Enchanting books that I read in my childhood, which still hold up under my scrutiny as an adult are the ones I turn to for examples of how to write. One such classic, The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli, is a model for creating character flaws. This historical fiction deals with a boy named Robin whose hopes of becoming a knight are dashed when an illness leaves him with almost completely paralyzed legs.
He doesn’t regain the use of his legs, but he is forced to crawl on the ground and learn new skills such as swimming. He doesn’t solve the threat facing the feudal estate where he resides by himself but gets help from a monk. Robin is a character with a great deal to learn. His flaws, partial paralysis and lack of confidence and knowledge, are major problems that simply cannot be ignored.
That slim volume has inspired the way I create imperfections in characters. They get major flaws, not simply interesting minor ones. These are part of the conflict—difficulties that either have to be dealt with or be accepted by other characters. What kind of shortcomings can characters have that don’t make them unlikeable?
- Physical flaws such as missing limbs, stammering, weak heart, or unattractiveness—However, physical ugliness can be a challenge to overcome for a female protagonist because readers may assume ugly is unlikeable.
- Irrational fears of large crowds, closed spaces, heights etc.—These are flaws of the mind similar to physical weaknesses, and a favorite ploy in the stories that Hitchcock used. The protagonist cannot make the transition to hero with such a fear hindering them.
- A mental illness—John Nash, the schizophrenic and Nobel Prize winner who suffered from schizophrenia, was noted as being arrogant, uncaring and not particular likeable in real life. The key to changing this image in the fictionalized account of his life was to show that he was attempting to do something valuable for others, even if he was deluded.
- A different way of relating to the world—A personality disorder or neuro-atypical pattern of thinking may result in strained relationships with people around them.
- Proud, egotistical, or critical of others—These protagonists have enviable abilities, but their inflated self-esteem produces its own kind of heartache. This is the hardest flaw to pull off and still have a likeable character. One lesson they must learn is a degree of humility.
The character arc that deals with these physical, mental or personality flaws is as important as defeating the enemy or a devious undermining acquaintance. If you really want to annoy a reader, create a character that does everything right with little to no effort.