Flaws and faults – a character lesson from Victoria Grefer

Posted: May 5, 2014 in lessons learned, writing
Tags: , , , ,

Adding flaws is a big part of what makes characters interesting. Han Solo would be a lot less fun if he weren’t a criminal. Bilbo Baggins is appealing because he battles his own cowardice. Loki’s arrogance and scheming are half the reason he’s a highlight of the Marvel films.

Of course being played by the charming Tom Hiddleston also helps.

 

But not all character flaws are equal. Picking the wrong one can put readers off your hero or make your villain so sympathetic that they switch sides. I recently found an interesting distinction in Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You that illuminates the distinction and helps in character building.

Flaws

Grefer draws a distinction between flaws and faults.

Flaws are aspects of a character that aren’t inherently morally wrong but that get them into trouble or make them less impressive. Take the example of Bilbo. His desire for self preservation and the quiet life are understandable, but this holds him back from achieving everything he could.

Or look at Sophronia in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books. Her curiosity and lack of respect for authority make her capable of great things, but also get her in a lot tight scrapes and dangerous situations.

These are character traits that make us like the character even as we shake our heads at them.

Faults

Faults are the character traits that are always wrong. Cruelty. Greed. The desire to dominate others. They might seem at first glance like extreme version of flaws, but there is a distinction, one that will affect the reactions of readers.

Loki’s pride is arguably a flaw. It gives him the confidence to construct grand schemes and be a charming conversationalist, but it also tips over into over-confidence and looking down on others. His desire to dominate, to bend everyone else to his will, is clearly a fault. It’s a terrible attitude to take, one that leads to darkness and destruction. It makes him a real villain.

Using the distinction

So how do you use this to your advantage?

Basically, focus on the flaws, not the faults. Flaws make your heroes interesting without alienating readers, so stick with them for the good guys. For the villains you may want to mix in some faults, but when deciding on the balance between flaws and faults think about how you want your readers to react. Do you want them to bay for the villain’s blood and cheer when he gets his head chopped off, or sympathise and long to see him redeemed? Make the villain more flawed than the hero, but think carefully before you fill them full of faults.

For more of this sort of stuff check out Victoria Grefer’s blog, Writing With The Crimson League. And if you’ve got any thoughts on writing interesting, flawed characters please share them below.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Sue Archer says:

    I love Victoria’s blog, thanks for sharing her thoughts here! I think flaws are interesting because everyone has them, and it’s what you do (with them or in spite of them) that makes you a hero or a villain. Using flaws makes for interesting characters that you can feel invested in. And I think the best stories are those where you can invest in both the hero and the villain.

  2. malwen says:

    Andy, have you talked with Laura about Story Hooks in character creation for Ars Magica 5th edition? These are like the Flaws you talk about. By accepting these for their character, the player makes their character more rounded, gains points to spend on positive attributes and, most importantly, provides the Story Guide with effective ways to draw that character into stories.

    • I’ve seen that used in other roleplay systems too – it’s a nice way of making players create more interesting characters while giving them an advantage in return. I can see Laura’s Ars Magica books from here, so I might go check them out for interesting character traits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s