Here’s another link I saved recently. This one is by author Rosslyn Elliot, guest-blogging on agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog about Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws.
I bookmarked this because she touches on a point I’ve seen made in many how-to writing tips but never really expanded upon. We’re told our characters need to have flaws, otherwise they become Mary-Sue-ish, and readers don’t want to read about a Mary-Sue. But we’re never really told how to give our characters flaws.
Rosslyn points out that there are two types of flaws that are seen in fictional characters: superficial (she calls them cosmetic) flaws, and core (she calls them real) flaws. I dislike her use of the word "real" here because many of the superficial flaws are perfectly real, too. They’re just not very deep.
The way you can tell the two apart is by their consequences on the plot. Superficial flaws have only the loosest effect on the plot, but core flaws will create whole plot points and change plot directions. Rosslyn calls superficial flaws "victimless", which is largely true – no one really suffers as a result, except maybe the protagonist, briefly.
I’ll draw on Tamora Pierce’s book Terrier as an example, since it’s the first one that comes to mind. The main character, Beka, has signed up to become, essentially, a city guard. She’s shown to apparently be painfully shy, not meeting the gaze of authority figures and having trouble getting words out to them.
I kind of felt that this had been thrown in on later drafts, as if Pierce had decided Beka needed a flaw and that was an easy one. As a shy person myself, it didn’t come across really well; it felt superficial – and it was definitely victimless, as Rosslyn puts it. Beka stammers on a few occasions when talking to her supervisors, or to a judge she has to present a case to, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to come into play much – it’s a superficial flaw because the plot never hangs on it.
But it could have easily been made into a core flaw. Beka starts doing her own investigations of the goings-on, which involves questioning people. Some of these are cold-calls on people. It can take me up to a week of internally wrestling with my shyness just to get up the nerve to go across the street and talk to my neighbour about renewing last year’s snow-plowing arrangement. (Seriously. It took me a week.) In the book, Beka marches up to these complete strangers to ask about stuff related to the investigation with little additional thought. If her shyness was really a core flaw, it would affect the plot – for instance, perhaps she struggles with convincing herself to go talk to them, but while she’s waffling about it they get killed and the investigation loses a key witness and now they’ve got to figure out some other way to get the evidence they need.
The flaws don’t need to be all in your face, either; they can be subtle. And as Rosslyn points out, what can be a strength in some situations can be a flaw in others. In Magestone, Ryanne’s stubbornness is both her biggest strength and flaw. It’s because of her stubbornness that she gets into trouble at points, but it’s also because of her stubbornness that she makes it through the story emotionally intact. Beka’s core flaw is similar – she’s very determined to prove herself and to catch the bad guys, but this often means she does things when she shouldn’t (sometimes causing problems, even if they end up turning out okay in the end – I’d say this is more an issue with the author not letting bad things happen to the character/story).
Rosslyn suggests that the enduring characters, the ones that stick with us long after we’ve closed the book, are the ones who not only have great strengths, but also have core flaws that impact the story in big ways. I think there are exceptions to this, as there are exceptions to everything, but I do think that for the most part this is true.