The Ultimate Guide to Writing Character Flaws

Grumpy Hulk - Illustration for Writing Character Flaws article

Introduction: Character flaws are vital to fiction

Do you want to be Victor Frankenstein? You don’t need to go to med school or dig up your local graveyards. The secret to creating life is simple: writing flawed and imperfect characters. Character flaws are the most effective way of creating fictional characters that act like real human beings.

There is nothing more boring than a saint. Readers find it difficult to relate to a character that never makes bad decisions and never acts selfishly. A saintly character also has less opportunity to grow and develop. Showing your characters working through personal struggles is the key to making your stories relatable, moving, and powerful.

When you write, give your character internal and external challenges. While he’s fighting cannibals in the jungle, he also has to deal with his fear of snakes. While she’s creating the first human clone, she also has to deal with her abandonment issues.

Flaws should reveal something about the character, besides the fact that they are imperfect. So your private detective is an alcoholic. Who cares? Substance abuse is only important if it tells us something about the character. Why does he drink? To use a cliché example, let’s say he drinks to forget a woman he once knew. What does that tell us about the way he relates to the other female characters? How do his failed romances impact his friendships and his professional relationships?

Before we go on, please note that I am not a psychologist. This information is accurate enough for writing fiction, but not accurate enough to diagnose a real person with a psychiatric disorder. These tools will help you create believable characters who realistically model human behavior, but even the most accurate models are still imperfect representations of the real world. Ceci n’est pas une personne.

Character Flaw Fundamentals

Character flaws must harm the character in a meaningful way. A bad temper isn’t a significant flaw if it never causes the character any problems. A violent temper is a real flaw or a temper that drives them to argue or make reckless decisions.

Avoid “fake” flaws, flaws that don’t cause trouble for the character or make it harder to achieve their goals. This is often an issue with flaws like depression, substance abuse, and being antisocial or a loner. If you use one of these flaws, show that it has real downsides and is not being romanticized.

Physical disabilities and medical conditions are not character flaws. A character may develop a character flaw because of how people react to their appearance, being underestimated because of stereotypes about disability, but the physical issue itself is not a character flaw.

Writers should establish character flaws early, around the first ten percent of the story. This helps you connect the flaw to the main outer conflict of the story. The flaw should have a thematic connection to the outer conflict or hurt the character’s ability to accomplish their goal. Preferably both.

You should show why they are flawed in their backstory. Character flaws are evidence of the character’s past struggles, proof that the character had a past and didn’t just pop into existence the moment you wrote them on the page. They could have gone through trauma that left them with emotional scars, or their head filled with flawed ideas by a bad mentor. The backstory does not have to appear as early as the flaw itself, but should still be shown in the first third or so.

Character traits are a continuum

We can view character traits as continuums, with character flaws on the extreme ends and a range of neutral or healthy traits in the middle. A character trait is healthy if it results in actions that improve the character’s wellbeing or the wellbeing of those around them. A trait becomes a flaw when it harms a character’s wellbeing. Most positions on the continuum will be fairly neutral.

A protagonist and his sidekick should begin near enough along their continuums that they get along but not so near that they never disagree. If they move farther apart, friendly disagreements can turn into angry fighting. A little farther turns friends into enemies.

Because traits are a continuum, not a binary, well-developed characters will have exceptions to their usual behaviors. Extroverts can have days when they need to be alone. Cautious people can have moments where they will take a chance and risk everything. Characters should be mostly gray areas, never black and white. I call this the “No Zebras Rule. ”

In the next section, I will look at five character trait continuums that, when examined together, can help you form a solid picture of a character’s personality. These traits are comparable to the Big Five traits used to model personality structure. [i] However, the Big Five traits are “a positive versus a negative”.  For example, “agreeable versus disagreeable” or “stable versus neurotic”. These trait continuums are neutral, not necessarily positive or negative.

These continuums show that traits we often consider strengths can also be the character’s weakness. A great way to create internal conflict is to show a character losing control of their strength, misapplying it, or using it for selfish reasons, and suffering consequences for it. When a strength begins to seem like a flaw, characters need to reevaluate their approach to their goal. They second guess themselves. They must develop new strategies, learn, and grow.

Introversion / Extroversion

Screenwriters often treat introversion as if it were always a character flaw. However, there is nothing wrong with needing alone time to recharge your batteries. If you want to use introversion as a character flaw, it has to harm a character’s wellbeing.

For example, extreme introversion might lead to poor social skills for lack of practice. It might involve an obsessive focus on a narrow interest, excluding everything else. Your character might be an expert in one narrow field, but know little to nothing about everything else.

Similarly, extroversion is not automatically a character flaw. Extroverts are not all flighty airheads or self-absorbed wannabe Instagram influencers.

However, extreme extroversion might involve your character ignoring their inner life, being too focused on the external world to notice that they need self-care, therapy, or just some “me” time. It might involve focusing on socializing so much that they ignore intellectual concerns like studying. They might develop an excessively broad range of interests, bouncing from one hobby to the next without being deeply committed to anything.

Caution / Spontaneity

Characters who lean towards caution might calculate risk versus reward before they make decisions. Caution becomes a character flaw when it turns into worry, anxiety, procrastination, and refusal to take necessary actions because “what if something goes wrong?”

Spontaneous characters are less likely to worry, and more willing to step out of their comfort zone and try new things. However, when taken to the extreme, spontaneity could turn into recklessness, leaping into dangerous situations without a plan or regard for their safety.

Discipline / Easygoingness

Disciplined characters display a strong work ethic, strong organization skills, and use time efficiently. When taken to excess, discipline could become workaholism. It could lead to unhealthy levels of stress, inability or unwillingness to take time for self-care, and maybe even an early death.

Easygoing characters are relaxed and casual. They may prefer to focus on the spirit or intent of a rule rather than following the letter of the law. They never obsess over work and, instead, allow time for self-care and relaxation. However, being easygoing could turn into laziness and procrastination.

Agreeableness / Assertiveness

Agreeable characters maintain the peace. They may work to diffuse tense situations and help others calm down. However, being overly agreeable can turn someone into a doormat. They might avoid confrontation, afraid that insisting they are right will make people dislike them. They might be passive enough to let people take them for granted.

Assertive characters aren’t afraid to speak up about what they think is right. They communicate their desires and insist on being listened to. However, extreme assertiveness can turn into being demanding, controlling, and even angry.

Control / Emotional Expressiveness

Characters with high degrees of self-control avoid venting their emotions at other people. If they have a temper, it’s always in check. However, obsession with controlling your emotions can spiral into repression, inability to share your needs, and even inability to live an authentic life.

Characters that are in touch with their emotions have healthy outlets, such as art, yoga, or running. They communicate their needs and desires and are more fulfilled. However, overly emotional people may have unstable outbursts, spiral into depression, or show other signs of instability.

Character flaws and story roles

What flaws should your character have? That depends upon their role in the story.

The Hero and Character Flaws

The hero should encounter internal difficulties that reflect the larger themes of the story. If your story is about the creative process, your hero might struggle with substance abuse problems or emotional troubles, anything that makes it difficult for them to use their artistic gifts. If the theme of your story is “man’s search for meaning in life,” your character might be an arrogant skeptic, someone who has trouble believing in much of anything.

Your character will face many physical challenges: the climb up the mountain, the voyage across the desert, the fight to the death with an army of vampire circus clowns…  Your hero’s flaws should make the physical challenges in the story more difficult for him to complete. As your hero progresses through the physical journey of the story, he should also deal with internal problems. Your hero’s inner growth and changes will give the story added depth and meaning.

The Foil and Character Flaws

A foil is a character whose personality serves to draw attention to another character’s positive qualities. Consider giving your hero a sidekick, someone whose sins will contrast the hero’s virtues. If the hero is an honest, law-abiding town sheriff, you could create contrast by pairing him with a reformed gambler who still gets tempted. If the hero is a graceful master of martial arts, his sidekick could be a bumbling circus clown.

The reverse can also be effective. Your main character may be more of an antihero. If your hero is violent, you might give him a moral or religious sidekick. If your hero is an ex-cop out for revenge, his soft-hearted sidekick might be the only thing holding him back.

The Love Interest and Character Flaws

Clear and well-defined character flaws will make your hero’s love interest seem like a real person, instead of just a treasure to be won or a goal to be met. What kind of relationship do you want to show?

When your protagonist and love interest are enjoying a happy, healthy relationship, they should have traits that mesh well, so that the one’s strength balances the other’s weakness. A withdrawn and antisocial hero might have a gregarious and warm love interest with the gift of drawing him out of his shell.

However, if the relationship is unhealthy and codependent, they may show similar flaws and encourage each other’s vices. If the hero is antisocial and bitter, and his girlfriend is too, they may each encourage the other’s bad behavior, spending their free time mocking their coworkers and mutual enemies.

The Mentor and Character Flaws

A mentor is any character that teaches the hero the knowledge and skills they need to achieve their goals. A flawed mentor gives the hero more opportunities to grow. The hero matures enough to look past the mentor’s polished exterior to see who they are as a person. The hero gains enough experience so that their naivety no longer blinds them to their master’s mistakes.

A mentor’s flaws should prevent them from teaching the hero a specific lesson or skill, something that the hero has to learn on their own. The mentor might be overly cautious, always insisting that the hero slows down and makes more detailed plans to face the villain… someday… eventually.  Or the mentor might be too strict, insisting that the hero continue their training night and day, abandoning all else.

The Villain and Character Flaws

One could say that a villain’s only real flaws are his virtues. The villain’s flaws are his spark of humanity and the thing that makes his crimes difficult for him to accomplish. He might resort to evil reluctantly, at least at first. Or he might be tortured by guilt for what he has done. He might think everything he has done has been moral and just, but he still has a level below which he would never sink. “I might be a brutal murderer, but I would never run for political office!”

The villain’s virtues could even be the motivation for his evil deeds. He could be a soft-hearted fellow who turns to violence after being pushed too far.

The villain’s flaws should do more than allow the hero to defeat him. The villain should be flawed in such a way that he has a logical motivation for his crimes, without becoming inhuman or cartoonish.

How Characters React to Their Flaw

How do your characters react to their failings? Do they accept them and move on? Are they trying to change? Are they trying to hide their flaws from one or more of the characters? If you know the answers to these questions, you will have a better shot at giving your character a consistent personality and realistic actions and dialog. Their particular reactions will shape their relationships with other characters and how they view themselves. Their reactions will also determine if they can achieve their goals.

Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are unconscious reactions to stress that help people reduce anxiety by changing their perception of reality. Psychologists consider immature and neurotic defense mechanisms unhealthy or maladaptive, as they are inadequate at dealing with the stressful situation and can cause more problems than they fix.

As you’re deciding how a character will react to their flaw, consider their entire personality and their backstory. Some defense mechanisms occur more frequently alongside other psychological issues. Defense mechanisms are connected to maladaptive schemas. [ii] Maladaptive schemas are self-defeating emotional and thought patterns.[iii][iv] Knowing your character’s flaw, defense mechanism for that flaw, and the schemas connected to it will give you a fuller picture of that character’s personality and help you bring them to life.

Immature Defense Mechanisms

Immature defense mechanisms are seen more often in people who don’t expect their inner needs will be met regularly. They may have trouble forming secure relationships. They might come from a family that was emotionally cold, withholding, unpredictable, or abusive.[v]

They may also be seen in people with low expectations about themselves and who don’t think they have a strong ability to survive independently or be successful. They might have a family that was overprotective, hurt their self-confidence, or never encouraged them to venture outside the family unit.

Another group that uses immature defense mechanisms is people who lack self-control or discipline, don’t show a strong responsibility to others, or who lack focus on long-term goals. They may have parents who were overindulgent, or who didn’t provide direction, guidance, or discipline.

  • Denial: Refusing to admit that a flaw exists. We frequently see this in addicts and victims of trauma.  Addicts may deny that they have a problem. People who have suffered abuse or other traumas may deny that the event happened.
  • Projection: Attributing their flaw to someone else. It’s become a stereotype that people with homophobia are secretly homosexuals themselves. Closeted homosexuals may say hateful and horrible things about the LGBT community because they are disgusted by their own desires. They feel dirty or perverted, so their feelings about themselves color how they perceive openly gay individuals.  Projection is more commonly seen in people with narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.
  • Passive Aggression: Expressing aggression by failure to do something. An employee angry at his boss may show it by avoiding speaking to him, ignoring direct orders, or slacking off.
  • Rationalization: Making up excuses or false reasons for their behavior. A shoplifter may rationalize his behavior by telling himself he is only stealing from “faceless corporations, not real people”.
  • Regression: Reverting to a less mature level of behavior. Older children or even adults may respond to a conflict by regressing to whining or throwing tantrums. They may have never learned to deal with conflicts maturely or their parents may have been very permissive and inadvertently encouraged these behaviors.

Neurotic Defense Mechanisms

These defense mechanisms are more often seen in people overly focused on suppressing their feelings and desires or on meeting rules and expectations about their behavior. We may also see them in people who are more concerned with the needs of others than their own needs. They may come from a demanding or overly disciplinary family.

  • Displacement: Shifting emotional impulses to another target, either a safer, more comfortable, or more acceptable target. Someone may come home from a long, stressful day at work and take out their anger on their spouse, even though they are actually angry with their boss or their coworker.
  • Reaction Formation: Preventing dangerous feelings from being expressed by behaving as if they felt the opposite way. Bob’s girlfriend is obviously angry, but when he asks her what’s wrong, she smiles and says “Nothing at all! Everything’s fine!”
  • Intellectualization: Separating emotions from ideas and focusing on the intellectual aspects of a situation instead of the emotional aspects.  A woman married to a construction worker spends hours researching health insurance plans, so she doesn’t have free time to worry about him getting injured on the job.
  • Repression: Pushing painful thoughts or memories down into the subconscious where they are not aware of them. We sometimes see this in people who have gone through traumatic or frightening situations. If someone witnesses an act of violence, they may repress it and be unable to remember it due to their mind’s inability to cope with the situation.

Mature Defense Mechanisms

Psychologists consider these defense mechanisms healthy in that they are usually beneficial to a person’s wellbeing, but any defense mechanism can become unhealthy or maladaptive. For example, sublimation is working off unacceptable feelings by doing constructive activities. If you are angry, hitting a punching bag is healthier than hitting the person who made you upset, but you’re only dealing with a symptom of the problem, not the cause: your relationship with that person.

People with mature defense mechanisms will be more rational and have greater self-awareness. Mature defense mechanisms are more frequently seen in people overly focused on the feelings and wellbeing of other people, on gaining love and approval, or on avoiding retaliation. They might come from a family where acceptance was conditional, based on good behavior, or suppressing important parts of themselves.

  • Sublimation: Working off unacceptable feelings in constructive activities. Someone who has anger issues may go running until they feel more relaxed.
  • Humor: Joking about their negative feelings, such as self-deprecating humor, or using humor during a stressful situation so it seems smaller and less intimidating. To use a personal example, when my grandfather died, my family made jokes about death on the way to the funeral. Dark humor allowed us to get some emotional distance from our grief and have some peace.
  • Altruism: Meeting their inner needs by helping other people. Many people suffering from depression find that volunteering gives them relief.
  • Suppression: Delaying negative emotions so they can deal with the current situation. People in emergency situations may put their fear “on hold” so they can focus on rescuing others and getting everyone to safety.

Coping Strategies

Coping strategies are another kind of behavior people use to help manage stress. While defense mechanisms are unconscious behaviors, coping strategies are conscious behaviors.  An individual’s personal experiences and confidence in their ability to deal with stress influence which coping strategies they use.[vi]

Unhealthy Coping Strategies

  • Avoidance: Acting as if there is no stressful situation.
  • Escapism: Putting the problem aside temporarily or avoiding the stressful situation instead of dealing with it directly.
  • Self-Medication: Using drugs or alcohol to disengage with the problem and avoid thinking about the stressful situation, especially when it becomes an addiction. Self-medicating is a specific form of escapism.
  • Behavioral disengagement: Avoiding the stress of struggling and failure by giving up trying to get what you want or achieve a goal.
  • Mental disengagement: Trying to avoid thinking about the stressful situation.

Healthy Coping Strategies

  • Acceptance: Acknowledging and accepting the stressful situation. [vii]
  • Emotional Discharge: Emotional discharge is the conscious version of sublimation. It may involve exercising to work off stress, reading, travel, listening to music, or other activities. While I am listing this under healthy coping strategies, it can also be unhealthy or maladaptive, if used as a kind of escapism strategy.
  • Problem Solving: Dealing with stressful situations directly by making plans to resolve the situation.
  • Instrumental Support Seeking: Asking for advice and help with the stressful situation.
  • Emotional Support Seeking: Asking for emotional support to get through the stressful situation.

Should your characters overcome their flaws?

In most stories, your readers will get more satisfaction out of character growth than a character that does not change. The character need not overcome the flaw completely. They can change how they deal with it, switching to a healthier defense mechanism or coping strategy, or just begin moving toward improved mental health and personal relationships.

Characters can fail at becoming better people. They can end the story with their flaw still firmly in place, or even become worse. If you write that sort of story, the character should still achieve something. They can achieve an external goal instead of an internal one. Antihero stories are often like this. Antiheroes are protagonists who aren’t traditionally heroic, and who may act in illegal or immoral ways, like Marvel’s Punisher or the main character in pretty much every Clint Eastwood movie. At the end of the story, an antihero will probably have defeated the antagonist but will still be a violent vigilante, lonely outlaw, or otherwise anti-heroic.

 “Perfect” characters

Characters almost always need a flaw. It is far more difficult to write an interesting, entertaining story about a flawless character. If you insist on trying anyway, the best way to do it is to focus on your perfect character’s effect on the rest of the world, and have secondary characters that change because of their interaction with Mr. Perfect. Think Superman stories, stories about Jesus, and so on. This focus is also a great way to write flat characters. Your readers need something to change. If your main character doesn’t, someone or something else needs to.

Conclusion: Keeping Characters Sympathetic

Finally, you may wonder how far you can go with a flaw and still keep your protagonist likeable. Flaws often come from a character trying to meet an internal need, but in a dysfunctional or destructive way. To keep your readers sympathizing with a character, show them the need the character is trying to meet. A character who threatens anyone who gets near their property could be very unlikable, but if we know he was robbed and is trying to meet his need for safety, we will probably feel more sympathy for him.

It is also important for you, the writer, to sympathize with your own characters. If you find yourself disgusted or offended by a character’s actions, that’s a sign that you need to develop their backstory, personality, and motivations further until you understand why they do what they do. And isn’t that what everyone needs—a little understanding?

[i] Soto, C. J. (2018). Big Five personality traits. In M. H. Bornstein, M. E. Arterberry, K. L. Fingerman, & J. E. Lansford (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of lifespan human development (pp. 240-241). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[ii] Walburg, V., and S. Chiaramello. “Link between Early Maladaptive Schemas and Defense Mechanisms.” Revue Européenne De Psychologie Appliquée/European Review of Applied Psychology, vol. 65, no. 5, 2015, pp. 221–226., doi:10.1016/j.erap.2015.07.003.

[iii] “Schema Domains in Schema Therapy.” Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center,

[iv] Young JE, Klosko JS, Weishaar ME. Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. New York: Guilford Press; 2003.

[v] Young, Jeffrey E, et al. Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. Guilford Publications, 2003.

[vi] Carey, William B., et al. Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics: Expert Consult – Online and Print. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2009.

[vii]Chan, Isabelle, et al. “The Roles of Motivation and Coping Behaviours in Managing Stress: Qualitative Interview Study of Hong Kong Expatriate Construction Professionals in Mainland China.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, no. 3, 2018, p. 561., doi:10.3390/ijerph15030561.

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