Why Great Stories Need ‘Flawed’ Characters
By Neil Wright
When we think of a story, we tend to think of the surface events primarily. The twists, the chase scenes, and all the high drama. The experience of following the explosions and the betrayals from the POV of the characters distracts us from the real purpose of the story.
But what is drama without an interesting character? Even the most intense, thrilling, explosive-ridden popcorn movie relies on character for the drama. Take 007 for example.
The James Bond films don't pull in millions of people for the chase scenes alone.
On the contrary, they are more interested in how James Bond himself, with all his strengths and flaws, overcomes and reacts to the situations the plot puts him in.
In every Bond film, the 007 agent overcomes overwhelming odds by pushing himself to the limit. By thinking and acting differently and—most importantly—by changing as a person.
Even crime detective stories, on the surface, seem very superficial and all about problem-solving rather than real drama. But when you think about it, what really compels the audience to engage with a crime or detective drama is their underlying curiosity to understand why the crimes have been committed by the antagonistic forces in the first place.
The nature of flaws
There are many different types of story and they all have their own varying degrees of psychological development and emphasis. But if a story does not have properly developed characters, then ultimately it will fall flat.
No matter how good the surface drama is—the lights and explosions and sounds—a good story always depends on strong, properly developed characters.
To really give a story meaning we need to see how the characters look at the world and how the world, in turn, influences their actions; even if they are unaware of how it influences their actions.
This clash between character perception and external world forces is what drives a good story. It is also what shapes our characters flawed view of the world.
All human beings are flawed. That’s what makes every human being individual and interesting.
What makes us flawed in our own ways has a lot to do with our personal experiences, upbringing, any hardships that we have been through, and the lessons we have learnt. All these factors continually mould and rewire our brains.
Inevitably, we all develop differently-wired brains and view the world with a vision unique to us honed by experience. This makes it very difficult to view the world any other way.
For example, if someone accuses you of being cruel and you don't think that you are, it's very easy to dismiss that person. After all, you can certainly feel that you aren't really being cruel, regardless of that person's perceptions.
Flaws, therefore, define characters. Who a character is, is really just how they struggle to navigate the external world around them. Flaws make us broken. And flawed brains interpret the world with the faulty information that they take in from outside.
At the start of every bestseller, we are quickly introduced to a lead character who is clearly flawed.
How they look at the world around them helps us as an audience to empathize and understand their struggles. Then and only then, when the drama kicks off, do we find ourselves relating to and rooting for them.
Flaws and the process of change
It is absolutely essential to character development that they change as the plot progresses. But what exactly is change? According to this flawed model of character, change is what happens whenever a character admits they got their external view of the world, their perception of it, wrong.
Every time we are introduced to a character in a story, they are completely oblivious to the warped sense of the world around them. What they think about the world is wrong, but they do not know no that they are wrong just yet. But as the story progresses they find out.
In order for a character to change, their perceptions of the world around them must disintegrate, and the character must rebuild a new perception of their external reality.
This is often a very difficult and painful process, and it is crucial in order for the character to change.
The process is painful because it requires a character to reject their own beliefs and to reject what feels normal to them. It's a very personal process because, of course, our beliefs form a core part of who we are... even if ultimately we find out they are wrong.
Flaws and genetics
Our genetics can also shape how our flawed brains develop. Genetics may even determine how agreeable or extroverted a person is naturally.
Unsurprisingly, these personality traits impact how we respond and behave to obstacles in the world around us. When unexpected change happens in a story, these traits may have a direct impact on how a character tries to get out of the situation.
Having a mix of different characters with different personality traits is key to generating unique and compelling story arcs.
Plans of action, impulse moves, and goals all come from character motivations. As the external world resists these characters a cause-and-effect plot is generated.
Realistic characters seem real because they are flawed, just like we all are. Due to a mixture of upbringing and genetics, we all experience different realities.
Then, when our realities cloud with the real world, that's when the drama ignites; in some cases, notably with a villain or antagonist or a tragic figure.
Some characters are unable to change their view of the external world and are destroyed. Others reverse back to an earlier state after having changed, which can also be tragic (or a good thing depending on how the plot looks at it). Regardless, these are all examples of how we are all flawed.
You can showcase a character’s flawed behaviour in pretty much everything—From how they think to how they speak, how they recall memories, their social behaviours, the emotions they display, and their needs.
Inevitably, flawed characters always make the same kind of mistakes.
They also tend to do well in the same kind of ways. How a character is flawed can determine how they dress or how they want people to think of them. And also in ‘behavioural residue’—the stuff that they leave behind (for example, two boxes of chocolates for the struggling dieter).
Without conflict, a story is not entertaining.
And conflict is all about flawed, conflicted characters. Everyone has flaws and that is what makes characters relatable.
Flaws also help us to empathize with characters. We look to stories to find meaning, but without flawed characters at the core, there is no way for that story ever really be meaningful in the first place.
Want to create compelling, flawed characters? Download our Novel Revision Checklist, free.
About the Author
Neil Wright writes for a transcription company based in the UK called McGowan Transcriptions. His main hobbies include reading and of course writing. He is currently drafting his first novel.