How to Write Realistic Character Flaws
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” -Oscar Wilde
Let’s just say it: Redemption stories are awesome! They’re relatable, they can be set anywhere and filmed on a variety of budgets, and they can provide audiences with a satisfying amount of character growth. These attributes make them a popular choice among developing writers, but without solid flaws to drive the redemption arc and give characters “somewhere to grow,” even an otherwise well-written tale of redemption can struggle to engage an audience.
As a reader, every year I see scripts with the plot of a redemption story but without the necessary character work—resulting in a story that lacks any true sense of redemption. This happens when the lead character starts out mostly wonderful and ends the story in much the same state but with some extra knowledge or experience that makes his or her inherent wonderfulness even more remarkable. While these scripts can contain fun moments, a realistic visualization of the lead’s journey in this type of work isn’t an arc at all but rather a straight line; the kind that may result in a flatline when it comes to audience engagement.
Why does this happen? In the real world, we often assume likability is tied to a lack of faults. Whether this assumption is true or not, it can lead writers to suspect a flawed protagonist won’t be likeable enough to engage an audience. However, the opposite is often the case. Flawed characters engage us more because of their vulnerability. It makes their achievements more triumphant and their world more realistic. When our instinctive desire to minimize our flaws bleeds into our writing, it can lead to characters that read as dull at best, annoyingly perfect at worst. It can rob the script of its inherent drama (“See a perfect person become even more perfect!” read no slugline ever) and destroy its realism, which also reduces the urgency of the plot’s stakes.
Put simply, when it comes to redemption stories, if your characters aren’t flawed, your script is.
So what are the signs of a redemption script that lacks redemption? Often in these stories, the idea of a flaw is explored without the lead character (or the script) actually committing to it. One example can be found in the film The Devil Wears Prada. In this story, it’s made clear that Andy is happy to give away the material goods that come with her work—yet in her ostensibly redemptive speech, she talks about how she turned her back on her friends “for shoes.” While materialism can be a powerful character flaw to overcome, the absence of any moments where Andy really does value material possessions over her friends causes her later speech about learning the error of her ways to ring hollow.
To keep some redemption in your redemption stories, it’s important to consider what’s really driving every conflict. If it’s being driven by the lead character’s faults or his or her frustration with the arduous process of growth, your character work may be solid. But if the majority of the conflicts are being driven by misunderstandings or accusations from secondary characters, then those characters are the ones actually driving the story.
Thankfully, characters can be fleshed out by all sorts of flaws. In most cases, writers don’t need to go to extremes. In the popular British drama Downton Abbey, many characters had to face the flaw of being stuck in the past, unwilling to accept the changes that came during and after the first World War. Other popular and highly relatable flaws include not believing in yourself or others (such as in Dodgeball), believing in yourself a little too much (Iron Man), or living for work as a way to avoid confronting personal problems (Officer Angel in Hot Fuzz).
If you’re nervous about the idea of creating flawed characters, remember that giving characters a flaw doesn’t make them weak, it makes them human—which, in turn, makes them far more relatable than a flawless character ever could be. So don’t run away from character flaws, run toward them! They’re what make redemption and redemption stories possible. Or, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Script Analyst / Playwright
Kathleen Cromie is a professional script analyst and playwright. Her plays have been produced in America, the UK, and France (in translation).