In the real world, everybody has flaws. Maybe you get grumpy when you’re hungry. Maybe you’re unusually gullible. Maybe you just have terrible hand–eye coordination.
Whatever your flaws are, they’re part of what makes you human.
In fiction, every well-written character needs to have flaws, too. In fact, at least one of their flaws should play a crucial role in the story.
So, what is a character flaw, and how do you write one?
Read on to learn our complete guide to character flaws, as well as a list of 50 common character flaws you can consider giving the fictional characters in your own work.
What Are Flaws?
Let’s start with a quick overview of what character flaws are.
Character Flaw Definition
A character flaw is an undesirable quality your character has. Each character’s flaws will cause that character to unintentionally hurt themselves or others.
To write a character that feels three-dimensional to readers, you need to give them several different layers of flaws, ranging from minor flaws to major flaws.
Minor flaws are small quirks that add uniqueness to a character’s personality. Major flaws, on the other hand, should significantly impact a character’s ability to pursue their goals successfully throughout the story.
For example, a minor flaw might be being a picky eater, while a major flaw might be a fundamental inability to trust other people. They both limit your character, but they have different levels of impact on the story.
Fatal Flaw Definition
A fatal flaw is a major flaw that’s so extreme it causes the character’s downfall.
“Downfall,” in this context, might mean your character literally dies. Or it might mean your character reaches a moral death, meaning they start to commit immoral acts without guilt. It might also mean they lose their relationship with someone they loved.
No matter what shape their downfall takes, the fatal flaw is the personality trait that drove them to their doom.
Any major flaw can become a fatal flaw if a character leans into it, instead of learning from their mistakes and trying to correct that flaw. The difference between a fatal flaw and a nonfatal flaw is often less about the nature of the flaw itself and more about how the character responds to their own weaknesses.
Character Defects List
If you’re trying to think of unique character flaws to use in your writing, look no further. Here’s a list of 50 character defects you can consider using to create a compelling character arc.
1. Apathy: they don’t care about the people or things around them.
2. Arrogance: they have such a high opinion of themselves that they treat other people like they’re inferior.
3. Awkwardness: they’re not sure how to behave around other people.
4. Bitterness: they’re resentful about something that happened in the past that they can no longer change.
5. Competitiveness: they see everything as a competition they have to win, even when it would make more sense to work together.
6. Cowardice: they don’t have enough courage to do the right thing.
7. Criticism: they disparage other people for committing minor mistakes.
8. Cruelty: they deliberately cause pain to other people.
9. Cynicism: they assume the worst about the world.
10. Dishonesty: they have a habit of lying to those around them.
11. Disloyalty: they betray those who trusted them.
12. Distrust: they’re reluctant to open up and be vulnerable with anybody, which prevents them from building intimate relationships.
13. Envy: they covet things other people have, even to the point of wanting to tear other people down.
14. Gossip: they spread rumors that aren’t theirs to share.
15. Hedonism: they indulge too much in worldly pleasures.
16. Helplessness: they constantly rely on others to save them instead of taking control of their own situation.
17. Humorlessness: they lack a sense of humor, which causes them to take everything too seriously.
18. Hypocrisy: they don’t practice what they preach, often because they think they’re good enough to be above the rules.
19. Ignorance: they lack common sense or don’t know enough about the world, which causes them to make bad decisions.
20. Incompetence: they struggle to complete tasks they should be able to complete.
21. Indecisiveness: they hate making decisions, even when they need to.
22. Independence: they refuse to ask for help even when they need it.
23. Insensitivity: they say and do things that hurt other people without realizing it.
24. Irrationality: they make decisions that aren’t grounded in logic.
25. Irresponsibility: they blame other people for all of their problems, instead of taking responsibility for their own situation.
26. Irreverence: they don’t have enough respect for things they should respect.
27. Irritability: they’re quick to become angry or upset, which hurts the people around them.
28. Laziness: they’re unwilling to put in the work they’re supposed to do.
29. Manipulativeness: they sneakily influence other people’s emotions in order to get what they want.
30. Meekness: they let other people walk all over them instead of standing up for themselves.
31. Miserliness: they cling to their own wealth and possessions.
32. Naivety: they tend to get taken advantage of by other people.
33. Narrow-mindedness: they’re intolerant of new people or things.
34. Obsessiveness: they’re consumed with the thought of something or someone.
35. Obsequiousness: they suck up to those in positions of authority.
36. Paranoia: they have an irrational fear that something bad will happen or that everyone’s out to get them.
37. Perfectionism: they insist on getting everything just right, to the point where they obsess over things that ultimately don’t matter.
38. Prejudice: they have harmful opinions about other groups of people.
39. Pretentiousness: they put on airs and act like they’re someone they’re not.
40. Pride: they have too much confidence in their own skills and qualities.
41. Rashness: they act before they think, leading to impulsive and often stupid decisions.
42. Remorselessness: they feel no shame when they’ve done something wrong.
43. Self-destructiveness: they act in ways that hurt their own futures.
44. Selfishness: they care more about their own needs and wants than about how their actions affect other people.
45. Shallowness: they focus on surface-level and insignificant things instead of more important matters.
46. Stubbornness: they’re headstrong and cling to their beliefs regardless of what happens around them.
47. Vanity: they’re obsessed with their own physical appearance.
48. Vengefulness: they’re intent on exacting revenge against those who have wronged them.
49. Workaholism: they devote too much time and energy to work, to the point where it damages their relationships, happiness, or mental health.
50. Zealotry: they’re so fanatic about a cause that it interferes with their ability to think logically about the world.
Fatal Flaws Examples
Any of the above flaws can become fatal if it’s left entirely unchecked. Let’s look at some examples of fatal flaws in literature.
Example 1: Macbeth’s Ambition in Macbeth
In Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth starts out with no visible desire to become king. At first, it’s his wife, Lady Macbeth, who prompts him to follow his ambitions and seize more power for them both.
Over the course of the play, however, Macbeth leans hard into his ambition. He even murders his own friends in his quest to become king.
Ultimately, he gets killed by someone who sees how power-hungry Macbeth has become. It’s Macbeth’s ambition that leads to his eventual fall.
Example 2: Victor Frankenstein’s Hubris in Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein believes he’s capable of creating a perfect creature. His hubris causes him to attempt a task that practically elevates him to the level of a god.
Of course, he doesn’t end up succeeding at creating the perfect creature. The monster he brings into existence is lonely, unloved, and full of flaws.
Frankenstein’s hubris ends up leading to his demise, as it’s his own creation who kills him in the end.
Example 3: Daisy Buchanan’s Shallowness in The Great Gatsby
In The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan represents the empty, meaningless, surface-level glamor of the Jazz Age.
Throughout the book, Daisy is unable to break away from all the traditional values she’s been raised to hold by society, such as wealth and prestige. Even though she was in love with Jay Gatsby and promised to wait for him, she chose to marry Tom Buchanan instead because he had old money.
In her defense, she lived in a sexist society that gave her few other options. Unlike the other examples on this list, she was facing tremendous pressure to be the way she was.
Still, at the end of the book, Daisy indirectly causes death and destruction to other characters. She herself is left stuck in her unhappy, hollow life with her husband.
Why Your Characters Should Have a Flawed Personality
If you’re working on a novel or short story, you’ve probably heard the advice that all your characters should have flaws.
That’s because nobody wants to read about perfect characters. It’s hard to empathize with someone who’s so good at everything they do that they don’t feel like a real person.
Flaws make your characters feel more realistic, relatable, and complex. That’s the way humans are in real life, after all.
But that’s not the only reason your characters need flaws. An equally important reason is that your protagonist’s major character flaw should define the direction of their character arc.
Whatever their most important weakness is at the beginning of the story, that’s the internal problem they’ll need to overcome in order to conquer their story goal. Starting out with flaws gives you room for character development (or character downfall if you choose to go in that direction), which will make the characters much more dynamic and compelling by the end of the book.
How to Write Character Weaknesses
Here are our top three tips for writing great character weaknesses.
1. Mirror Weakness with Strength
Weakness and strength are often two sides of the same coin.
For example, a character whose flaw is being a workaholic might actually excel in the workplace. Maybe some of their strengths include their perseverance and hard work.
Similarly, a character whose flaw is the inability to trust others might have the strength of being cautious and smart. They might be less likely to get tricked by other people.
So, when you choose your character’s flaw, make sure to give them strengths to match.
2. Decide Where Their Arc Begins and Ends
In general, there are three types of character arcs: positive change arcs, negative change arcs, and flat arcs. All three relate to your character’s flaw.
In a positive arc, your protagonist will slowly recognize and overcome their flaw throughout the course of their story. For example, a character who starts out as a workaholic might learn the importance of work–life balance by the end of the story.
In a negative arc, your protagonist will sink further into the flaw they started with. The workaholic might end up pushing all their family and friends away and obsessing even more about work than they did at the beginning.
Finally, in a flat arc, your protagonist won’t change significantly throughout the story. The story will be more about how their flaw affects the world around them.
3. Make Your Character Flaw Integral to the Story
Your character’s flaw shouldn’t be chosen at random. It should be a behavior that specifically prevents them from achieving their goals within the story.
For example, if you’re writing a romance, your character’s flaw should actively prevent them from falling in love. Maybe their inability to trust jeopardizes their budding relationship with the love interest, and there’s no way they can reach happily ever after without confronting that flaw.
We’ve all read books where the protagonist is perfect in every way except for being “a little clumsy” or something along those lines. The reason that doesn’t feel satisfying to the reader is because that flaw has nothing to do with the plot. That’s not really a flaw; it’s just a quirk.
To make your flaw hit home, make sure it’s thematically integral to the story you’re telling.
There you have it—our complete guide to character flaws.
Good luck, and happy writing!