Writing a Likeable Flawed Protagonist (And Why You Have To)

Abi Wurdeman
November 2, 2023
Writing a Likeable Flawed Protagonist (And Why You Have To)

“I just didn’t find the protagonist very likeable.” 

I get a little salty when I hear a critique like this, even when it’s not aimed towards something I’ve written. Characters are human beings—or at least humanesque beings. The whole point of a story is to see them grapple with their imperfections.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like them. It’s not their job to make you happy. Their only responsibility is to find the version of themselves that brings them some kind of peace in this cruel world…

…is what goes through my head before I remind myself that our characters aren’t technically real and it actually is important that our readers like them or at least get attached to them.

The tricky thing is, it’s equally important that our protagonists come with flawed perspectives, devastating missteps, and room for growth (or deliberate non-growth, but we’ll get to that). This means we have to figure out how to develop characters that are simultaneously delightful and wildly flawed.

You’ve come to the right place. As we forge ahead into the murky waters of lovable imperfection, you’ll learn:

  • How to craft a character readers actually care about
  • How to dream up relatable flaws
  • What it takes to find the balance between these two sides of your character
  • How to create a compelling arc for flawed characters

Now for our first stop…

The Likeability Factor

A young girl hugs her grandmother.

First, let’s get one pesky little fact out of the way.

Likeability is subjective. I can’t tell you how to write a character everyone will love. No one can. One reader’s delightfully precocious child protagonist is another reader’s living nightmare.

So don’t worry about creating a universally adored hero(ine). Instead, focus on writing a character who will steal the heart of your target audience. 

Why Does the Protagonist Have to Be likeable?

To keep readers engaged. It’s really that simple. 

Let me clarify what we actually mean when we say “likeable.” That term sounds like a judgment on the quality of a character’s personality. But all we’re really talking about is whether the reader feels connected to your character… enough to follow them for the journey and root for them to succeed.

Writing a Main Character Readers Root For

A cheerleader waves pom-poms.

It’s important for your main character to be really good at something, even if they have to spend the whole story figuring out what that thing is.

They should also demonstrate some virtues. Maybe they’re considerate or dutiful or patient. 

And without question, they’ve got to be interesting. Between their quirks, passions, and voice, this character should spark your readers’ curiosity and draw them in.

But the most important element in this likeability formula is emotional connection. You don’t have to write an emotionally expressive character, you just have to give the reader a glimpse of their inner life.

Let your readers witness the moment when your character realizes they’re the only one not invited to a party again. Show the relief they feel when they come home to familiar faces and a hot meal after six months in Antarctica. Let them panic when they come dangerously close to love and then hate themselves when they push that love away.

Invite your readers to witness the vulnerabilities that motivate your character’s decisions. Even if they don’t agree with those decisions, they’ll understand the fear or longing behind every bad choice. That’s what makes flawed characters lovable and relatable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.   

Examples of Protagonists Who Are Easy to Love

Want an example of a character who embodies these ideas? Here, have three:

T’Challa, Black Panther - He’s insightful, kind, rules with integrity, and even opens his heart to the villain’s perspective. He’s also suffered tremendous loss and carries an unreasonable amount of responsibility.

Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games - She’s not exactly cuddly, but she can’t afford to be. She’s strong, resourceful, and would literally die for her family.

Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit - He’s earnest, friendly, and has a relatable penchant for eating and being comfortable. As the story progresses, he grows courageous and becomes an unlikely hero. Also, his name is Bilbo Baggins.

Embracing Character Flaws in Your Protagonist

The phrase "Love your flaws" written in the sand.

The funny thing is, character flaws are actually a crucial element of likability. That’s why protagonists who are always kind and correct and pretty are super dull. Flawed characters are relatable, dynamic, and cause conflict. 

Now, there are three basic types of flaws:

  • Minor flaw - This is a little quirk that adds personality but doesn’t create conflict. Maybe your character is disorganized or talks too loud.
  • Major flaw - A major character flaw definitely contributes to the conflict. It’s probably something your character has to overcome or a fault that ends up saving the day during the big climax.
  • Fatal flaw - This one is bad. It’s going to destroy your character and everyone around them. Your character must have minor and major flaws, but a fatal flaw is only necessary if the story ends in tragedy.

A minor flaw can simply be part of your character’s personality. A major flaw, however, requires some justification. Usually, justification comes in the form of a traumatic backstory. What harrowing past experience has made them so guarded or manipulative or needy?

Backstory goes a long way toward making sure your character’s major flaw doesn’t interfere with their likability.   

Why Writing a Flawed Character is Essential

A stressed writer holds their hands in their hair while looking at their computer screen.

In case you’re not convinced yet, here are a whole bunch of other reasons to give your character some flaws.

Character flaws make it easier for readers to relate to the characters - After all, pobody’s nerfect. Even if your readers don’t have the same shortcomings, they will likely relate to the fear or insecurity that inspired your character’s flaws.

Character flaws create conflict - Every good story has juicy conflict. And conflict is only juicy when the main character is an active participant who makes decisions and mistakes. 

Your characters can’t grow if they’re perfect from the beginning - We read to watch characters evolve or refuse to evolve. We do not read to watch characters get it right from page one.

Character flaws can be part of your protagonist’s charm - If you need an example of a charming flaw, read on…

Examples of Characters With Relatable Flaws

Jo March, Little Women - Jo has a quick temper, reacts without thinking, and gets a little judgy about her sisters’ life choices. Almost anyone who’s ever been young can relate to at least one of these personality traits.

Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables - This is my favorite example of a character whose flaws are key to her charm. Anne is an excessively dreamy motormouth with a hot temper (girl characters who express their anger tend to be a hit with female readers of all ages). All these character flaws reflect a desire to revel in the beauty of life, connect with others, and be valued.

Walter White, Breaking Bad - Okay, but hear me out. Walt’s biggest character flaw is his ego, which initially manifests in an everyday kind of way. He feels shame as an underachiever, especially when he gets a diagnosis that will bankrupt his family. This is a relatable hang-up, which is why everything that happens next is so unsettling.

Balancing Act: Likeability vs. Flaws

Stacks of carefully balanced rocks sit on a beach.

So how do you create a perfect balance so your character’s flaws are compelling but don’t cancel out their likeability? Here are a few pointers:

Make sure their character flaws serve a function - It could be highlighting a theme, ramping up conflict, or creating room for growth. 

Show us the good things in their heart - Who do they love? What do they value? Is there any context where they’d put someone else before themselves?

Explore both positive and negative manifestations of a character flaw - What if your character’s attentive nature stems from an insecurity that also makes them needy? Or their exhausting spontaneity makes them good at improvising in a crisis?

Let them take full responsibility - Redeeming a character involves more than just having them make a better decision while their empathetic friends forgive them for all the bad ones. Allow your likeably flawed character to own up to their mistakes.

Humor helps - A flaw can be funny. Just know that the hilarity of character flaws is fairly subjective. 

Examples of Perfect Balance

Every character I’ve mentioned in this article is a great example of the likeability/flaws balance. But in the interest of being thorough, here are three more characters to study:

Eleanor Shellstrop, The Good Place - She’s absurdly self-absorbed and can be downright mean. But her dilemma of being mistaken for a better person than she is speaks to the imposter syndrome in all of us. Plus, we see her choose growth and selflessness even as we learn why that kind of vulnerability terrifies her.

Goh Peik Lin, Crazy Rich Asians - She’s got zero filter and her energy can be kind of a lot. Of course, these character flaws are what make her such a funny and beloved character. That and her loyalty to Rachel.

Amelia Bedelia, Amelia Bedelia - She’s a housekeeper who takes everything literally, which makes her terrible at following directions. It’s an endearing character flaw designed for conflict and comedy. 

Writing a Compelling Character Arc 

A person wearing a backpack walks down an empty road.

We can’t discuss writing likeable-but-flawed characters without addressing the matter of character arcs. The type of arc you choose for your story should factor into the way you create your character’s flaws. 

Let me explain what I mean.

What is a Character Arc?

Your character’s arc is their journey of transformation over the course of the story.

In a positive arc, the character acknowledges their major flaw and changes for the better.

In a negative arc, they allow their major (or fatal) flaw to drive them to even worse behavior. Remember how Walter White’s insecurity and ego issues go from relatable to appalling? That’s a negative arc.

Then there’s a flat arc, where your character decides to just stick with their old familiar flaws. You see this a lot in thrillers and detective series

So what’s the likeability strategy for each of these arcs?

In a positive arc, your flawed character is likeable because 1) you explain their flaw with backstory and 2) they recognize their shortcomings and become a better person.

In a negative arc, put all the likeability upfront: vulnerabilities, loving relationships, and good intentions. Then let their fatal flaw motivate a poor decision your readers kind of understand. After that, the character gets deeper into this rotten behavior until your readers feel weird about getting attached to this horrible person.

And in a flat arc, the major character flaw is usually something that’s either entertaining or hurts the protagonist more than anyone else. Think of those gritty detectives who live in solitude because their relentless cynicism makes them afraid of caring about anybody. 

How to Craft an Engaging Arc

A writer writes in a notebook at a table filled with potted plants.

Fun Dabble fact: we actually have a template to help you craft a great arc for your main character. So I’ll just give you the short version here.

When you create an arc, you need these ingredients:

  • A backstory that explains your character’s shortcomings
  • A flawed perspective inspired by that backstory (this is known as the Lie)
  • A goal your character is desperate to achieve
  • Motivation (probably stemming from the backstory) that clarifies why that goal is so important to your character
  • Something standing between your character and their goal that either challenges them to overcome their flaws and release the Lie (positive arc) or tempts them to lean into their flaws (negative arc). In a flat arc, the obstacle might poke at your character’s flaws, but they’ll be able to eventually reach their goal without changing.

See how beautifully it all ties together? Writing a likeable, flawed character really comes down to telling a good story about a complex human being

In fact, finding the story is how you find the balance.

Keep It Together With Dabble

The more layers you give your character, the trickier it becomes to keep track of it all. 

Unless you plan your story will Dabble.

See, Dabble has handy tools for creating character profiles. You can upload images, customize property lists, and even sort your characters into casts.

Then there’s the Plot Grid where you can organize your character’s arc alongside scenes to make sure they’re steadily evolving over the course of your story.

A screenshot of the Dabble Plot Grid showing columns for scenes, storylines, locations, inciting action, and society.
Dabble's famous Plot Grid

Your Plot Grid and Character Notes are always one click away from your manuscript so you can access them easily while you’re writing.

Want to try Dabble for yourself? Snag a free 14-day trial by clicking this link. You don’t even need a credit card to get started. How’s that for likeable?

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.