Quirks and Flaws (Character Building)
by Tyler Gajda
A large part of my experience making fictional characters comes from my time with role-playing games, mostly Dungeons & Dragons. Creating a character in an RPG is precisely the same as when writing fiction. You both have to make very broad decisions about where this person fits into the world, from their relationships with family members to their religious affiliations, and at the same time decide the smallest details about how this person behaves. Are they a morning person or a night owl? Do they break eye contact when they lie? These are questions every player of an RPG has to make when creating and playing their characters. These are also questions every writer has to make for the people in their stories.
Nobody is good at this when they start out. Though everyone I’ve met and played with has shown amazing creativity when they imagine these fictional characters, it can be difficult to turn that creativity into a full character. There are many tools to learn, many facets of character creation to understand, and of all the things to learn there is one facet that I emphasize the most: make good flaws.
When I started writing, I did what most everyone does the first time around. I focused on the things they did well, the things that made them exceptional or special. I imagined them by their strengths and planned their stories with their abilities in mind. What skills would they use to overcome their problems?
There’s nothing particularly wrong about this. It’s actually a crucial part of the creation of every character, but it cannot be its sole focus. I believe it shouldn’t even be the primary focus. A person’s strengths are interesting, but more interesting by far are their flaws. More engaging are the things that prevent them from succeeding when they otherwise would.
Flaws are crucial because they round out a character, not just to make them more believable, but to solidify their stories. Imagine Joel, the strongest man in the world a charming smile. He’s strong enough to pull trees from the earth and can wrestle bears to the ground. This is a fine start and it’s easy to see a couple ways this character could grow and develop, but it would take some work to iron out the details.
So let’s do that work. Joel has problems controlling his anger. He is already fully aware of this and does his best to control it, but it’s a struggle. He avoids conflict and has trouble saying “no.” If he never gets emotionally invested, he never risks exploding with anger if things don’t go his way. As a result, he bottles up his emotions and feels isolated, making his anger problem worse. This is the power of a flaw. By simply shifting focus, I’ve evolved from painting a sketch of a character to the beginnings of a story. Joel has a character arc formed and ready for him with all of the stakes laid bare and the risks and rewards made visible.
So what are the tools we need to write a good flaw? As I mention in this week’s video, a flaw is only a flaw when it’s a character trait that brings significant negative consequences for the character. But the kind of traits that make for a good flaw will vary wildly based on several factors. These factors are things like who your character is, where they belong in the world, and what type of story you’re writing.
That’s basically everything, isn’t it? As in all parts of writing there are few hard rules about what works and what doesn’t. When in doubt, use this rule: a flaw should prevent a character from utilizing their strengths. When a character reaches for success it appears to hand them failure in its place. It’s an aspect you can reveal to change the way your readers think about your character. Most importantly it has to mean something. It must be relevant to the story, thematic and appropriate for the genre, and overcoming it (or failing to overcome it) should be a central part of that character’s story.
In the real world, we see personal flaws as opportunities for growth, things to work on to make ourselves better people. Your characters are no different. Give them the room and watch them grow.
Tyler Gajda is a member of the WGA Youth Committee and produces YouTube videos outlining various and many aspects of writing. The videos can be found here.