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.

Characters

Economy of Character

My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer wrote a story in which a trained fighter defeated a vampire, not through speed, but through the absolute efficiency drilled into him over decades of training. The idea has always seemed a working definition of skill, and, not incidentally, an apt description of Paul’s own writing. However, it’s only recently I realized that it could apply to the creation of characters as well.

Most people, including me, seem to create characters unsystematically. They arise out of the immediate needs of the plot, or emerge full-grown out of their creator’s imagination. Few, if any, seem to consider characters as a long-term part of the story’s development who can become a member of a sort of central casting that can be drawn on to increase the long term efficiency of writing and help to bind the story together.

Perhaps you need to be someways along in your story to realize such possibilities. My own revelation came a third of the way through my first draft. I had thrown my main characters on the road, penniless, and in desperate need of a place to hide as their pursuer closed on them. I could have created a new character, but then I remembered a character who didn’t even appear on the page, a servant whose newborn child had been sacrificed for magical purposes. Nobody would have bothered to tell her, so her story was left unfinished, a minor part of my main characters’ adventures.

That seemed callous — however common in fantasy. However, I realized that I wanted my characters to be responsible. In the middle of their own misfortunes, they took the time to carry the sad news, and in the process found a roof for the night. The next morning, the servant is last seen stoically trudging home.

Realizing I was on to something, I had a soldier who had played a previously minor role show up further down the road. I also took an embarrassing ex-lover with a sheltered view of life — a comic character, a throwaway, really — and set her on the road to maturity with the soldier’s help.

However, the real advantage of having cast only struck me when a main character woke up alone in a village whose language he barely spoke. He had come with his lover and a young hero who was adopting him for political reasons, but neither were available. Two other characters were enemies who were not about to help him.

I did not want to have a chapter of my character wandering around inarticulately, so I needed a few people he could talk to. I found them in the form of a sexually ambiguous shaman he consulted, and a crippled ex-prisoner of war turned blacksmith. Later, I added two Aunties who started as his enemies, and became friendly due to their sense of romance.

All these characters appeared for ruthlessly practical purposes. Yet, after each served an original purpose, by the time I started relating the village’s politics, together they gave me a ready-made crowd cast for crowd scenes. For example, one chapter involves the reactions to the sudden appearance of an item of magic. Between all the previously invented characters, I had a full range of reactions.

For instance, I had originally made the smith crippled because I had the image of him swinging around his workshop on parallel bars. I had no other reason for that detail than it was vivid in my mind. However, when the magic appeared, and others were healed but not him, I had a new aspect to the story, and a new image of the disappointed smith limping back home disappointed. The shaman, a likely candidate for a cure, didn’t want one. As for the Aunties, one was reassuring the other that the cure would not affect their lesbian relationship. I had an entire cast ready to perform without any need to introduce more bit-players.

Nor am I through with this cast yet. Looking ahead, I can already see the roles most of them will play. Like Paul wrote years ago, it’s all about economy — and that’s a lesson I’ve never seen in all the millions of words published on how to write. Maybe it’s one of those skills you can only learn by doing.