How Many Character Flaws are Too Many?

In my cyberspace explorations this morning I came across a comment (I’m sorry, I can’t remember exactly where) that said, “In general, when characters are too perfect, too good to be true, they’re just flat.”

It’s true, of course, and as I contemplate my current protagonist I wonder if he’s “too perfect”. He is a good man; I mean him to be. But characters need to have flaws to appear realistic. They need the kind of human traits that readers can identify with.

So here’s my question today: how far can a writer go in making a character flawed before he becomes unlikeable?

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20 thoughts on “How Many Character Flaws are Too Many?

  1. Shari says:

    That’s a pretty tough question! But I think a protagonist can be really quite flawed as long as the reader empathizes with him (or her). Maybe there’s undeserved hardship, or self-sacrifice, or some endearing quirky trait or something that puts the reader in the protagonist’s corner, willing to run with the flaws all the way to the character’s redemption.

  2. JodyHedlund says:

    Oh, Carol, that’s a thought-provoking question!! Wow! I think we need to delve deeply into our character’s motivations for having the flawed aspect. If we can create a motivation that is realistic and overcomable, then perhaps we can keep our character from being unlikeable.

    • I hadn’t given any thought to motivations for the flaws, Jody. Hmmm. As creator of the character I haven’t given him much control over them so I don’t know how overcomeable they are. That’s something to think about, for sure.

  3. joylene says:

    This reminds me of an article I wrote a few years back: How Bad Should You Make Your Bad Guy?

    I think the same premise applies for both. Can either the protagonist or the Antagonist miss the mark? Yes.

    But that wasn’t your question. lol. I get carried away sometimes.

    My answer is “Lots, please.”

    We have only to look at the movies to see just how appealing those cranky old farts can be. Like dope-smoking Michael Douglas’s character in Wonder Boys. Or chauvinist, Bruce Willis’s character in the Die Hard Series. Or cranky Jack Lemmon in Grumpy Old Men.

    Or stubborn and bullheaded Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca.

    What about Hannibal Hector?

    I think a protagonist can be as flawed as your inner voice tells you to make him. Readers can be very forgiving. It’s all about the right amount of narration and inter-monologue.

    • I’m thinking that villains need redeeming qualities just as much as the good guys need flaws, and maybe for the same reason… so readers can see them as real people and relate to them. Maybe it’s more the kind of flaw than the quantity of them that will determine how believable our characters are. I loved those Grumpy Old Men!

  4. I’d think that depends on the type of character. I’ll accept far more flaws in a villain than in my hero. Then again, if the flaws are of the goof-ball but well-intentioned type, I’ll take quite a few in a hero, especially if the story is about how the goof-ball wins in the end.

    • I guess that’s an important consideration… significant flaws are okay as long as the they don’t interfere with the protagonist’s ability to achieve his goals. I appreciate your thoughts, Kelly. Thanks for visiting.

  5. Iapetus999 says:

    Check out this Wikipedia entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_sue

    This one is particularly hilarious:
    http://www.springhole.net/quizzes/marysue.htm

    If you score too high, your character is too good.

  6. Very interesting and important question.

    Flaws come in many forms. Being “too good” can actually be a flaw in itself. It may not be great in an MC but I’m thinking of minor characters such as Jane in Pride and Prejudice who was so good at times it was a fault. She saw people in such a good light that she failed to see how they could be harmful.

    I don’t think it’s wise to give characters flaws just so they seem human. That’s the way to make a character not only “too flawed,” but not believable. Instead it’s better develop their past and their weaknesses, strengths, quirks will naturally come out and make them human. Aren’t many flaws a product of they way we were raised? Our culture, environment and education?

    Thanks for your comments on Writer Ropes!

    • Good points, Liesl, and thanks for visiting here. Certainly being too good can be just as bad as being too flawed. And piling on flaws for the sake of doing so is bound to end up with a character that feels artificial.

  7. Tricia says:

    I like flawed characters. The more the better; it makes be looks better.

  8. Laura Best says:

    I don’t know..is there really such a things as a character flaw or just part of being human? I guess it would depend upon whose standards we use. I prefer to think of my characters as interesting.

    • Hmmm… I suppose different standards would result in differing perspectives all right but if I’m looking critically at manufactured characters (not judging real life people) I feel like I have to be able to identify their weaknesses. It may just be different words for the same thing… semantics again.

  9. Arti says:

    Hi, I saw your comment on Shari’s blog and came right here. Love your blog, meditative and serene.

    This is a great question. Recently I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and there’s this sentence: “A person’s faults are larely what make him or her likable… They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.”
    But how much… ummm I guess making the character know his/her own faults at some point might work. (Jane Austen’s Emma comes to mind.)

    • Thanks for visiting here, Arti. I don’t recall that quote but Anne makes a very good point and I like your idea of having the characters be aware of their own faults. Interesting idea.

  10. Neil Parikh says:

    Carol, I don’t understand why you’re trying to “manufacture” a character. I think that a character needs to be discovered, not created. Sure, in the beginning, I might have an idea of something I’m looking for in a character and something I would probably like to find, but after that, I leave it to my character to speak to me. I develop the story as the characters develop. Unfortunately, at times, such a method has led to the formation of Mary Sues, but for the most part, I find that I create good, likeable characters by treating them as if they were people who I am trying to understand inside out. I think that, as Liesl said, flaws are a byproducts of the character’s past. The flaws, quirks, and endearing traits will reveal themselves as you delve deeper into your character’s past and how your character has reacted in different situations.
    I’m not sure though if I agree the character knowing all of his or her flaws. Think of when you watch a romantic comedy. The character won’t realize he has a flaw, but almost everyone is thinking, “Why are/aren’t you doing something about this?”. Reality works pretty much the same way. People can have a certain habit or way of doing things that seems fine to them, but which an overwhelming majority of people would think is flawed. Not knowing all of their flaws makes a character more realistic. And the flaws that the character does know about should be ones that he or she wants to change or is trying to fix, whether or not the character is ultimately successful.

    • I appreciate your comments, Neil. Thanks for visiting. It’s true that if a character is well drawn the revealling of his personality will happen naturally as we get to know him. The contrived assigning of flaws would certainly be highly undesirable — not at all what I intend. My question was more about protagonists that we may find it difficult to sympathize with because they have traits that make them unlikeable.

      As for your question about manufacturing a character, there are times I find one who is already quite well developed within my imagination and it’s a delight to build my story around him. Other times, however, the story I choose to tell requires characters who are not yet clearly defined; they must be created, and that’s what I get to do as the writer.

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