Understanding Character Flaws

A Flawed Diamond

The Flaw

What is a character flaw? One way to think of a flaw is as an imperfection in a character’s soul or psyche that helps shape the character’s personality. In seeking to hide, suppress, or remove this imperfection, the character engages in a constant tug-of-war between external and internal forces, which helps to drive the story forward.

Types of Character Flaw

Ostensibly, the flaw can be born out of internal causes, such as an emotional scar from the past, or, external ones, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability of a character to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice. Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character help to make for interesting stories that resonate with verisimilitude.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw in character. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, especially his manipulating and ambitious wife, while in Othello, the Moor’s insane jealousy and distrust of his innocent spouse, Desdemona, results in his murdering her.

Additionally, a flaw generates questions which serve the story: What lies and defenses has the character created to conceal the flaw? How has the flaw shaped the fears, aspirations, and foibles of this character? And crucially, what influence does the flaw exert over each of the major decision/action points in the story—the inciting incident, the first and second turning point, as well as the mid-point?

The Character Flaw as a Synching Device

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey though the link of cause and effect, and as such, is one of the most useful techniques to master. It is often the “why” to the story’s “what”. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s inner journey is to accept his role as The One. His outer goal is to defeat Agent Smith and the machine world, something that can only occur when he achieves the inner goal of moving from a lack of self belief (flaw) to one of belief. This inner journey, which represents Neo’s character arc, inflects each major action in the story and, therefore, gives shape to the story as a whole. It neatly ties into the notion of want vs. need that we examined in an earlier post, by relating the external (want), to the internal (need).

Summary

A character flaw inflects a character’s external response to the world, and in this sense, helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his or her actions in a story.

Invitation

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7 thoughts on “Understanding Character Flaws

  1. Russ Welsh

    I have to disagree with Jacques on the idea of stories being too passive if they are based primarily on characters. Not much happens in the movie Adaptation and it is an amazingly complex character piece. I don’t classify it as being particularly passive. Many of the protagonist’s inner monologues hit home (at least for me) because I can identify with the crushing feeling of loneliness and the euphoria of fake happiness that lasts until you realise its not real.
    Things DO need to happen to propel the story forward but they do NOT have to be specific actions, they can exist in the careful construction of conversations. A story CAN unfold, and be quite enthralling, without anything visual going on. The pen can truly be mightier than the sword.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Russ. I think Jacques might have objected to my statement that narrative evolves, in a technical sense – as process. But if we use the word “narrative” in the more colloquial sense, primerly to mean “story”, I beileve some of the objections go away. In any case, I don’t believe, that ultimately, at the level of the higher craft, there is any difference between character and story, since all are tools used by the author to create meaning within a widely-shared language game. It is only at the ephemeral level, that differences arise and require different treatment to create the sense of verisimilitude.

      Reply
    2. Jacques

      Hi, Russ.

      You have a point about Adaptation. Another interesting case is My Dinner With Andre. That film is about a dinner conversation. Almost nothing happens in it, and yet it’s an interesting piece. I would say that cases like these are exceptions, but it’s clear that there is room for disagreement about action and character.

      Reply
  2. Stavros Halvatzis

    Ah, Jacques! We could burn the stratosphere exploring our definition and understanding of what narrative is, and whether it is capable of change. It is certainly a pertinent debate. And thank goodness for that! Instead, I’ll lift my glass to you, Aristotle, and Plato, and say, viva la difference! Thanks again for highlighting this.

    Reply
  3. Jacques

    Hi, Stavros. I like your enthusiasm! But I can’t agree with your assumption that narrative in itself has evolved. Of course, all sorts of things associated with narrative have evolved, the things usually lumped under the heading of style, especially diction and voice. New story forms have appeared, but the basic relationship of narrative (muthos) to character (hexis) does not seem to me to have changed.

    Perhaps I’m just an ancient Greek (or Roman) at heart for thinking that events reveal who we are, rather than the other way around. Moira is not just a static inheritance, but an opportunity (or a challenge) to make ourselves into something new. And that’s the central tension that makes us want to read (or hear) a story. Novels that merely display the character of the hero in one setting after another tend not to hold our attention long.

    I’m sorry to fuss so much. I think you’re right to draw attention to the importance of character flaws. I guess I just find the inner logic of narrative really fascinating, and can’t resist an opportunity to wrestle with it.

    Reply
  4. Jacques

    I think I agree with the notion that character flaws help motivate a story. But I’m not sure I can agree with your assessment of Othello, or Macbeth. Is insane jealousy Othello’s character flaw? If so, then Iago would be superfluous to the story. Wounded pride seems more like his flaw–it characterizes him before Iago comes on the scene. And as for Macbeth, is ambition or desire a character flaw? That would be strange. Those seem rather more like the solid part of character. That Macbeth lacks the courage to act on his desire, now that sounds more like a flaw. In each case, something more than psychology is needed to motivate the story, namely Iago and Lady Macbeth.

    Why am I fussing over these details? Because I wonder if it’s wise to think of narrative primarily in terms of psychology. Narrative is not, as far as I can see, primarily about character. I agree with Aristotle in thinking that action is primary, and character is derivative. Character (and flaws) are important, but building a story on them is likely to be too passive.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Jacques! I regard narrative as a complex and modal art, as I’m sure you do. It transforms as it appropriates, and, like all art, it constantly evolves to reflect our current understanding of ourselves and the world. Aristotle’s notion of action as primary is an important part of our understanding of drama, but remember, the novel, for example, has come a long way since then. Indeed, some of the greatest stories ever told, have revolved around memorable and complex characters that have internalised the ethos of the times. In my opinion, action can, in part, be described as a spiritual/psychological/emotional process that may be used partially to explain “external” action. It is not the only way of doing so, of course, and the view has its detractors, but it is, I believe, a viable approach to our understanding of narrative.

      As to Macbeth, I believe his overriding ambition, latent or otherwise, is one of the weaknesses that allows an otherwise good man to be manipulated. And while Othello is a far more complex character than can be understood simply through a single, or even multiple flaws, it is my take on the story that jealousy, which is usually rooted in fear, pride, and insecurity makes him susceptible to manipulation. Iago, in this sense, is a catalyst rather than a cause, but his presence is anything but superfluous. Of course, people have been arguing over such issues for centuries, and I’m glad to see that we are still doing so. It’s what makes art and narrative exciting and immortal. Thanks again for sparking the debate, Jacques!

      Reply

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