If you look at great characters in literature, they each have a flaw which drives the plot forward. I strongly believe that one of the most important pieces of advice for writing a character is to give them a “fatal” flaw.
So I’ve taken it upon myself to break down a few popular reads in terms of main characters and their “fatal” flaws. Note that “fatal” does not mean a flaw which leads to the character’s death–in fact none of the characters I am going to mention die in the pages of their books.
Rather, fatal flaws are those character flaws the character exhibits which creates drama for the character and entertainment for the reader. This flaw gets them into sticky situations or makes them lose what they hold dear. It can make them face physical death or emotional death. It intertwines with the plot so closely that to change that fatal flaw would be to change the entire story.
Pride & Prejudice: Lizzy is prejudiced against the wealthy. Mr. Darcy is proud about his reputation.
Harry Potter: Harry has a “saving people thing.” Hermione is an “insufferable know-it-all.” Ron can be “rather cruel.”
The Hunger Games: Katniss is untrusting. Peeta is loyal. Gale is unforgiving.
The Count of Monte Cristo: Edmund cannot eradicate love in his life.
As people, we each have our own “fatal” flaw.
A fatal flaw doesn’t mean that it will ultimately lead to our death, but this is a flaw that makes living our lives more difficult.
However, note that the “fatal” flaw for the sake of our plots does not have to be a negative character trait!
Consider the flaws above:
Pride in reputation, saving people thing, loyalty, love… None of those really sound like “flaws.” In fact, taking pride in your reputation could be a good thing, saving people usually sounds like a good thing too. Loyalty? I consider loyalty a pretty good thing–as long as there’s a good reason for it. But love? Isn’t love always a good thing?
Arguably, yes. However, if you look at the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo (one of the best, most intricate plots ever written if you ask me), you find that love is the one thing that can prevent Edmund from accomplishing his goal.
As Edmund’s grand finale of revenge approaches its climax, he is faced with the love of his life. She is the only one who can prevent him from ruining the lives of everyone who wronged him–including, he believes, her. So what is he to do when he realizes that she didn’t wrong him–but that she still loves him? He must either abandon his entire plan for revenge and reveal himself to her, or rise above his fatal flaw of love and carry out his revenge as planned.
In Harry Potter, Harry is repeatedly lured into situations where others are at risk. If he were to stay put and let the adults handle things, as most other characters would prefer he do, then he would be safe and unharmed (for the most part). For example, in HP and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry is lured to the Ministry of Magic to rescue his godfather, Sirius Black. He believes that Sirius is in mortal danger and thinks that only he can help. In this instance, he even tries talking to the adults, but that gets him nowhere and so he acts on his own. This act puts not only him but his best friends in mortal danger as well. And, the kicker is: he is wrong. So now he must fight his way out of danger, facing the most evil of wizards.
Both love and the desire to save people, two admirable character attributes, are fatal flaws which drive the plot for Edmund and Harry.
Those flaws which are less positive carry just as much weight in the pages of their stories:
If Elizabeth weren’t already prejudice against Mr. Darcy and determined to marry for love and not wealth, his rejection of her would bother her and she would most likely be seeking his attention instead of running from it. If Mr. Darcy were not proud of his reputation, he would have made Wickham’s true nature publicly known (although it would have shamed him and his sister), and then Lydia Bennet probably would not have been enticed into eloping with him when suspecting his true intentions.
If Katniss trusted everyone, perhaps she wouldn’t have made it through the first Hunger Games. If Peeta weren’t loyal to those he loved, perhaps he would have come through the Hunger Games without physical loss (in the book version he loses his leg).
Each of the above stories would be vastly different if the characters did not have their fatal flaw.
Every character needs a fatal flaw–this is what makes them tangible to the reader and keeps the reader fascinated. No one wants to read about a character where they do nothing wrong or never get into trouble–perhaps we dream about that for our own lives, but we aren’t interested in reading about someone with a perfect life.
We want to read about someone with flaws, someone like us, who faces the odds and rises above them. We want to love the flawed characters in the books we read as much as we want real people in the real world to love us.
So what is your fatal flaw? What is your character’s fatal flaw? How can you use this to drive your story’s plot? Would changing that flaw change the story?