The Flawed Character Trope: How to Use Them In Your Story

Nisha Tuli
April 21, 2023
April 20, 2023

Tropes are one of the most important ingredients in storytelling. There are tropes like “enemies to lovers” or “the chosen one” that you’ll see in all forms of media from TV to movies to books. They’re comforting plot lines that readers relate and respond to because they understand what they mean. 

Characters can have tropes too—often referred to as archetypes—and these are the kinds of characters you’ll see over and over again in your favorite pieces of fiction. These include things like the wizened sage who offers up advice to the hero or the rebellious anarchist whose only goal is to bring down the establishment (often known as The Man.)

But don’t be confused into thinking there’s anything cookie cutter or derivative about tropes. 

The key to tropes is using them while making them your own with your own unique brand of voice, character, and setting. 

Tropes can also be seen in the form of character flaws and the types of flawed archetypes we’ll explore in this article. These flawed characters can be a great addition to your story, giving them depth and a twist on the expected. 

The Antihero

The antihero is a popular trope that depicts a character who is morally ambiguous and uses questionable methods to achieve their goals. They can be violent, selfish, and often have a dark past that motivates their actions. 

Antiheroes are more complex than traditional heroes. They often have a more nuanced view of the world, and their actions can be seen as morally gray. This makes them more relatable to readers who may have their own doubts about traditional heroic ideals. (And who doesn’t love a morally gray love interest?) 

Some things to consider when using this trope is to ensure you don’t let them become evil one-dimensional caricatures. Ensure they have all the same goals, motivations, and desires as all of your characters. 

The Jerk with a Heart of Gold

This type of character is often abrasive, rude, and difficult to like, but deep down they have a good heart and care about the people around them.

This trope allows you to create a dynamic character who is both flawed and sympathetic. The jerk with a heart of gold can be a challenge to write, as they need to be unlikable enough to create conflict, but likable enough to keep the reader invested in their story (and eventually redeem themselves).

As this type of character learns to open up and trust those around them, they become more likable and relatable. This can be a powerful tool to create a meaningful character arc that is both satisfying and engaging.

The Evil Genius

The evil genius is a popular character trope often used as an antagonist to create conflict and tension. This character is highly intelligent and skilled in their area of expertise, but their intelligence is often used for nefarious purposes. (Or pretty much always.)

This trope is so effective because of the tension it creates. The evil genius is a formidable opponent, and their intelligence and skill can make them nearly impossible for the protagonist to overcome. Their intelligence can also make them an unpredictable and manipulative character. (By also, I mean pretty much always.)

With this character type, you get an opportunity to explore ethical dilemmas and gray morality. The evil genius may have a compelling motive for their actions, or they may believe their actions are justified in pursuit of a greater goal. This can create complex and thought-provoking conflicts for your protagonist and other characters in your story.

The Bully

The bully creates conflict and tension by being aggressive, intimidating, and using their physical or social power to manipulate and control others. One of the benefits of this trope is that it can create an immediate sense of urgency for the protagonist. By pitting the protagonist against a bully, you create an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome to achieve their goals.

When using this trope, don’t forget to give your bully their own unique backstory and motivations, as well. For example, the bully may be acting out due to abuse or neglect in their own life, which can create empathy for the bully while still holding them accountable for their actions.

The Overly Humble Character

This character is often shy or hesitant to share their accomplishments or skills and may downplay their own abilities even when praised by others. One of the benefits of this trope is that it can make the character more likable and relatable to the reader. A lot of us can relate to feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious about our abilities, and seeing a character struggle with the same thing can create a sense of empathy and connection.

It can be a challenge to create conflict around a character’s humility, but if done right, can be the source of an interesting story. For example, the character may struggle with imposter syndrome, feeling like they don't belong or aren't good enough to be in their current situation, and they’ll need to overcome that in a significant way to complete their character arc. 

The Hardest Worker

The hardest worker is a character trope often used to showcase dedication, perseverance, and ambition. This character is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, usually putting in long hours and sacrificing personal relationships and leisure time to succeed.

This trope can inspire your reader and create admiration for the character's work ethic and determination. By showcasing the character's hard work and dedication, you can create a role model that might encourage your readers to pursue their own goals with a similar passion and determination.

When using this trope, don’t forget to show the pitfalls of working too much, along with making them face challenges and setbacks despite their hard work. By highlighting the character's struggles and failures, you create a more realistic and relatable portrayal  that reminds us success often requires more than just hard work.

How to Use Tropes

As we already said, tropes aren’t clichés, nor are they lazy writing. They’re recurring themes or motifs in media that help to create familiarity and recognition among readers. When used effectively, tropes add depth and nuance to a story, and even subvert reader expectations in surprising ways. 

But it’s also important to understand how to use tropes. So here are some tips: 

  • Understand the purpose of the trope: Before including a trope in your story, make sure you understand its purpose and how it can enhance your narrative. Ask yourself why you want to use this trope and how it can contribute to your overall story.
  • Put your own spin on it: Tropes can become cliché if they’re used in the same way over and over again. To avoid this, try putting your own unique twist on the trope, subverting reader expectations and adding layers of complexity to your story.
  • Avoid relying too heavily on tropes: While tropes are a useful tool, relying too heavily on them can lead to a predictable and uninspired story. Make sure to balance the use of tropes with other narrative elements, such as character development, plot twists, and world-building.
  • Be aware of reader expectations: Certain tropes are more popular or well-known than others, and readers may have preconceived expectations based on their previous exposure to these tropes. Be aware of these expectations and use them to your advantage, either by meeting them in a satisfying way or subverting them for a surprising twist.
  • Use tropes intentionally: Tropes should be used intentionally, not just for the sake of using them. Make sure each trope serves a specific purpose in your story and contributes to the overall narrative in a meaningful way.

Now you’re ready to create your own story with some tropey goodness. If you found this article helpful, then be sure to sign up for the Dabble newsletter where we’ll deliver more tips and tricks for writing your best novel straight to your inbox every week. 

Nisha Tuli

Nisha J Tuli is a YA and adult fantasy and romance author who specializes in glitter-strewn settings and angst-filled kissing scenes. Give her a feisty heroine, a windswept castle, and a dash of true love and she’ll be lost in the pages forever. When Nisha isn’t writing, it’s probably because one of her two kids needs something (but she loves them anyway). After they’re finally asleep, she can be found curled up with her Kobo or knitting sweaters and scarves, perfect for surviving a Canadian winter.