Character Flaw in Stories — what is it?

The character flaw in Macbeth
Few enduring stories illustrate the influence of the character flaw more strongly than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

What is a character flaw, anyway?

One way to think of a flaw is as a glitch in a character’s internal makeup that shapes his interaction with the world. In trying to hide or suppress this glitch, the character engages in an inner struggle, which drives the story forward. 

A Character flaw may be born out of an internal cause, such as an emotional scar from the past, or an external one, such as an illness or a physical defect (which, in turn, creates a psychological response). It can manifest as an inability to trust others, a need to control or manipulate others, or a particular prejudice.

Flaws that generate conflict within and beyond the character make for interesting stories that resonate with readers and audiences.

Some of the best stories have revolved around the protagonist’s desire to conceal or overcome a flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Thane’s latent desire to be king is brought to the surface by various external forces, such as the three witches and 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.

“The Character Flaw generates inner conflict in the protagonist. It is a prolific generator of subtext in a story.”

Additionally, a flaw generates questions about the story: What lies and obfuscations 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, and climax? 

Above all, a well-designed flaw allows for the synching up of the internal and external aspects of the Hero’s journey through 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 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—Neo’s character arc—influences 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 directs a character’s response to the world. It helps to explain the true psychological motivation behind his actions.

2 thoughts on “Character Flaw in Stories — what is it?

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    There are two characters , each from a different series (Gotham and Braking Bad) that are the result of good writing . The flaws of both Selina Kyle and Walter White are so profound one can’t help but be glued to the screen.

    Selina Kyle was abandoned by her mother. She is forced to rely on herself and no one else. This traumatic event makes it impossible for Selina to develop a real relationship with anyone. The sight of Bruce Wayne getting on a plane and leaving Gotham only to see Selina helplessly watch serves as a repeat of her childhood. It’s no wonder why this poor girl has trust issues. It is hard to imagine how these two souls will ever find true love after Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham ten years later after he abandoned Selina just like her mother abandoned her.

    Walter White is an extremely proud character. Throughout the entirety of season 1 through 4 Walt’s only objective is to make enough money to be able to support his family. It’s because of Walt’s pride that he keeps pressing on despite having to face death every time he leaves his house. However by season 5 he recognizes the fact that his product is the best on the market. Walter has transformed. He is no longer the meek insecure high school chemistry teacher. Walter White sold his research to his class mate who went on to become a owner of a multi billion dollar emperor. Because he did not recognize his own talents, Walter had no choice but to settle for a low paying teachers job. But now that he recognizes his talent for drug dealing Walter will not make the same mistake twice even if it means becoming a criminal. Walter’s pride will lead him to his undoing.

    In short : An emotional scar from the past, is perhaps the quickest and most effective way to give context to a character’s flaws and how they act to any given situation.

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