So many writers are afraid of giving their characters real flaws — it’s like they’re scared that their readers won’t like the character because they are flawed. But this attitude is self-defeating, because characters without flaws come across as two-dimensional and disingenuous — so we readers dislike these paper cutouts. In the real world, we know that nobody is perfect — so why should your characters be any different?
What flaws are and what flaws aren't
A character flaw should, primarily, be something which negatively effects your character — there should be negative consequences for their character flaw.
If the “flaw” doesn’t effect your character in any meaningful way, shape or form, it is simply a characteristic, such as having blue eyes or brown hair.
In essence, a flaw is a way of creating conflict in your narrative, because your character must overcome the obstacles set in front of them because of their flaw. Flaws create character growth because they provide your character with opportunity to change.
The consequences of the flaw must punish your character — if your character screams at his best friend because of their anger issues, and the friend forgives him and they go on like nothing happened, this doesn’t count as a consequence. A better example is if your character’s flaw is greed, their wife leaves them, or their business goes broke because of their greed.
Types of flaws
Typically, flaws have three categories: minor, major or fatal.
Minor flaws: an imperfection which serves to mark the character in the mind of the reader (a scar, a hard to understand accent, a limp or strange coloured hair). Often, writers mistake minor flaws for being their character's major flaws, the difference between the two is that minor flaws do not effect the character, major flaws do. For example, your character could walk with a limp — but if they're an aspiring marathon runner, this could become a major flaw because it stands in the way of them achieving their goals.
Major flaws: a noticeable flaw which impedes the character, physically, mentally or morally. Typically, a villain's major flaw is their downfall; a hero's major flaw is something which they overcome to defeat the villain.
Fatal flaw/tragic flaw: seen in Aristotelian tragic heroes, this flaw is in your hero and is the cause of your hero's downfall; think Romeo in Romeo and Juliet; Romeo's flaw is that he is brash and quick to fall in love, which leads to his death.
I’ve seen this so many times in romance novels — the flaws not being real flaws! Often, the male love interest is tall, dark and handsome, but his flaw? He has a temper! Sometimes, he’ll exchange harsh words with the female love interest, but she forgives him anyway! Sometimes, he’ll loose his temper and beat up the man who was mistreating his female love interest, but it is okay because the reader believes that the person deserved a beating anyway!
Likewise, lots of action books do this — where the character has the "flaw" of anger, but it doesn't effect them in a meaningful way — the main character will get angry and be able to win their fist fight. In this circumstance, if anger were to be their flaw, they should fail their fight because of their anger and only win the fight if they manage to overcome their anger.
Pierce Brown does with his main character, Darrow, in the Red Rising series. Darrow has the “flaw” of being too independent and is unwilling to put his friends and family in harm's way. However, when Darrow goes off alone on an adventure, either it all works out for him, and if things go wrong, his friends come and rescue him in the end — he never learns.
A flaw should be damaging, detrimental even, to your character and to those around them.
Flaws aren't always something bad
Remember: flaws don’t always have to mean something negative — sometimes, they can just mean setbacks.
Don't confuse these two:
a character flaw: a flaw in a person's character (their personality). This can be something such as lust, envy, or a misguided sense of justice.
a character's flaw: a character's flaw is more situational — it doesn't have to be something negative, just a circumstance that creates setbacks for them in that situation. For example, your character may be really, really short. While being short isn't a bad thing, it can be bad if you're trying to become a professional basketball player. However, these types of flaws only work if the character's character grows as they try to overcome their flaw. It isn't realistic for the 160cm basketball player to suddenly grow half a metre — if this does happen they have not learnt anything — what's realistic is that they have to learn how to work harder than everyone else, to think smarter and play better than their opponents to achieve their dream. In this way, many writers use a character’s disability or mental illness to create setbacks for their character. We can see this in Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Protagonist Auggie who has Treacher Collins syndrome and must learn to accept himself and his condition — his inward character grows as a result of his outward "flaws".
Writers take something which may be considered a good characteristic, but because of the character’s circumstance, it is a flaw. For example, in A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark's sense of honour gets him killed.
Villains v flaws
Often, your characters flaws are where your villain thrives. In this way, the villain challenges the main character to grow and overcome their flaws in order to be able to defeat the villain.
If your character has a suffers from self-doubt, often the villain will be someone who is very self-assured. If your character struggles to form close friendships, the villain is someone who is an expert at manipulating people around them. If your character is physically weak, your villain is strong.
Themes v flaws
Also, your character’s flaws should tie into the main themes of the book. Have a think about the message of your book — is your book about the dangers of reckless love? Have your hero be someone who falls blindly in love with people. Is your book about the role of technology in society? Have your character be someone who gullible and easily manipulated — the theme is further developed as they get manipulated, stumble, and then grow as a character.
Some great examples
Here are some great examples of character flaws
Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy — Elizabeth's prejudice stops her from seeing Mr Darcy's true kindness, and Mr Darcy's pride makes him think less of loving a woman below his social station.
Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein — his curiosity, hubris and irresponsibility leads him to create the monster which destroys everything he ever loved.
Harry Potter, Voldemort — his fear of death makes him try everything possible to become immortal.
A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark — his sense of honour leads him to tell reveal his plans to Cersei, who organises a coo against him.
The Name of the Wind, Kvothe — his poor money-handling skills lead him into poverty.
Dragonflight, Lessa — her desire for total independence and lack of trust in others almost causes a war and creates rifts in her personal relationships.
A Wizard of Earthsea, Sparrowhawk — his sense of inferiority and arrogance causes him to summon a demon which haunts him for a big part of his life.
Fall of Hypersion, Meina Gladstone — her fatal flaw of shouldering the responsibility of the world leads to her death, the death of millions, and the destruction of the world as humans know it.