1. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Are character flaws necessary?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Ben414, May 24, 2015.

    There is a common writing adage that your main character need a personal trait flaw. I see that argument as being that a personal trait flaw creates the potential (not necessarily realization) for character growth over the story as it progresses the central conflict and requires the MC to address his flaw during the climax. But is this argument an over-simplification? Can a flaw be something other than a personal trait?

    I'm thinking of two examples where I'm not sure if a personal trait flaw is necessary:

    One would be a redemption story where the MC did something bad in his past and tries to right his wrongs. Let's say he killed someone, and now tries to do good for others to make up for it. Does he need to have a personal trait flaw, or is his history enough?

    Second would be a different redemption story where the MC made a bad decision in his past and over the course of the story faces a similar decision. Does he need to have a personal trait flaw, or is his history AND second chance over the same decision enough?
     
  2. animenagai
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    animenagai Member

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    I don't agree with this premise. Here's a completely different reason why you'd want character flaws: perfect characters are boring and unrealistic. Everyone has personality flaws. Everyone. A perfect character to me, just isn't very relatable.

    It's also easier to create conflict given your character's flaws.
     
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  3. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Very true! I would then change the question question to: Does your main character need a personal trait flaw that progresses the central conflict?
     
  4. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, it is. "Strengths" and "flaws" are a reductionistic abstraction. As the heuristic goes, you should give all characters strengths and flaws in order to make them human-like and therefore (1) realistic and (2) interesting.

    And it is a popular heuristic because it is surprisingly informative. It is an interrogative heuristic, meaning it works by you (the author) asking yourself a question. That question is: "what are this character's strengths and flaws?" And if you cannot easily answer the "flaws" part, then that realization guides your thought process. It gets you to identify "flaws" as a distinct facet of your character.

    Of course, it is still just a reductionistic heuristic. There are countless reductionistic heuristics you can use to flesh out a character. My favorite of those is: "what intellectual pursuits is this character passionate about?"

    These heuristics have their place, but the author's aim should always be to understand the characters on a deeper level. That means moving past the dichotomy between "strengths" and "flaws" and identifying traits that, through a complex cause-and-effect process, have consequences.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that the concept of "flaws" is a useful addition to your cognitive toolbox in the conception stage, but you should always move to progress past the arbitrary distinction between "strengths" and "flaws" and to progress toward a more holistic understanding of how the character's personality affects his decisions.

    Also, I just noticed that one of the tags of this thread is "Lord @Lemex Reigns Over All". Care to explain? :p
     
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  5. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    All I know is I likes it! :D Awesome to see people humouring my little bit of silly humour. :)

    To the OP, I certainly don't think you should obsess over giving a character a flaw, treat your characters like real people. Real people have flaws, and ticks, and can be as subtle as saying 'sort of' way too many times. It doesn't need to be drastic or character defining to make the character believable.
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2015
  6. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think the flaw has to progress the central conflict. Or I guess it depends on how you look at it.

    A woman switched jobs because she was bullied. Was she weak to switch jobs?
    A cop's brother was killed by criminals. The cop's mission is to chase them down. Is it a flaw in his character that he does this?
    A girl was born to a bad, abusive family and has to struggle to find her own feet and gain freedom. Is it a flaw in her character to be in this situation?

    And so on.

    So yeah, you can have conflict and kick off the plot without a clear flaw in your MC causing it. But since everyone has flaws and you probably want to write a realistic, relatable character, the flaws are there, either to provide further conflict or just to flesh out your character.
     
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  7. Sunny1000
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    Sunny1000 Member

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    I don't think a character must have a flaw, but it depends on the story. I'm mainly considering Atticus Finch for my opinion and he is still a likable character, whether or not he is realistic is something to consider, I'm a closet idealist so I like to believe that he is realistic :) Atticus is arguably one of the most flawless characters in literature and while he is not the MC you could use the premise of To Kill a Mockingbird and have other characters actually move the plot along and your flawless character reacting to the situations around him/her.
     
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  8. EmptySoul
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    EmptySoul Active Member

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    I don't believe that a character needs a flaw, yet flaws are one of the simplest ways of fleshing a character out. I was just involved in a very interesting debate over the overuse of alcoholism by fictional detectives/cops and one of the areas upon which we all agreed was this allowed a simple way for the character to become more 3-d. Clearly though, there are many other ways to achieve this same thing.
     
  9. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    Even something that's technically not a flaw can be a flaw itself. Take Ned Stark in ASOIAF. He believed honor is the most important thing. And it got him killed.
     
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  10. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Which made me wonder, is it, statistically speaking, common for detectives to drink too much in real life? If so, perhaps the trope exists for a reason.
     
  11. Ussaid
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    Ussaid Member

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    It's about creating a realistic, interesting character. Don't add flaws just for the sake of adding flaws; that's new cliche. Just stick to what floats your boat.
     
  12. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    If he made a bad decision, then whatever personal trait led to him making that particular decision - instead of a better one - is already a character flaw, and a story that starts with him having already beaten that flaw sounds like a wasted opportunity to me.
     
  13. Kallisto
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    Kallisto Active Member

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    Yes and no. Flaws are okay, but they are seriously overrated in terms of their effectiveness. The idea with flaws is to make the character more relateable to the reader, but it's often the only thing the writer does to try and make their character someone the reader relates to. What's really needed, and often overlooked, is the fact that every character needs a goal, a motive, and a conflict.
     
  14. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I'm a huge fan of character flaws. My characters all have multiple flaws, even (and especially) my heroes. Not only because it makes them more believable, and they have something to overcome, but for me if they don't have flaws they're boring as fuck. Superman is the most boring character ever created. In fact, I hate superheroes in general because they lean towards being better, bigger, stronger, wiser and more capable. Super humans are dull. The same with characters who are the best at something, a leader in their field, or the only one in the world who can rescue everyone. I like the lowest of the low, the bastards, the crazy, the suicidal, the struggling, the damaged, the junkies, the do-gooders who often contradict themselves, fight for everything and probably still fuck it all up. Even when they think they're doing good, their pretentious self-righteousness is a flaw. Their delusions of being better than others is called out.
     
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  15. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Being the best at what you do is different from having a superpower, though. In fact, in my experience, the most interesting characters are the ones who are the best at what they do because they make the best decisions. They face genuine challenges (challenges that would defeat anyone else in their shoes) and succeed by making the right decisions, especially when those decisions seem like the wrong decisions at the time.

    So it may seem like splitting hairs, but I would distinguish between "bigger and stronger" and "better, wiser, and more capable".
     
  16. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Well, they both bore me. Whenever I see a movie trailer and the main character is some kind of supreme fighter, an expert scientist, the best mathematician, the coolest vampire, a man with a "certain set of skills" I lose interest immediately. The fact that 'no one else can do it' irritates me. I prefer if, from the outset, they can't but try anyway. But that's just me.
     
  17. No-Name Slob
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    No-Name Slob Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'll answer your question first: his history is his flaw/revival.

    But to answer the more vague question -- not all MC's need flaws, at all. Think outside the box!
     
  18. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I see what you mean and I agree with at least part of that, but there is still a really fine distinction to be made.

    Sherlock Holmes is the best example of the type of character I mentioned in my previous post. He is the best at what he does. He solves cases no one else can solve. What is interesting is how he solves them.

    There is a mistake the author could have made. Sherlock could have jumped to conclusions, almost magically, and he could have conveniently been right, and the reader could never have seen how he came to those conclusions. And when Sherlock told other characters his conclusions, they could have failed to question him for having no basis for his conclusions.

    But instead, the author very carefully and cleverly weaves in lots of little details that everyone can see, but only Sherlock really notices, simply because he knows what to look for and because he has disciplined himself to pay close attention to detail. (One of my favorite lines in literature is when Sherlock says "You see but you do not observe.") And he explains how he draws conclusions from the evidence he finds, and what he says is pretty hard to argue with. And yet the other characters still doubt him -- which of course gives him more opportunities to prove himself.

    From the way you describe the trailers that cause you to lose interest, it seems you are not referring to characters like Sherlock, where you get to see his genius at work. It seems you are referring to characters who are granted competence by the writers as if competence is a magical ability, or an incredibly high "intelligence" attribute in a roleplaying game. When those characters pull non-obvious conclusions and difficult decisions out of their asses, and when they happen to be right, the author hand-waves it as "this character is a genius." I definitely agree that those types of characters tend to be boring. But what I am referring to is characters who are brilliant as a product of brilliant writing by the author, not just as a product of the author's decision to make the characters brilliant. And Sherlock Holmes is indeed written pretty brilliantly.

    It is a form of show vs tell, actually. When a character succeeds at an extremely difficult task, the author can tell why the character succeeded by saying the character is brilliant, or the author can show why the character succeeded by cleverly and carefully revealing bits and pieces of the character's knowledge to the reader and letting the reader in on the character's thought process.

    So it seems like what bores you is not characters who overcome challenges, but lazy writing. At least, that is what I get from how you describe it. And that bores me, too. Mary Sues are boring.
     
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  19. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Good points, which show how those character types can work. But I don't like Sherlock, either. Honestly. But I did like in the new show with Cumberbatch, that I saw out of curiosity, that he had lots of flaws, and even better, was often wrong when he made cocky smart-alec observations about people. But, by the second episode, it was shit.
     
  20. No-Name Slob
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    Mmmm ... Cumberbatch ;)
     
  21. drifter265
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    drifter265 Banned

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    Your characters will think they are perfect. You have to prove to them they're not.
     
  22. Miss Lonelyhearts
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    Miss Lonelyhearts Member

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    Yes character flaws are necessary. They help build a story. A character with flaws makes the character human and something we can relate to. A character who is perfect is rather boring, even superman has his kryptonite and his love issues with Lois Lane. It also helps the character to change his internal beliefs about a matter. Those flaws like for example drugs, homophobia, etc.. is something to over come and we as the reader on the same journey with the character with flaws to see if he will over come them. The hero in any book or movie in my opinion is the one who changes the most, if you start with "perfect" the story is over.
     
  23. bumble bee
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    bumble bee Member

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    I definitely prefer flawed characters- and the sidekicks are often more fun than the MCs (Buffy was the least interesting person in BTVS if you ask me :))

    I also like the Shakespearian tragedy/male Stark idea of your qualities leading to your downfall and almost becoming your flaws.

    As lots of posters have said it's how the flaws are handled that makes a difference.

    I remember a review of a Disney film where the reviewer had a rant about beautiful, rich, intelligent, kind Princesses (or other female characters) being 'clumsy'
    As if the writer has said, "ah I must make my otherwise perfect character relateable. I'll give her a flaw, which will have no impact on the plot, few actual drawbacks and is actually quite childlike and sweet. Oops she's knocked over a vase. Now she's a believable role model"

    Ever since then clumsiness in a character has me looking for whether it's just a lazy way to "add a flaw" for the sake of it. I'm sure there are other examples
     
  24. mad_hatter
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    mad_hatter Active Member

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    Just to address the OP, as nobody else seems to have mentioned it; being a murderer, or making bad decisions, is a character flaw. In fact, in your examples, the character flaw is the very thing that drives the story forward, making it absolutely necessary!

    All in all, in my opinion, having your protagonist flawed is necessary. If there is no flaw, there can be no story. Your supporting cast can be as flawless as you like (although that would likely make them incredibly boring), but the MC must have flaws, even if they are seemingly small and inconsequential.
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2015
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  25. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    They're not necessary for commercial success. See Lee Child's very popular Reacher books, for example. Reacher is pretty much stronger, faster, and smarter than anyone he comes across. The flaws he has are minor, if present at all. He's basically just there to kick ass and take names. It works well enough for light, fast reading in mainstream commercial fiction. If you're trying to do something a little deeper than that, I think it is often problematic to have a character with no flaws. That said, however, I could see a literary work where the lack of flaws becomes part of the point of the thing, what the author is making a statement about.
     

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