t express any insecurity physically: my character, let’s call her Jenny, might. She might always have to have the latest fashion, or wear the perfect makeup or hairdo, to never be seen at anything less than her best.

Going further down that train of thought, Jenny could have a host of different body-image issues, depending on her size relative to what she considers ideal: she could be too thin or too fat, too short or too tall, or it could be focused on a very specific body part, which she dresses to hide. If she does consider herself beautiful, she may over-value her physical aspect because she feels she has more looks than brains; or she may be the plain-Jane type who disregards her physical appearance because she knows she can get by on her brains, but secretly she wishes she were gorgeous. We’ve all seen that trope, but if you don’t resolve it with the Important Makeover That Changes Everything, then it’s still got plenty of potential.

At work, Jenny might be a perfectionist because she’s terrified any errors in her work will cost her the respect of her peers, or even the job itself. She would be deferential to her superiors, of course, but she might treat her subordinates high-handedly, projecting a confidence in her position she doesn’t truly feel.

In relationships, Jenny might come across as attention-seeking or clingy. She might rely on gifts to show her affection, because money has an assigned value that isn’t dependent on how she feels about herself. Jenny might be the type to bail on her friendships or romances when the going gets tough, because she doesn’t think she’s up for the challenge, or because she doesn’t think she deserves to be happy.

So, now,  you’ve got a whole host of potential character traits stemming from a single basic flaw. Not all of them would work together for a single character, and certainly a character with only one flaw wouldn’t be well-developed. But expressing the same central flaw in multiple ways gives a character more richness, more believability.

I know I’ve just made Jenny sound like a terrible, shallow person, but pair up her insecurity with some strengths (maybe she’s charitable, because she knows what its like to feel worthless, so she wants to help others; maybe she’s hilarious and entertaining, having developed a keen sense of humor as compensation for her fears about being unlikable)–she’ll feel real in no time.


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