I see a lot of writing advice, particularly about giving characters flaws. The main advice is “everyone has flaws! make sure to give your character flaws or else it’s not realistic!” And after thinking about it… I would like to challenge this.
It essentially posits a view of human nature that there are good and bad traits, and that these traits can be neatly diagrammed into separate columns, one set of which can and should be eliminated. It tends to go along with a view that posits character development should be about scrubbing away of “flawed” traits until the character achieves more a higher level of goodness, or else the character doesn’t and falls into tragedy. This is not untrue, necessarily. There are definitely some “flaws” that are 100% bad and sometimes a good arc is about slowly losing them. However, I could call this advice incomplete.
Consider thinking about it this way. Characters have traits and often whether or not that trait is a flaw is purely circumstantial.
For instance, fairy tales I read as a child. In some, when an old beggar asked for money on the road, it was a secret test of character. The prince who gave the old man money or food would be rewarded. But in other folktales I read, the old beggar would be malevolent, and any prince who stooped to help him would be beaten, punished for letting his guard down. Now, in a story as well as in real life, either of these scenarios can occur–a stranger who asks for help can be benevolent or malevolent. So which is the flaw? Is it a “flaw” to be compassionate? or is it a “flaw” to be guarded?
Trick question–it’s purely conditional. Both traits are simultaneously a strength and a weakness. Either has an advantage, but either comes with a price as well. And whether the price is greater than the advantage depends on circumstance. The same can be said for most character traits, in fact!
An agreeable character who gets along with everyone will be pressured into agreeing with something atrocious because it’s a commonly held viewpoint. A character who’s principled and holds firm even under great pressure will take much, much longer to change their mind when they are actually in the wrong. A character who loves animals and loves to shower them with affection will get bitten if they try the same on every animal. As the circumstances change, flaws become strengths, and strengths become weaknesses. And even a trait that’s wholly virtuous, such as compassion, comes with a price and can be turned for the worst.
You don’t have to think about inserting flaws into your character. Your character, even the most perfect “Mary Sue,” is already flawed the moment you give her any traits at all. The problem with Mary Sue isn’t a lack of flaws, it’s a lack of circumstances to challenge her properly, to show her paying the natural price. Your job as an author is to create circumstances in the narrative that 1) justify why these traits exist in your character 2) show what your character gains from these traits and then 3) change the circumstances to challenge her.
Make your character pay the price for their traits, for their choices. And then, when challenged, you can make a hell of a story by showing us how they adapt, or why they stick to their guns anyway.
Every trait, every good trait, can turn into a flaw and it’s so much more realistic that way.
Strong willed and leadership abilities –> stubborn and unwilling to listen to other people
Kind and caring –> avoids conflicts and can’t say no
Analytical thinker –> unemotional and cold
A trait can be a positive and a negative force on a character and how it affects them and the story is what makes the plot interesting.