Let’s keep going on our writing series. One of the biggest complaints from critics of fiction about flat, shallow characters is that they lack flaws. But what does that really mean? Well, in all honesty, they’re usually complaining about the execution of said flaw; obviously, not having it there in the first place is a big strikeout, but giving a character a flaw that never is fully explained, fleshed out, or that penalizes the character make for a flaw that falls flat.
Let’s take a look at a really common “flaw” with a lot of heroic characters: Trust Issues.
You’re going to have to do some homework and preparation when giving your character a flaw. If you want your character to have depth, you’re going to have craft multiple elements to any particular aspect of a character, especially the flaws, because it’s usually the flaws that drive the conflicts for that character!
First up, make strong decisions on where these trust issues come from. The source of their distrust matters IMMENSELY, because people with trust issues come in different flavors and act out that distrust in different ways.
Was this person…
- Betrayed by a close family member like a brother or sister?
- Grew up in a rough area?
- Set up by someone they thought was a close friend?
- Inverted: maybe this person was the bully, but reformed; however, they may not trust themselves and thier own impulses.
Were they constantly set up for disappointment?
- Maybe they come from a family where one child was adored more than the rest?
- Could this person have been constantly promised that, “this time, it’s for real!” which of course, it wasn’t?
- Does this person lack trust because when it was their time to be front and center, everyone let them down?
- Inverted: This person got everything they ever thought they were due… until NOW. This story about trust issues is about a person going through the situation where their perfect life has now been flipped and everything is going WRONG.
How about cheating?
- Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice… shame on me.
- Inverted: Could this person have trust issues because they were the person who DID the cheating, and now they don’t trust themselves? Don’t be afraid of inversions!
- Classic orphan – this person was abandoned by any and all family and left to fend for themselves.
- Classic rogue – this person lives in a dirty world of grey where the only thing keeping them alive is their healthy mistrust of others
- Inverted: this is the story of how someone who has always known love and support has now been completely ostracized; this might be due to tragedy, personal illness, maybe an accident or crime, etc.
Do you see how just looking at one aspect of that flaw, (where it came from) already can have many different approaches, backstories, and shades of flavor it gives a character? Saying a character has “trust issues” is really broad; but once you make solid decisions on where those issues come from, you start adding unique flavors to your character.
Other questions to consider:
- How does this flaw help or hurt their relationships?
- How does this flaw help or hurt their job/career/goals?
- How does this character try to overcome this flaw?
- Would inverting the situation work better for the character I’m crafting?
Thinking about these things and adding in these layers help you make a three dimensional character. It’s a great exercise, and I encourage any writers to give these serious thought as they work.
Just writing that a character is mistrustful can be a nice trait to flavor your character, but if you want this character to really shine, you should take the time to decide on why this person is distrustful. It’s not a universal attribute; we tend to want to trust everyone implicitly until our trust is BROKEN. Who broke it, how it got broken, and why it got broken become the scar tissue and safety mechanisms around our hearts that we use as a barrier from having it happen again.
Many classic heroes are distrustful, usually because they choose to trust the wrong person or the wrong thing at the wrong time. That becomes a pivot point for the character moving forward.
As the writer, the more solid this is for you, the better you’ll craft this character for the audience. Specifics matter to the writer, even if you choose not to disclose all your work from behind the curtain!
And don’t be afraid of inversions, too: Batman has a blindspot for trusting children. Despite not having any real attraction to any women in the world, Sherlock Holmes allows himself to be awed by Irene Adler. Sheriff Enos in the Dukes of Hazzard can’t help but fall for Daisy Duke’s charms every single time, despite knowing he’s getting conned. Charlie Brown is a cynic, yet he constantly wants to trust Lucy when tries to kick the football. Even though all these characters are distrusting, by seeing the cracks in their armor we learn something important about the character. In fact, a whole story can be built around the inversion: this is the one time this person decided TO trust, or was FORCED to trust someone else, despite naturally being distrusting.
Whatever you choose, make it strong, make it clear, and make it well defined!