How to Show Character Flaws

All my characters are flat. I barely know some of them. They have no depth. I have no idea how they’re supposed to drive the story. I’m going to fail as a writer. I’m never going to be published!

Have you ever thought these or something similar to these? Don’t worry if you have. I have yet to find a passionate writer who hasn’t thought something like this. Writing characters is difficult. Think about it: you’re creating a person from scraps of personalities that you’ve collected over the years from strangers, friends, family members, and yourself. You’re creating them from ideas. Unfortunately, you’ll never be able to sit an idea down at a table in a small town coffee shop, slid a plate of cookies toward them like a grandmother on a mission to glean information, and wait for them to tell you all about their lives. Instead you have to learn about them in other ways.

A good way to do that is through coming up with flaws for them. This [] is a list created by Character Therapist (a blog on tumblr), which gives you 123 different flaws that a character can have ranging from weak-willed to masochist to disloyal. Look through this list. Pick a flaw or two that you think is interesting. (Or if you’re indecisive like me, find a random number generator and have it give you a number. Use whichever trait that number corresponds with.)

Once you’ve done that congratulations! You have a flaw for your lovely character! How wonderful!! Now comes the hard part: you have to write your character with that trait.

Now you probably are have one of two thoughts right now. 1.) Oh that’s easy. I totally know how to write a dishonest character! or 2.) How the heck do  I write a dishonest character?!

Maybe you’re like me when it comes to character traits, and you approach it thinking that it’s going to be easy. You think I know how to write this! Then you start writing, and you realize that just saying your character is dishonest isn’t cutting it.  

How do you resolve that? You’ve got to SHOW that your character is dishonest. (I know. I know. You’re getting sick of the whole “show, don’t tell” thing, but it really is the best way to develop yourself into a strong writer).

Now, showing how a character is dishonest is a lot harder to do than saying a character is dishonest. So you have to make this into a small writing prompt!

I’ll walk you through how I do it:

  1. pick your character: Nathaniel Davidson
  2. pick your flaw: dishonesty
  3. give your character a setting: Nathaniel is at his friend’s house
  4. write the scene:

The bedspread exhaled a poof of dust as Nathaniel sat down on it. Everything was dusty in Brady’s house, as if it were just for show and the family lived elsewhere. Of course, they probably had the money to live elsewhere. Brady had always had the newest technology and most expensive clothing at school. He didn’t flaunt it, but everyone knew he was the richest kid in all of the sixth grade.

His walls were lined with shelves of trinkets. Bells from Paris gleamed in the afternoon sunlight coming in through the skylight. An area of miniature architectural wonders paraded in dust on another shelf. And on the lowest shelf, there were an array of paperweights.

“What kid even likes paperweights?” Nathaniel asked himself quietly. The paper weight gleamed on the desk. The etched jellyfish inside it was practically asking him join the shoplifted candy bars in his pocket.

“Well, if you insist.” Nathaniel looked around the room to double check that Brady wasn’t there before slipping his hand out of his too-long sleeve and taking the paperweight.

Ten in the future, when Brady would ask Nathaniel if he’s seen the paperweight, He’ll lie and say he didn’t know where it could be. Meanwhile, it would be dragging down his pocket each time he shifted his legs.

While this might not be the best writing sample in the world, it gives you an idea of what showing a trait would look like. Instead of saying that Nathaniel is dishonest, I showed him doing a dishonest action. From here I could build on this trait to build more of Nathaniel’s character by asking questions about him. Why does he steal? What motivates him to steal the things he steals? How would he react to being caught stealing something? And other stuff like that.

If you’re currently stuck with writing a character, I would highly reccomend this type of prompt/ character creation technique.

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