Great, character-driven stories often have deeply flawed characters at their heart. Human flaws such as lust for power, greed and jealousy explain the errors many tragic figures from books make, from Mr Kurtz to Lord Voldemort. Read this character flaw list (with examples) for inspiration and develop interesting character weaknesses:
1. Lust for power
Power-hungry tyrants and villains fill the pages of literature. Desire for power – the desire for influence and control – isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. A political figure, wizard or police commander may start out wanting power to fix issues greater than themselves.
Yet lust for power as a character flaw often reveals that no power is ever enough for the corrupt character. They sink to ever lower standards of ethics and integrity to attain and/or keep it.
Using lust for power as a character flaw
Lust for power in stories often has an interesting underlying backstory of being disempowered. For example, both Sauron and Darth Vader, antagonists in The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars franchise, have lost some power before the stories begin. Sauron loses physical power literally, losing his physical form.
When writing characters who seek power to excessive or malevolent ends, ask yourself why. What drives this hunger? Underlying character motives may include:
- Destructive idealism/ideology: For example, a character believes that if they can wipe out X (population group, practice), it will be for their (or everyone else’s) benefit
- Prior loss of power: The character has lost power, be it physical strength, a position of authority or something else. Thus they seek to restore the perks they enjoyed by any means possible
- Greed: Power bestows the character with perks (e.g. Wealth, influence, authority) they enjoy, even if their enjoyment is selfish or causes others pain (such as a tyrant who allows torture)
Drawbacks of this character flaw
The drawbacks of lust for power include:
- Inauthentic relationships: There are many occasions throughout history where political leaders who’ve surrounded themselves with military commanders and others attracted to power have been deposed by the same people. Building relationships through bribery and ‘tit for tat’ means that your henchmen can be bought out by greater offers or temptations
- Addiction: Power-drunk figures often become addicted to the trappings of power. Addiction means the power-hungry figure restlessly seeks greater ‘highs’
- Inviting resentment: When characters seek power at all costs, they tend to step on a lot of toes on the way up. The people powerful characters tread on on their way to the top may band together to bring them down, too
The drawbacks above show how power as a character flaw can negatively impact your character. A villain might demand shows of loyalty all the time, for example, because on a subconscious level they know their underlings’ loyalty only runs as deep as their next paycheck. Their worst fears are confirmed when there’s an uprising because the henchmen want more.
Examples of lust for power as a character flaw
Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness has been chastised by African authors such as Chinua Achebe as problematic for the way it reproduces racist ideas about the African continent. Yet the book still reveals the corrupting effects of power. For example, take Conrad’s depiction of the ivory trader ‘Mr Kurtz’. The reader
only encounters Mr Kurtz in the final parts of the story, his ruthless reputation preceding him. We see, in grisly final scenes showing the violence he has committed on locals, how much unbridled power has stripped him of his own humanity. The damaging effects of his quest for power are seen in the immortal words he whispers on his deathbed:
‘The horror! The horror!’
Conrad shows the way Kurtz’s power addiction unsettles and disturbs his narrator Marlowe, who returns to Europe disillusioned with the idea of Europe as a beacon of ‘civilization’ in ‘darkest’ Africa.
This example shows that power, if pursued to an extent that causes suffering to others, ultimately scars the one who wields it, too. The same idea can be seen in, for example, how Lord Voldemort’s attempt to kill others rebounds on himself, nearly destroying him, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Jealousy is one of the most common flaws in this character flaw list, particularly those with romantic elements. In Shakespeare’s Othello, a classic example, the cruel manipulator Iago goads Othello to a murderous fever of jealousy by lying that Othello’s wife has been unfaithful.
Jealousy as a character flaw is useful for creating friction in relationships. A character who behaves distrustfully (for example, checking another’s whereabouts constantly) creates unease as the other tries to retain their independence and freedom.
Using jealousy as a character flaw
Understanding how to create a jealous character means understanding the underlying fears and anxieties in jealous behaviour. Jealousy is a fear-based emotion that typically leads to destructive assumptions and breakdown in trust.
Underlying reasons explaining why your character is jealous may include:
- Trauma or emotional baggage: For example, if a character has been cheated on by a former lover, this explains groundless suspicion they may show future partners
- Desire for control: Jealousy and need for control often go hand in hand. Some may argue a degree of jealousy is natural in relationships, as many people fear losing a loved person or object. Yet when a character responds to this fear by trying to control another’s every move, this is where conflict and tension often increase.
How can you create a jealous character? Show jealous behaviour such as:
- Coveting the loved person or object: How do they react when others get too close for comfort? What arbitrary-seeming ‘rules’ do they try to impose to make themselves feel better?
- Controlling behaviours: For example, punishing another character with silent treatment if they spend time with others
You can also brainstorm details about your characters and their flaws in the dashboard on Now Novel.
Examples of jealousy as a character flaw
In Leo Tolstoy’s classic epic novel, Anna Karenina, the noblewoman of the title has an affair with a cavalry officer, Count Vronsky. At the novel’s opening, in Part 1, we see Anna attempt to convince her sister-in-law to take back Anna’s brother who has been unfaithful. This foreshadows developments in Anna’s own arc.
After Anna and Count Vronksy meet at a railway station, they develop their own illicit affair. At first their romance is passionate but by Part 6 of the novel Anna has become jealous and suspicious of Vronsky’s every excursion.
Tolstoy shows his characters’ flaws and their hypocrisies. Characters who have given former lover’s cause for jealousy become suspicious of each other in turn. This is believable character psychology, as a character who has cheated on a former lover knows first-hand that a person may be dishonest.
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Greed is another common flaw in the character flaw list. From Charles Dickens’ miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol to Roald Dahl’s greedy, spoiled brat Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are many characters who always want more.
Greed as a character flaw is useful as it’s a powerful driving force for decisive action. Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, builds up wealth and an entire mythology around his background to hide his rough beginnings.
Greed is restless. We see it in the rich, spoiled Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The wealthy girl whose parents give in to every whim tires and bores quickly of what she can have. She hasn’t had to learn the relationship between work and satisfaction – the idea of ‘earning’ things. For the character with ‘greed’ as a primary flaw, getting rather than having gives them pleasure.
Using greed as a character flaw
Greed, as a character flaw, has many possible underlying causes:
- Extrinsic self-worth: Characters who feel they need to acquire wealth or status to ‘be someone’ may believe one’s worth or joy is a matter of what you have or can get, rather than who you are
- Fear or shame: A character might amass far more wealth than they need, even by illicit means (like Gatsby) because they’re striving to bury humbler, poorer beginnings
- Lust, ‘greener pastures’: Often, we want what we can’t have (or more of what we do have) because it’s tantalizing, just out of reach rather than easily attainable
When creating a character who hoards money like Ebenezer Scrooge or acts like a Casanova, bedding everyone they can, ask:
- What history or personal belief, could be driving this ‘I want more’ behaviour?
- What are possible obstacles a character with this flaw might need to overcome?
For example, a greedy character might have to shift from extrinsic worth to finding their own worth independently of wealth when they lose all their money in a financial disaster. The ‘Riches to Rags’ story type often involves a greedy character having to find new values.
Examples of greed as a character flaw
Veruca Salt in Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, throws tantrums whenever she doesn’t get what she want. Her song ‘I want it now!’ from the first film adaptation is an excellent illustration of greedy characters and their obsessive pursuit of ‘more’. Pursuing a golden egg she spies in the factory, Veruca meets a bad end when she falls down a garbage chute.
Vanity is another character flaw we encounter often in fiction and film. Characters who are obsessive about their looks or boastful about their achievements abound. The classic example is Snow White’s stepmother in the fairy tale, who asks her magical mirror:
‘Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who’s the fairest of them all?’
Vain characters ‘sweat the small stuff’. Their flaw means they devote an inordinate amount of time (like the stepmother) to seeking external validation, to maintaining their egos.
Using vanity as a character flaw
When writing vain characters, think about possible causes of this flaw:
- Feelings of inadequacy: A character who feels inadequate may seek external validation for reassurance, for a sense of security in their value or worth
- Excessive external validation: When people receive constant praise for certain attributes or skills, they may become ‘big-headed’ because positive feedback builds self-esteem. It’s the classic case of the narcissistic ‘big name’ actor or actress.
When creating a character like Snow White’s stepmother, ask:
- Why is this character so invested in their looks or other attributes? And what person or situation – real or imagined – threatens to destroy this delicate self-image?
- How could this character’s flaw create obstacles in their development, or lead them to make the choices they make?
The first bullet point above strikes at something important about vanity as a personality flaw. It is closely allied, often, to the duo of security/insecurity. We often push forward or take pride in our stronger attributes, for example, to mask our insecurities about our weaker, less developed ones.
Examples of vanity as a character flaw
Vanity, like many other character flaws in this list, is everywhere in stories. In Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Villette, for example, the character Ginevra Fanshawe is a beautiful but vain 18-year-old who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the less pompous protagonist, Lucy.
Ginevra tells Lucy:
‘I have had a continental education, and though I can’t spell, I have abundant accomplishments. I am pretty, you can’t deny that, I may have as many admirers as I choose.’
After a pause, and examining their reflections in a mirror, she tells Lucy:
‘I would not be you for a kingdom.’
Although Ginevra’s vanity makes her unlikable, it also adds an element of vivid character and sparkle. Her high self-regard means she says whatever she thinks. For example, she refers to her more cynical friend Lucy as ‘old lady’ and ‘dear crosspatch’.
Everyone knows a ‘worry pot’ like Piglet from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh children’s books. In the list of character flaws, anxiety is one of the more relatable.
Unlike character flaws such as cruelty and lust for power, anxiety is a flaw that often is directed inward thus anxious characters are more often protagonists and ‘helper’ types than antagonists.
Using anxiety as a character flaw
Anxiety as a human flaw is one of the biggest sources of internal conflict, people’s inner battles. From Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Milne’s Piglet, anxious characters are often paralyzed by fear of the unknown.
When creating a character whose main flaw is anxiety, think about:
- Specific triggers: What sets an anxious character off and why? Anxiety often stems from negative associations. For example, if a character once narrowly survived a terrible car accident, they may be fearful every time they get into a car
- Anxiety’s effect on relationships: How does your character deal with their anxiety? Do they get mad with other characters for triggering behaviours they’re unaware of, for example?
Examples of anxiety as a character flaw
There are plenty of anxious characters in books. Often, the anxious character’s arc involves overcoming fear and finding courage or strength. Despite his reticent, fearful nature, for example, Piglet often accompanies his friend Pooh on daring adventures in A. A. Milne’s children’s books (such as when they attempt to catch a fearsome beast called a ‘Woozle’).
In Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic Mrs Dalloway, the character Septimus Smith is a man scarred by World War I. Woolf shows Septimus grow increasingly distant from his wife Lucrezia, as Septimus descends into hallucinations of a friend of his killed in the war.
Septimus’s anxiety both inhibits his relationship with another key character and reveals the after-shocks of the time period, the trauma and devastation left by the first World War. Anxiety as a character flaw thus often reveals a traumatic, insecurity-creating background.
25 more character flaws:
In addition to the above character flaws, here are 25 more. As an exercise, try to write a brief sentence describing a character for each one, without using the word itself (it could be an action, a line of dialogue or a description). Bonus points: Imagine a reason why the character you’ve described has this flaw. Feel free to share your result in the comments below.
Need help creating vivid characters? Get How to Write Real Characters for practical exercises, examples and tips on character creation.