Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Your Readers Will Love the Characters You Create with These Tips

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Finding the Fatal Flaw in Your Characters

Every character has a fatal flaw, or a trait that will ultimately get the character into trouble. Why? Because perfect characters don’t exist. Or at least we don’t write stories about them. Imagine how tedious it would be to write (or read!) about a character who never fails, who never does anything wrong, who never has to change. Boring!

Instead, we want characters who struggle with life. And fail, sometimes spectacularly! Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz failed over and over again as she learned her lessons. Toto bit the neighbor, she ran off and got caught by the tornado, she immediately kills someone important on her arrival in Oz, and so on and so on. What was her fatal flaw? She didn’t believe the world was a happy place. Everyone sing it together with me...Somewhere, over the rainbow.... She didn’t understand that she could be happy no matter WHERE she was. At least, not until she learned it from the trials and tribulations she dealt with in Oz.

In Up, Carl’s flaw was similar—life wasn’t worth living without Ellie. So nothing and no one was important to Carl, at least until he met Russell, Doug, and Kevin, who helped him change his mind. His external flaw was that he would do anything to get Ellie’s house to Paradise Falls but the internal one was about his emotional health. And he finally realized that. 

I’m watching the Virgin River series right now and Mel, who is a nurse with a lot of personal issues, is another lost soul who can’t find happiness. I’m only in the first season, so I’m hoping she finds it with that cute Jack the bartender, but he has issues too. Is love the only solution to a fatal flaw? It sure can be in a romance. But they also need to deal with the baggage they carry—her a broken marriage and still-born baby, him PTSD from Iraq where he “left someone behind.”

But a character’s fatal flaw doesn’t always get fixed. In Moby Dick, Ahab’s flaw is his obsession with killing that whale. He never waivers and the reader really knows that he will die instead of give up and go home. (Of course, Ahab is not really the protagonist—Ishmael is.

Hamlet’s fatal flaw is that he suffers from paralysis of analysis. He can’t make a decision for the life of him and everything passes him by while he’s thinking. He lets his love interest die, because he’s not willing to take action.

So what is your character’s fatal flaw? What drives him or her to destruction? It can be that he wants to get rich. Or that she believes she isn’t worthy. Or that he can’t allow anyone to help him. Or that she believes that, because one marriage failed, she can’t fall in love again. Or that, if he tells the truth about his boss, he’ll get fired.

Some of these flaws are true and the character has to decide how much the truth is worth. But many of them are misunderstandings or unnecessary fears. It really doesn’t matter, as far as the flaw goes, but it will make a huge difference in how the character will handle the situation.

Of course, there are as many flaws as there are characters, so any one you choose, as long as it makes sense in the context of the story, will work. After you pick one, you’ll need to decide how the character will learn the lesson. Will the flaw destroy him or her? Or will she or he triumph over it, with bells ringing? That, of course, depends on your story.

Bottom line, the stronger the flaw, the more difficult it will be to overcome. But that’s just good fiction, right?

What flaw does your character have? Will he or she achieve success in spite of it?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.