Killing Your Characters with Their Fatal Flaw
Perfect characters are boring. Every character needs a flaw or twelve, not just because it’s more realistic, but because they help deepen your story. Character flaws make your characters more interesting and give you leverage to create conflict, plot, goals, and motivations.
If your characters are perfect and have nothing to strive for or nothing they wish to attain, then your story is going to feel a little (or very) flat.
Flaws can include a wide range of traits, from something as simple as talking too loudly to as complex and serious as being wildly arrogant. There are degrees of flaws where some will have little to no impact on your story and some will have a significant impact.
Today, we’re here to talk about the ones that will have a significant impact. And that’s the fatal flaw—the one that proves your character’s undoing. Of course, because this flaw will be so tied to your story and the arc you create, you want it to be a good one. One that is strong enough to truly try your character and lead to their downfall.
With that in mind, in this article we’ll go over:
- A review of the types of flaws
- What makes for an impactful flaw
- A list of ideas for fatal flaws
Types of Flaws
To start, let’s cover the types of flaws you can give to your characters.
Minor flaw: These traits are ones that distinguish your characters from the others. Maybe it’s something related to the way they’re always interrupting people or the way they tend to get really sarcastic when they’re nervous.
They’re simply the slightly imperfect traits we all have. They won’t ultimately affect the story or the direction it goes, but they can affect the ways your characters speak, think, and act. It might also affect how they react to certain events.
Major flaw: This sort of trait has a bigger impact on your character and the story. Major flaws are something that is standing the way of what your character wants. Maybe it's their inability to trust anyone due to abandonment issues or maybe it’s their own lack of self-awareness of others' feelings that leaves them alienated and alone.
Sometimes a major flaw can be a disability or an illness which, of course, aren’t actually flaws, but they do affect how your character moves throughout the world. In the case of this type of “non-flaw flaw”, the story can be about overcoming them, but they can also simply be about them living with these traits.
Fatal flaw: And of course, we come to the fatal flaw. As the name suggests, this isn’t a thing to be trifled with. This trait will ultimately lead to your character’s undoing and, as the name suggests, death. This is the upstanding character who gives into the dark side to the detriment of their soul.
Or it’s the villain who becomes so wrapped up in themselves that, ultimately, they succumb to their own madness. This process is sometimes referred to as hamartia and we often associate it with tragedies. Of course, this kind of flaw not only influences the story but sometimes is the story.
You can read more about giving your characters minor and major flaws in this article.
What Makes for an Impactful Fatal Flaw?
First thing’s first: there are certain flaws that can fall into any of the categories above. Maybe a character has poor hygiene—while this might be a little gross and inconvenient, it’s unlikely to bring about their ultimate demise. (I mean, I guess unless they contracted a deadly illness as a result, but you’ll see in a moment why that wouldn’t make for the best story.)
Consider something else, like laziness, that could simply become a nuisance in someone’s life. It could also lead to dire consequences. Could it lead to someone’s death? Maybe, but this might be one that fits more neatly under a minor or major flaw.
What about vanity? Sure, it could be a fun little quirk for one character, but could it also lead to someone’s final moments? I don’t know—let’s ask Narcissus.
The point is that sometimes the severity of a flaw depends on which character’s hands it’s in. What’s a minor inconvenience in one story is the ruin of a character in another story. It’s all about how you create it.
So what elements do you need for a really good fatal flaw?
- Make it integral: For a fatal flaw to become fatal, it needs to be an integral part of your character. It needs to define their actions and their motivations.
- Make it hard to overcome: If the flaw you’ve given your character is too easy to overcome, then it can’t be fatal. If your character’s bigoted beliefs are easily dispelled with a single compelling argument, then it would lead to their downfall.
- Layer flaws: Usually a “bad guy” doesn’t just have one massive flaw. Usually, they’ve got a few layers on top of each other, making them not only really, really bad, but impossible to overcome. Someone’s arrogance might lead to their prejudice, which then might lead to brutality and, ultimately, their death. People are more than just one thing, especially when it comes to our more negative traits.
- Give them a way back: As your character spirals into decline, give them a chance to redeem themselves. Give them a moment where they could turn it all around if they could just make the right decision. And of course, make them choose the course that leads to their ruin instead.
- Make them blind to themselves: Usually people who exhibit insurmountable flaws do so because they either believe themselves to be flawless or they think everyone around them is even more flawed. A lack of self-awareness and the havoc they’re wreaking means a flaw that might be just a setback for one character actually leads to the death of the character who is too blinded by themselves to see anything else.
List of Fatal Flaws
While this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list of possible fatal flaws, here are some ideas to get you started. Remember to layer them together and give some thought as to how you’ll make this flaw fatal rather than just major for your character.
- Abusive – being habitually cruel or violent, using physical or psychological maltreatment of others—human, animal or otherwise.
- Addiction – being addicted to a compulsive activity like drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex.
- Arrogant – having an overbearing sense of self-worth or importance to the detriment of yourself. Believing you are superior to others and deserve more than those you deem inferior.
- Bigoted – hold prejudices about certain groups of people due to race, religion, political alliance, gender, sexuality, etc.
- Cruel – causing pain and suffering upon others, perhaps without any sense of remorse for doing so. Has little care or regard for the feelings of others.
- Disloyal – an unfaithful person who lacks loyalty to those around them or someone they’ve pledged allegiance with. Is traitorous and treasonous.
- Egotistical – similar to arrogant in that they see themselves as having higher worth than those around them.
- Fanatical – a political or religious zealot who is deluded to the point of becoming dangerous to themselves, society, and those around them.
- Intolerant – has little regard for others' beliefs or ways of living. Refuses to acknowledge other viewpoints, is narrow-minded, and doesn’t accept others, sometimes to the point of becoming violent.
- Machiavellian – believes that their ends justify their means and will do whatever it takes to get what they want.
- Manipulative – works to control how others think and act to suit their own ends. Will lie and coerce to get people to do what they want.
- Megalomaniacal – a psychopathological condition characterized by delusions of grandeur and making someone believe in far-flung fantasies about their own power or omnipotence.
- Murderous – the desire to kill or be homicidal.
- Neglectful – leaving someone helpless on their own or failing to care or tend to someone in need, like a small child or animal.
- Obsessive – an unhealthy preoccupation with a subject to the point of being unable to function normally.
- Oppressive – holding authority over a group of people to the point of cruelty or brutality, often due to differing ideological beliefs and prejudices.
- Paranoid – has a delusion that someone is out to get them or that something bad will happen to them to the point of being unable to live their lives in a meaningful way.
- Rebellious – defying order and establishment, such as a government or religious order. Practices insubordination to a level that might lead to the end of their life.
- Remorseless – the lack of empathy, shame, regret, or sympathy after doing something cruel or wrong. Feeling no guilt for harming others and being without mercy.
- Sadistic – finding pleasure and satisfaction in the torture and pain of others.
- Self-destructive – behaving in a way that harms one’s own health and mental stability, often leading to their downfall. Engages in harmful practices that prevent them from being happy.
- Self-martyrdom – purposely makes a spectacle of their suffering to arouse sympathy and potentially manipulate others to their own causes or ends. Always done for selfish or self-serving reasons, even if they justify it differently.
- Spiteful – bears ill will and the desire to hurt when motivated by spite. They’re vindictive and will look for offense everywhere they turn to bolster their feelings of being scorned.
- Treacherous – seeking personal gain through disloyalty to those around them. Two-faced liars who stab others in the back to get what they want.
- Violent – harm others easily, readily and usually without any sense of remorse.
Well, if you aren’t feeling a little bit bad after reading all of those, then maybe you have your own fatal flaws to worry about. That’s okay. Use it. Channel that energy into your story to make your characters and villains dastardly and complex!
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