Face Your Fears, Find Your Flaws
by Melissa Bashardoust
How do you design a character’s flaws? The answer, like most things, lies in Star Wars.
As Yoda tells us, the root of the dark side is fear. Fear is what makes us lash out. Fear can motivate us or hold us back. Fear can bring out the best and worst in your characters. If you want to find out a character’s flaws, figure out what your character wants, what motivates them, what’s important to them. Their family? Their status in the social hierarchy? Freedom and justice?
Great—now threaten to take that thing away from them.
Put your character in a position where they’re about to lose the thing they’re most afraid of losing, and imagine their reaction. Would they become ruthless and destructive? Would they retreat and give in to despair? Push a character hard enough, and eventually they’ll show you their worst impulses. Force a character to confront their worst fear, and you’ll find out what demon they need to overcome, what’s holding them back and what’s driving them forward.
Okay, but what if a character’s response is a mature and healthy one? You can work with that, too, because there’s a flip side to every coin, after all. Every good quality can become a flaw if it’s too extreme. A cheerful attitude can become an unwillingness to confront the heavier parts of life. A calm sense of detachment can become an inability to connect with others. Anakin Skywalker would never have fallen to the dark side if he didn’t have the admirable quality of caring so much about the people he loves…and if he weren’t so afraid of losing them. (It always comes back to Star Wars, I’m telling you.)
Even just knowing what a character is afraid of can lead you to their flaws. To take an example from…let’s say…Star Wars, we have a scene from The Force Awakens where the antagonist (Kylo Ren) very conveniently tells us what the protagonist (Rey) is afraid of. “You’re so lonely, so afraid to leave,” he tells her (and us). On the surface, Rey’s afraid to leave the planet where she was abandoned as a child, because she’s worried her family won’t be able to find her if they ever come back for her. But really, she’s afraid to leave because that would mean admitting that her family isn’t coming back for her. From this core fear come her flaws: stubbornness, self-imposed isolation, a refusal to move forward. Her fear of abandonment causes her to initially choose stagnation and isolation when given opportunities to expand her horizons and make new connections.
If you’ll allow me a more self-indulgent example: In Girls Made of Snow and Glass, one of my main characters, Mina, is afraid that she’s unlovable, that anyone who truly knows her will reject her. By working from the inside out, I can take that fear and translate it into flaws. Mina can be guarded and distrustful, ruthless and manipulative, because she believes
that she has no one to count on but herself, and that if anyone sees the real her, she’ll never be loved. Desperation—that mixture of fear and desire—makes her flaws manifest.
Knowing my character’s fears and flaws helps me know how she would react to both positive and negative events in the plot. The worse the event, the more likely she is to retreat into herself, to reject others before they can reject her. She doesn’t have to have any of those flaws. There’s no one set path from fear to flaw—but tracing out of one of those many paths will make the flaws feel organic and will help readers empathize with the character even when they’re not at their best. We may not all relate to each individual flaw, but we all understand fear, and the influence that fear can have over our actions.
You don’t have to know your characters’ flaws from the start. One of the most satisfying parts of writing is seeing your characters develop on the page, watching them go from vague skeletons in your head to fleshed-out people. Flaws are the thorns, not the roots. The roots are the characters’ hopes and dreams, their upbringings—and yes, their fears. Water those roots and the thorns will grow on their own.
Melissa Bashardoust received her degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where she rediscovered her love for creative writing, children’s literature, and fairy tales and their retellings. She currently lives in Southern California with a cat named Alice and more copies of Jane Eyre than she probably needs. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is her first novel.
Girls Made of Snow and Glass
Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale
At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.
Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.
Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything—unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.
Thank you so much to Melissa for writing this wonderful post and sharing it with us. I know from experience that sometimes character flaws and growth are the most difficult parts of writing and what really divides a good book from a great book!
As always, thank you to everyone who has participated in this feature! Your words and advice are always happily devoured, and we love you all for helping us.
We hope you all have a wonderful rest of your week!