here is nothing more boring than a saint. It’s true both in real life and in stories.
Real life has no perfect heroes. There is no Superman fighting selflessly for Truth, Justice and The American Way. In real life, ministers lose their faith, mothers hit their kids, and even well-meaning politicians become power-hungry sociopaths. Readers have difficulty relating to a character that never makes bad decisions and never acts selfishly. A saintly character also has less opportunity to grow and develop, and is almost inevitably an unchanging, “static” character.
So when you write, give your character internal as well as external challenges. While he’s fighting cannibals in the jungle, he also has to deal with his fear of snakes. While she’s creating the first human clone, she also has to deal with her abandonment issues.
Your character’s flaws should be with them from the very beginning, before the story even starts. Flaws should reveal something about the character, something besides the fact that they are imperfect. Flaws should reveal something about the character, something besides the fact that they are imperfect. So your private detective is an alcoholic. Who cares? The substance abuse is only important if it tells us something about the man.
Why does he drink? To use a clichè example, let’s say he drinks to forget a woman he once knew. What does that tell us about the way he relates to the other female characters in the story? How do his failed romances impact his friendships and his professional relationships?
You should never just decide “oh, my archeologist will be afraid of snakes.” You should know why, even if it never comes out in the story. You should know how bad the fear is. Does he just find snakes creepy? Does he shake in his boots? Or does he run the other way, screaming like a little girl?
Flaws are part of what motivates your character’s actions. Flaws also shape your characters relationships with each other, and the relationships determine the dialog in the story.
Know how your character got their flaws. Know the extent of their imperfections. Know how they react to their failings. Do they passively accept them? Are they trying to change? Are they trying to hide their flaws from one or more of the characters? Why or why not? Knowing the answers to these questions will help your character to have a consistent personality, and make their actions and dialog seem much more realistic. Knowing the answers to these questions will help your character to have a consistent personality, and make their actions and dialog seem much more realistic.
What kind of flaws should your character have? That depends upon the character’s role in the story.
The hero should have internal difficulties that reflect the larger themes of the story. If your story is about the creative process, your hero might be saddled with substance abuse problems or emotional troubles, anything that makes it difficult for them to be able to use their artistic gifts. If the theme of your story is “man’s search for meaning in life,” your character might be an arrogant skeptic, someone who has trouble believing in much of anything.
You probably already have in mind the various physical challenges your character will face. The climb up the mountain, the voyage across the desert, the fight to the death with an army of pirates and ninjas… Your hero’s flaws should make the physical challenges in the story more difficult for him to complete. As your hero progresses through the physical journey of the story, he should also deal with internal problems. Your hero’s inner growth and changes will give the story added depth and meaning.
A foil is a character whose personality serves to draw attention to another character’s positive qualities. Consider giving your hero a sidekick, someone whose sins will contrast the hero’s virtues. If the hero is an honest, law-abiding town sheriff, his sidekick could be a reformed gambler who still gets tempted. If the hero is a graceful master of martial arts, his sidekick could be a bumbling circus clown.
Of course, the reverse can also be effective. Your main character may be more of an antihero. If your hero is violent or cruel, you might give him a highly moral or religious sidekick. If you have an ex-cop out for revenge, his soft-hearted sidekick might be the only thing holding him back.
One could say that a villain’s only real flaws are his virtues. The villain’s flaws are his spark of humanity, and the thing that makes his crimes difficult for him to accomplish. He might do everything reluctantly, at least at first. Or he might be tortured by guilt for what he has done. He might think everything he has done has been moral and just, but he still has a level below which he would never sink. (“I might be a brutal murderer, but I would never run for political office!”)
The villain’s virtues could even be the motivation for his evil deeds. He could be a basically soft-hearted fellow who turns to violence after being pushed too far.
The villain’s flaws should do more than allow the hero to defeat him. The villain should be flawed in such a way that he has logical, consistent motivation for his villainy, without becoming inhuman or cartoonish.
All things considered, the best reason to give your characters flaws is this: its fun! The people in your story are completely at your mercy. You can do anything to them. They’re like ants, and you’ve got a magnifying glass. Why not burn them a little?