After discussing the importance of character development, it’s logical to follow up the conversation with the significance of character strengths and flaws.
Let’s face it: nobody is perfect.
And even if you tried to write a character as perfect, it’ll likely backfire in your face. Most people don’t like Mary Sues/Marty Stews in any media. There are a few fans (some people just like overpowered heroes) but for the most part, the more perfect a character, the less relatable/realistic they are.
On the flip side, if you write a character who is super pathetic and never stands up for himself, people will dislike that too. It’s difficult to follow the story of someone who conducts themselves like a selfish slob, even if lots of people fit into that category in real life.
As the story teller, you want to be true to reality, but not 100% accurate.
The writing term for this is: verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude is the magical “middle ground” where you’ve created a character that has enough strengths and flaws to appear human. So, how do we make sure we get enough of both? Here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way!
Creating Character Strengths
Some authors like to write character profiles long before they start their story. In this profile you would list the top three BEST qualities of your character. They can be anything, so long as they showcase an admirable quality.
What I mean by that is—intelligence is a strength, but if the character does nothing with it, they’re lazy (and thus, this becomes an unlikable quality). But if a character is intelligent and uses this to overcome problems (like Sherlock Homes) that’s pretty epic.
I find it easier to write in strengths that I personally admire. Determination, problem-solving, confident, earnest, and honorable are all easy picks. In my mind, every person on Earth has at least one of these traits, so when I imagine a character in a book, I tend to make sure one of these makes it in.
In reality, a character strength comes from them using any skill in a productive/helpful manner.
The classic situation for showcasing a character strength is the “save the cat” scenario. Imagine a cat in danger (he’s about to get hit by an out of control bus!)—what does your character do to save the cat?
Does your character recklessly lunge into traffic, thus showcasing his bravery?
Does your character time his rescue so that he grabs the cat at the exact point to avoid further accidents, thus showcasing his cleverness?
Any solution or problem will do, so long as it shows the audience the reason you should root for the character.
Creating Character Flaws
In an ideal world, we would have 3 character strengths ready to go in our character profile. The next step would be to pick 2 flaws.
Why 2? Why not 3, like the strengths?
Again, you don’t want the reader/audience to dislike your character. It’s difficult to continue in a story if you hate the individual taking you through the tale. You want flaws, yes, but you don’t want a douchebag for a protagonist.
Flaws can also slide into the category of “character development” because anything you pick here can be overcome through growth throughout the story.
Not all flaws disappear, but picking one the character works through is a great way to structure character profiles.
Perhaps your character has these for strengths: honesty, determination, and a thirst for knowledge.
What flaw could coincide with these traits? A really good one could be indecision. Even if the character has all the answers and wants to do what is right, he’s held back by fear and anxiety (a common flaw many can relate to). If the character then proceeds through the story slowly overcoming this flaw, it also gives the audience a personal goal to root for.
Some flaws can’t be overcome, however. Again, you never want your character to hit the realm of “perfect” because then it ceases to be a character and starts to be a cardboard cutout.
A good flaw to have (that fits with determination and won’t likely be “overcome”) is being stubborn. Not knowing when to give up can cause major problems in a story, and it’s a flaw born of action rather than inaction (anything “inactive” in a story tends to be boring or frustrating, so picking traits that help with action are always stronger).
Once you have the 5 traits laid out, it’s sometimes easier to grasp the character. Plus, you’ve prevented yourself from writing a Mary Sue/Marty Stew by going over flaws and weaknesses long before writing.
Take Batman, for example. I’d say his three strengths are deductive reasoning, unflinching drive, and a strong sense of justice. His flaws could be summed up with obsession and distrust. He’s a vigilante because he doesn’t think anyone else but him has the morals and skills to bring in the bad guys.
Now, some people like to write by the seat of their pants, so a profile might not work, but keeping in mind the strengths and flaws (and the “save a cat” moment) can help weave together a tale with believable characters.