When I teach creative writing to inexperienced young writers, a major element that “makes or breaks” a story is flawed characters. Too often, writers want to make their protagonists into flawless superheroes and overlook the importance of flaws.
Think about it: no one is perfect in real life. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Can you think of a fictional character who is perfect? Superman has physical and emotional limitations. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. When creating a character, think of vulnerabilities: fears, allergies, idiosyncrasies, Achilles’ heels. Readers like knowing that characters are just as flawed as humans. Readers also like seeing characters develop as a story or a series progresses. If a character starts out “perfect,” that character has nowhere to go (except, perhaps, down?).
Perfect characters are off-putting. I often think about Ayn Rand’s heroes, Hank Rearden and Howard Roark. Aside from what we might perceive as arrogance (Rand would call it “confidence”), they have few flaws. They know what they want, they know how they’ll get it, they know that they’ll get it, and they ignore all else until they succeed. Her heroes are much less likeable than more “human” characters. If your character is a genius, he might be socially awkward. If your character is a perfect social charmer, he might be challenged in climbing his career ladder. If there’s a perfect genius or a genius socialite, we’re getting into the realm of cartoon characters, not realistic characters with whom we can empathize.
I also like to think about the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I remember discussing in college why the character of Satan seems so relatable to human readers. It’s because he’s a flawed character, and he’s working hard toward a goal. Some of the other characters, the more religious ones, seem too perfect for a reader’s liking.
Let’s look at some examples. First, a goofy one. Let’s imagine a detective. This detective is the best crime solver in the world, only—she’s addicted to chocolate. That’s right. If she sees a plate of nonpareils in front of her, she’ll pause on a hot trail just to have a bite. Imagine the fun you could have with such a character! On some level, we can all relate to being so obsessed with something that we’ll intentionally harm ourselves to get it. (Have you ever waited in line for midnight tickets to a well-anticipated movie? Thrown off a diet for a tasty morsel? Stayed up late reading a great book even with the knowledge that you’d be tired at work the next day?)
Second, a more serious example. Your character is all-around likeable, moral, intelligent, and loving. The only problem is, his family died in a house fire which he managed to survive as a young child. Though the memory is foggy, it’s left him with a sense of worry. He’ll constantly seek out a physical escape route whenever he’s in a new setting, just in case something should go wrong. He’ll schedule unnecessary maintenance checks whenever something even remotely seems to go wrong with a car, appliance, etc. When he has dinner at his new girlfriend’s house, perhaps he snoops around, checking wires, cords, and plumbing code just to make sure she’ll be safe. This makes for an interesting character and interesting situations. He won’t be able to help himself, and the reader will have a fun time being held in suspense: just how much will his new girlfriend tolerate before she kicks him out?
In any case, flaws make characters more fun to read (and easier to care about). Of course your character should have great qualities as well, but make sure you add some idiosyncrasies to keep things real.