Characters, General Writing

The Fallacies of Character Flaws

“What are your main character’s flaws?” I scroll past this attempt at conversation several times a week. I never try to answer it, because it is usually based on the assumption that a main character, if not all characters, are only realistic and sympathetic if they have defects. This assumption is so cluttered with fallacies that I have never taken the time to answer it until now.

So far as I can tell, the assumption seems based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics. In discussing tragedy, Aristotle introduces the term hamartia. Harmatia is often popularly translated into English as “flaw,” but, according to Wikipedia, is a much more neutral term, better translated as “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” Harmatia is the misunderstanding or lacking piece of information that determines the events of the tragedy.

So, right away, the belief that a personality flaw is needed is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding explains why it can be difficult to assign a flaw to a classical tragic hero. What, for example, is the flaw that leads to Oedipus marrying his mother? By every indication, Oedipus is a conscientious, upright soul with a strong sense of responsibility. Similarly, nothing is lacking in Orestes when he kills his mother. Rather, Orestes is caught between his duty to his mother and his responsibility to avenge his father’s murder. Neither Oedipus nor Orestes can be assigned a flaw without stretching a point, although many teachers have tried.

The tradition continues when Shakespeare is taught. I remember being told in high school that Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, while Hamlet was unable to make up his mind. Such over-simplifications create the illusion that we have a handle on complicated stories, but do we? Othello does not leap to jealousy by himself, but has his relationship with his wife poisoned by the whisperings of Iago. As for Hamlet, he delays only until he is convinced that what his father’s ghost has told him is true. If you had to assign Hamlet a flaw in Act V, it would be that he acts far too rashly.

Harmatia is a flexible enough term that it can cover Oedipus, Orestes, Othello, and Hamlet, but the hunt for flaws simply doesn’t work. However, few writers today are producing tragedies, so harmatia is irrelevant. Aristotle was not analyzing the structure of stories, but of tragedy, which is only a subset of stories. No matter how you translate Aristotle, his comments have no more than an indirect insight into a modern novel or short story.

Still, believers in flaws are apt to say, a flawed character is easier to identify with. And it is true that an impossibly noble hero is unlikely to be sympathetic. Often, an anti-hero, an amoral rogue with some redeeming traits is more likely to keep readers turning pages. However, all stories cannot be about anti-heroes. More importantly, I have to ask whether a personality flaw really makes a hero more relatable. Do we actually like a character more if they are weak-willed? If they drink too much? Or sleep around? At the very least, flaws only make a character more sympathetic if they are carefully selected. We might identify, for instance, with a ruthless killer who shows mercy, or only murders the corrupt. However, flaws alone do not seem a consistent tactic to make readers identify with a character.

Besides, fiction is not a role-playing game, where characters exist in isolation because the story is shaped by the DM. In fiction, a character depends largely on the needs of the plot. Does the story require someone who changes sides? Then the character involved is likely to be someone with imagination and empathy. Does it depend on a betrayal? Then the betrayer needs a motive like a lost cause or a wish for revenge. Successful characters rarely emerge fully-formed — they develop in a complex interplay with setting and plot where it is hard to say which comes first. If they are created in isolation, they are likely to be unconvincing. No matter how many flaws you sprinkle over them like spice, there is no hiding that you are serving up a bland dish.

Anyway, who is to say what a flaw is? A character who is rash could be praised in one circumstance for resolution, and in another for thoughtfulness. By contrast, working with the concept of flaws seems almost certain to result in puppet-like characters whom no one wants to read about.

What characters do need is an arc: a movement from one state to another. They might set out to accomplish a certain task. They might learn as the story continues, becoming fit to realize their goals in a way they weren’t at the start of the story. Such arcs are what engage readers — not a set of arbitrary flaws.

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