Adding flaws is a big part of what makes characters interesting. Han Solo would be a lot less fun if he weren’t a criminal. Bilbo Baggins is appealing because he battles his own cowardice. Loki’s arrogance and scheming are half the reason he’s a highlight of the Marvel films.
Of course being played by the charming Tom Hiddleston also helps.
But not all character flaws are equal. Picking the wrong one can put readers off your hero or make your villain so sympathetic that they switch sides. I recently found an interesting distinction in Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You that illuminates the distinction and helps in character building.
Grefer draws a distinction between flaws and faults.
Flaws are aspects of a character that aren’t inherently morally wrong but that get them into trouble or make them less impressive. Take the example of Bilbo. His desire for self preservation and the quiet life are understandable, but this holds him back from achieving everything he could.
Or look at Sophronia in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books. Her curiosity and lack of respect for authority make her capable of great things, but also get her in a lot tight scrapes and dangerous situations.
These are character traits that make us like the character even as we shake our heads at them.
Faults are the character traits that are always wrong. Cruelty. Greed. The desire to dominate others. They might seem at first glance like extreme version of flaws, but there is a distinction, one that will affect the reactions of readers.
Loki’s pride is arguably a flaw. It gives him the confidence to construct grand schemes and be a charming conversationalist, but it also tips over into over-confidence and looking down on others. His desire to dominate, to bend everyone else to his will, is clearly a fault. It’s a terrible attitude to take, one that leads to darkness and destruction. It makes him a real villain.
Using the distinction
So how do you use this to your advantage?
Basically, focus on the flaws, not the faults. Flaws make your heroes interesting without alienating readers, so stick with them for the good guys. For the villains you may want to mix in some faults, but when deciding on the balance between flaws and faults think about how you want your readers to react. Do you want them to bay for the villain’s blood and cheer when he gets his head chopped off, or sympathise and long to see him redeemed? Make the villain more flawed than the hero, but think carefully before you fill them full of faults.
For more of this sort of stuff check out Victoria Grefer’s blog, Writing With The Crimson League. And if you’ve got any thoughts on writing interesting, flawed characters please share them below.