There’s a common phrase – Nobody’s perfect. We’ve all heard it or said it at some time or another. Mostly because it is universally true. We all make mistakes, we all have bad days. We all have phobias and flaws.
When writing, there is the tendency to make our main character perfect. To strip away the flaws and make them The Ideal Person. If it is a story about a spy, then we want them to be the super spy who always defuses the bomb in time, always defeats the bad guy and always has exactly the right thing to say at the right time. If we write a story about a hero we want to make sure he wins in the end (sometimes, personally I sometimes like stories where they don’t win, but that’s just me) so we equip them with all the tools they need. If he needs to know how to pick a lock, then he will know how to pick a lock.
The problem is, perfection is boring. And not always very likeable.
There is a reason most of us root for the underdog.
And truthfully if you boil down most stories you’ll find that beyond the stopping the bomb, defeating the Slug Master General, or whatever the plot happens to be, there is one constant.
A story is a person’s journey.
The bombs and slug monsters are just a way to get your main character (and possibly several side characters) from the person he/she is at the beginning, to who they are at the end. If your MC is perfect to start with and perfect, if slightly dirtier for the course, at the end then it isn’t much of a story.
Yes, my friends, your hero needs a flaw.
Because I want to give good old Bob a workout before letting him have his Thanksgiving turkey, we will discuss Bob. I know I have described a lot about Bob and a lot about his world. But I have never given you a physical description. I’m sure you all have your own mental images of Bob, but let’s go with this for today (and sure, it may change later, but for now…)
Bob is of average height and weight. He thinks of himself as plain and forgettable, a wall flower. He has black hair that is cut in the same style that he has been wearing since his father first took him to the barber shop when he was younger. He still goes to the same barber too and orders his haircut by number. The old number eight, to be exact. It’s on a poster in the barbershop. The poster is from the 1950s and faded along the edges. Bob looks at some of the more current hairstyles and in his quieter times he debates changes like shocking green dye and shaved sides, but knows he wouldn’t ever actually do it. For one thing his boss at the accounting firm would have a coronary. So he sticks with the #8. Along with the black hair are piercing green eyes and a ready grin that melts hearts whenever he flashes it, even if he has never realized it. While he doesn’t go to the gym, he runs in the town’s marathon ever year and runs throughout the year to stay in shape. while he has never taken first, he is usually towards the front of the pack and has a terror of coming in last.
Now you can see a little of what our Bob looks like physically, and you have probably gotten a hint about his flaw. But let’s make it official.
One at a time Bob’s parents were killed. Then his Aunt was killed and he was left alone. His highschool girlfriend left him to go off to college and never returned and his only semi-serious girlfriend got a job in a city far away and left him to take it.There are other tragedies, both large and small, but we will stick with this for now. As a consequence, Bob always feels like people are leaving him behind. He feels like he is not good enough to stick around for and that he never will be good enough. He thinks many of the things he has in his life are because people felt sorry for him after the deaths and not because he earned them or was worthy. Because of this he works his same job and never applies for a promotion within the company. He never looks for a job he might like better. He never asks out the woman he really likes.
Yup, put plainly, Bob has self confidence issues.
If left alone Bob will continue on his path. but we aren’t going to let him, are we? No. we are sending slug monsters to invade his town and we are going to force him to stand up to the monsters in order to attempt to save the people he cares about. And in the end Bob might just realize he has some worth after all.
Because that is the story, Bob overcoming his personal flaw and becoming a stronger more confident person. After all, he is the one who will have to face off against the Slug Monster General and take him down. The General isn’t going to let him win because he feels sorry for Bob. It is a win Bob has to fight for.
Or he isn’t going to overcome his flaw and he is going to get killed by the Slug Monster General.
If he fails to overcome his flaw, it is a tragedy.
Because that’s the trick. the MC either overcomes the flaw and learns something that changes their world/life, or they don’t. The choice is yours.
When you write your character’s flaws you can either start with the flaw or work backwards towards it.
Starting with the flaw: I want to write a story where my MC lacks self confidence and has to gain the confidence in himself to succeed.
Working backwards, you can either start with plot or character.
Plot: slug monsters descend on a small town and one man must defeat the leader and save his town, and the world, from annihilation.
Character: This is Bob. He lives quietly doing the same job every day until one day something happens to shake him out of his everyday world. (if going this route you would clearly have more about Bob in your head and just be looking for a story to put him in.)
Each way you approach the story and the flaw will give you a different ending.
If you start with character, then as you develop your Bob Character you may see a place where the events you’ve thought about in his life leave room for a flaw as you move from character to plot. In this case, everyone leaves him so he has self-confidence issues. I could have bent it so that he had anger issues he needed to control (thus having to overcome his anger at the town for letting his family di saving them instead of letting them get eaten while he runs away), or giving him phobias (the world is a scary place where death comes from out of nowhere so it is best to stay inside and safe and never do anything as his default that he has to change to escape and save his friends), or any number of issues.
If you start with the plot you are going to have to decide who you want to try and save the day (or achieve the goal depending on your story). Would your story work best with a political leader who has thus far been corrupt as the one who saves the day? will it be Granny Gump who lives in the retirement community near where the mothership lands? Will it be Crazy Eddie who is constantly warring with his nemesis the squirrel known as Fat Jack? Will it be Fat Jack who spoils the invasion? Or will it be Bob? From there you can see the points where the particular character’s flaw affects the story and how they will (or not) overcome it.
Sometimes you start with the flaw, other times it comes to you as you write. Sometimes you will write a story, reach the end and see glimmers of a flaw that you need to expand on when editing to make your story truly shine (or add in so your characters aren’t just paper cut outs floating through your plot).
Either way, your darling characters can’t be perfect. Because in the end, no one is, including the fictional ones.