Your Character’s Flaw is His Greatest Strength

by Monica M. Clark | 14 comments

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Last weekend I attended the Washington Romance Writers  annual retreat and, in addition to having a fulfilling and inspiring experience, I actually learned a thing or two.  One of my favorite presenters was Romantic Suspense author Robin Perini, who gave incredible talks on a variety topics.  Today, I’m going to share some of what I learned from her about character.

DualityPhoto by OC Always (Creative Commons)

The Character Flaw (or Trait)

Robin described the “character flaw” as the belief, need, or fear that shapes a character.  It is the barrier that keeps him from moving forward.  It determines how he makes decisions, and, for better or for worse, is the essence of who he is.  Examples of character flaws are the “belief that love is conditional” and the “fear of failure.”

Personally, I don’t know if I would call the thing that shapes your protagonist or antagonist a “flaw” per se.  I think it’s more of a trait.  Flaw makes it seem like it’s inherently bad when I think Robin was just trying to say that it dictates the path they take, their approaches to relationships, etc., especially since she also discussed…

Duality of Character

This is the part I found to be most interesting.  According to Robin, a character’s “flaw” is the source of both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

So, if the flaw is “fear of failure,” then the strength is that he is careful, prepared, and a strategist, while the weakness is that he is also relentless.

I like this concept.  I think this is a good way to stay grounded as you decide how your character should react to the inevitable obstacles that will arise.  Perhaps more importantly, it helps you figure out what situations will be most dramatic for your character to face.

Exploiting Your Flaws

Robin called this “exploiting” the character flaw.  In fact, one of the flaw’s primary functions is to foreshadow what the character must face both internally or externally.

For example, if his flaw is the “need for independence” then we know that forcing him to partner up will create scenes with great tension.  If it’s that he “fears the unknown,” then of course he will be entering unchartered territory and the reader will be scared along with him.

How do you exploit character flaws?


Think of a need, belief or fear that shapes your character.  What strengths and weaknesses come from it?  Now write a scene exploiting this character flaw.  Share in the comments below!

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Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).


  1. Coach Brown

    My character is the narrator and key character in my story of redemption for a small town after tragedy leaves wounds unhealed. The character is just retired after a so-so oh hum career as a wanna be writer. His father had been a publisher and editor of a small town newspaper. Now he finds a story to write about when he arrives in this town but it grows wider and deeper than he realized from the start. He wonders why God chose him. Too many lives are now impacted by his findings – far beyond a personal curiosity, the character learns that when God sets you on a mission he brings what you need for the completion. Personal persistence will discover divine providence crossing the path that reveals God’s purpose and in this story redemption for many is discovered.

  2. Hannah

    Thud, thud, thud, the rhythmic sound of a headboard hitting a wall reverberated through his room. He blushed furiously. That was the problem with university rooms and their paper-thin walls. You were never really alone.

    Will stared himself down in the grimy mirror that hung over his sink. God he was ugly. Thin, greasy hair which plastered itself unflatteringly to his forehead, a bulbous nose spreading itself halfway over his face, and really, someone should have let his shoulders know the rest of his body had hit puberty. He gripped the porcelain edges like a life raft in a storm. His eyes filled threateningly. He blinked back tears. Men don’t cry, he told himself. So what was that on his cheek?

    He should have known this was never going to end well. He knew what Phoebe was like, and he knew she would never feel the same way about him, but he just wasn’t strong enough to resist the taste of her drunken kisses. Apparently, nor was whoever was with her now. Was it Luke? It was definitely Luke. Probably.

    He rolled the sleeve of his jumper up over his elbow, exposing the gruesome criss-cross maze of scars that ran across its soft underside. He didn’t remember when the marks had stopped fading. Roughly, he pulled the sleeve back down. Not today. He needed to get better. He paced the room, counting slowly. He needed to take his mind off it. But that was easier said than done, given the circumstances. The metallic glint of his razor caught his eye, tempting him. Who would know anyway? That he’d broken his promise. His promise to himself. He took the plastic handle and weighed it in his hand. It
    felt like it was made of lead. His stomach roiled as he lifted it to his arm. So ashamed of himself, yet he couldn’t stop it.

    A sharp rap on his door brought him crashing back to Earth with a bang, “Will?” a voice from the other side called, “Will, let me in.” He squeezed his eyes shut. He just wanted to be alone.

    “Not now Charlotte,” he called back, “I’m a bit busy”

    “Will. Please.” She begged, “I know what you’re doing. Please let me in.” Sighing, Will turned to the door. He couldn’t leave her out there all night.

    • gianna

      Poor Will. I completely empathized with his feelings here. The loneliness, how he longed to be attractive and strong and happy. But he wasn’t, and he had the scars to show it. You portrayed his heart well. nice work!

    • Hannah

      Thanks gianna 🙂 I’ve been practising writing emotions recently, so it’s nice to hear it’s working!

  3. Chloee

    I sat down on the leather couch the clock ticking by the second the room was cozy yet had a feeling of terror. I stared at the women in front of me. Her long chocolate brown hair was pulled in a tight bun with hazel eyes behind glasses. She smiled at me warmly holding on to her clip borad. I stared at her with a blank look slightly angry.

    “Okay CJ would you like to talk about the death?” I looked at the window at the fall trees of all diffrent colors. “CJ?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “It could help you move on.” “I said no okay?”

    She blinked at me as if she never expected a 12 year old to talk like that. “But Eliza told me this was hard on you. ” “Let’s get something straight first.” I said behind gritting teeth. “I don’t need help I don’t like it when people treat me like charity you may think I have a problem but I don’t I’m fine.” “I don’t think you…”

    “Stop okay?” She stared at me. “What?” “You heard me you may think you have all the answers but you don’t what about you? Do you have problems because I’m sure you do.” I got up pacing the room like a wild animal. “CJ calm down okay?” “Why? For you to fix me? No! Okay no! I don’t want help I’m fine!” I swung opened the door. “Please sit CJ.” “No.” I slam the door furious.

  4. PJ Reece

    Humphrey Bogart, for example, in “Casablanca.” The writer was very clear about his fatal flaw. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” says Bogey near the start of the movie. So now the audience knows that he’s going to eat those words before the story ends. Does he ever! He becomes almost a saint. But the getting there is extremely painful for him… so I guess that’s why it’s a “flaw.” It’s fatal because the old, self-centred, narcissistic Bogey dies absolutely. But this ain’t no tragedy. Was there ever a story with a more satisfying ending? So, yes… good post, Monica.. I’m inventing a character this morning, and the first thing I’ll work on is his belief system, the character trait that must surely die.

  5. Chris

    Part of my first novel


    She looked at her watch- three o’clock. Her watch returned
    her gaze as the numbers screamed inside her head: “Time is nearly up! Watch-
    you’ll be a failure. You’re going to let everybody down!” She tried to transfer
    her gaze to the passing scenery on the train, but she couldn’t remove her stare
    from the watch. The numbers were black and bold now saying 3:10. Finally, her
    hair, as black as the night, fell in front of her hazel eyes.

    turned her stare to the mountains and forests, whizzing by in an apparent rush.
    She had half an hour- or the world she, and everybody, knows will be changed
    beyond belief. Defeat seemed evident to her. What now? Running her finger along
    the jeans, and idea popped into her head. Now 3:20, she called her partner.

    “I have
    an idea,” she said.

  6. Brianna Worlds

    “Why do you hate me?” Nikko asked, his voice soft. He was curled up in the car seat, looking imploringly at her through the reflection of the window he leaned his head upon. Zhia wasn’t shocked; it wasn’t the first time he’d asked the question. Every time was different. The first, he’d been a stranger, a celebrity standing at her door, arrogant as he thanked her for saving his life. The second, he’d been afraid, realizing what exactly they were a part of, and what they’d have to do to get out.
    But never had he been like this, vulnerable, quiet, pensive. There was something childish about it, how hurt he looked. She felt the right answer– the answer she kept tell him– catch in her throat. “We’ve been over this Nikko,” she said instead, leaning forward and deliberately looking away from him as she made a left turn.
    “But you haven’t ever really told me,” Nikko persisted softly. He looked so lonely, so *wanting*, but Zhia couldn’t tell him. She couldn’t. It wasn’t his burden to carry, it was hers. They were her emotions, and it was her fault she felt them, and she had to hide them. She had to hide them to help others, so she couldn’t let them know how she felt. She couldn’t. She couldn’t.
    “I-I don’t…” she tried, feeling sick to her stomach. “I can’t…”
    Nikko looked over at her, shocked at her reaction. It wasn’t often that Zhia couldn’t find words– she was always so stoic and independent. She had felt this need for independence since her parents had died and she had become breadwinner of the house at eighteen, with five younger siblings that looked to her for guidance, care, and support. She had hidden everything that hurt from everyone, and, consequentially, herself.
    “Hey, it’s okay,” Nikko said, sitting up, and reaching gently across the car. He took his hand in hers, and she felt the hesitance in the hold, expecting her to snatch her hand back, as she would have today. “You don’t have to tell me.”
    “You deserve to know,” she whispered, gripping his hand. “You deserve to… But… I can’t.”
    She sounded as if she was nearly strangling herself just be forcing that out. She stopped talking, staring steadfastly at the road, swallowing hard against the tears. She used techniques developed from years of practice; fix your eyes in one place, clear your mind, bite the inside of your lip (no one can tell when you bite the inside). She would not cry. She would not cry. She would not show emotion.
    “It’s okay,” Nikko said, and Zhia nodded, even though it wasn’t for so many reasons. Nothing about her life was okay, and likely never would be again. But she didn’t need to make it his responsibility to get through it.

    • gianna

      This is lovely. I’d love to know the context, because obviously your characters are very emotional here.

    • Brianna Worlds

      Thank you! 🙂 I’m glad it’s interesting. Yes, Zhia’s finally starting to open up, although she’s making it hard on herself. Although she’s not quite as immature as Nikko, she is rather silly in her own way…

  7. C.T.H.

    He sat there looking at his phone light up. It was a dull response. He was unable to respond. He had no emotion left. Thinking back on it, maybe he was just tired of faking it. His emotion had been drained years ago. He now lives on borrowed feelings. Feelings he’s only imitating, stolen from television shows and cheesy movies. Her fully nude body doesn’t even draw a response. Where is he supposed to go from here. He cant even fake a romance in this silly game. A month ago this girl was his sole desire to continue the day. He worked hard and with a smile, showed her off to his co-workers- she was even fully clothed in those pictures. He was happy to even entertain the thought that this girl was interested in him. He must have looked at the picture his brother sent him a hundred times. Now he fails to respond to a text message and 3 sleazy pictures of a young beautiful-and surprisingly tan- girl throwing herself at him. He leans back in his chair. “you didn’t fall asleep on me did you?” There is his escape. He is free for tonight. He takes another drink of whiskey.

    • gianna

      “‘You didn’t fall asleep on me, did you?’ That is his escape.” Love that quote. I can relate, not so much with sending “sleazy” pictures, but with that general feeling towards people and responsibilities. interesting how it can all change in only a few weeks’ time. anyways, nice work!

  8. gianna

    I have heard about this, thought about this, seen it happen with my own eyes. But when my own sister admitted she had drank, hooked up with boys she didn’t know, smoked pot, it all became real. Kelsey has done it. Victoria has done it. In fact, the only person who hasn’t done it is me.

    That first team sleepover really distanced me from the group, ironically. As the only freshman, I had struggled to overcome the barrier between me and the elite, the senior girls on my team. The experience that night was supposed to make us closer. But I only realized how far from them I really was.

    But that could change. That could change now. Savannah has cups out, cans on the counter. I have never taken a sip. But that could all change.

    For the first time in my life, I don’t worry about consequences. Who will care? My parents? They won’t know, and what would they do if they did? I haven’t even seen my father since my first game. The girls around me have never been caught. They are smart—we are smart. I want to do this. I want to.

    I will not be seen as the meek freshman girl who has never been kissed, never seen a naked body before. I smell the beer from my perch on the counter. The scent is strong. So am I. I have already come so far this year in who I am. All this experience can do is strengthen me. Savannah’s passing cups around, and when she gets to me, she hesitates. But I smile and nod. She hands me one, and I inhale. I have heard the bad and the good about this, and I am ready to see for myself.

    Lindsay smiles from across the room, as though asking, “Ready?” I remember what I told Nick at the end of tryouts. He had asked if I was ready to be at this new level, the varsity team. What had I said? “Of course. I’m ready for anything.”

    And I am. I am smart and strong and ready to take on the world. So I do it. I drink.

    • C.T.H.

      I really like this. I’ve never really replied to anyone else’s writing before but this has called for it. This character is adorable, I like it.


  1. My First Writer Retreat Was a Blast! And Marlene Winners Were Revealed… | illegalwriting - […] a hilarious speech). Robin Perini had some incredibly helpful tips on organizing your novel and developing strong characters and…

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