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.
Brainstorm brilliant characters
Brainstorm detailed character flaws, desires, goals and fears in easy, structured steps.START
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.
33 replies on “Character flaw list: 30 intriguing character flaws”
Hey! So I’m having trouble coming up with flaws that could fit a character I have. He’s part of a group that has psychic kind of powers and he’s best at empath magic and telepathy. He is given the job of finding and training someone who’s supposed to be a big part of a prophecy. He’s sympathetic, generous and caring, partly because he was bullied as a child and didn’t want to make anyone feel like he had. I’m thinking he could maybe be a bit defensive because of the bullying, but other than that I’ve got no ideas. Any help would be really great thanks!
Hi Chloby, thank you for your question about character flaws. Defensiveness would definitely make sense given the bullying in your character’s backstory. Perhaps self-doubt would fit with this too, as bullying is damaging to self-confidence.
I would suggest looking at some of the mental health effects of bullying on the victim and finding potential challenges in this. For example, one of the signs a child is being bullied is a sudden drop in academic achievement. Another is social withdrawl, so if he struggles to fulfil some basic duties or responsibilities due to fear or is hesitant to reach out to people these could be other ideas. Good luck!
Hey Jordan! (and all),
Thanks so much for this blog its helped me quite a bit. It’s just that I am still so confused and I don’t know why my brain cannot digest the easy concept of the character arc/flaws/ lies/misbeliefs about the world etc…
My character is a boy who lives with an abusive family and his real father (disappeared), little sister (kidnapped whilst also being adopted), real mother (murdered). I need him to escape this toxic environment and head to look for his family, and there in this new world he finds an evil person he must confront and defeat or at least try in the first book. The thing is if he needs to do training to work on the powers that he has, I cannot seem to manage to find a lie he believes or misbeliefs. The best I could think of is that “All the people you love, will leave you one day.” or “There is so much cruelty in the world and not enough good.” But if you have some better ideas or suggestions please help me out, mate.
Also, where would that fit in in my overall plot of 1. meeting his father finally, 2. training his powers to rescue his little sister (and maybe hurt an antagonist or not in book one? So how would I show he had fully grown over my plot and show how his beliefs give him internal and external conflict. (Especially when he will need the help of friends maybe to destroy the villain).
I love writing so much and I am buying all these books and I am kind of getting it, it’s just I can’t manage to full-on understand it to make a strong arc/story, please help.
Hi Aaron, I’m glad to hear this helped you. Thank you for your detailed question. I wouldn’t say every main character absolutely must have a lie they believe. However I think ‘All the people you love will leave you one day’ is a useful one as he could meet some small kindness/altruism in another character along the way which would provide a striking contrast from his abusive family and the darkness he has experienced at the hands of others. This in turn could be crucial to his building parts of his character such as trust and willingness/ability to collaborate or be vulnerable that a toxic/abusive background may have made difficult to develop.
What it all boils down to is cause and effect. It can be useful reading websites such as Psychology Today and others that have articles on the psychological effects and signs of abuse, as they could give ideas of how your MC’s difficult background might shape his persona and outlook in ways that challenge him and necessitate further work on his own for the sake of growth/overcoming.
I would think possible internal conflicts stemming from an abusive background might include low self-esteem, high fear, a reactive nature when it comes to conflict (e.g. being more defensive – or aggressive – than someone who hadn’t had to fight for survival within the family unit might be).
I would say rather than trying to fit these elements into a plot, let the character guide you as you draft. What does the character want, and why? What obstacles arise (out of what he has experienced in his past)? Writing a ‘discovery draft’ that is your own process for learning more about your character would likely be useful. I hope this helps! Keep writing ?
So, I’m stuck. After reading this article, I realize I have been essentially writing the same kind of main character with the same flaws and just a different name. I want a change, as in I want to make a new kind of personality and character but I have no idea how to break out of this loop. And I have no idea where to start. Most of my main characters have the same issue. Separation from their parents, aloof or distrusting to others at first but then slowly crawling out of their shell and opening up more. I know the opposite of that is just creating a character that is really outgoing and social, but it still feels weird to me. If you could take a few minutes to help me out with this, that would be fantastic.
Hi Hayden, thank you for sharing your current challenge in character development. Firstly, I would say if this is the kind of main character that comes naturally to you or that you want to write, there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe there is something you want to process by writing such a character or understand about people (in other words, don’t judge yourself too harshly, I would say).
This being said, if writing an outgoing and sociable character feels unnatural, definitely practice this, as it’s useful to be able to write any character type. What about writing this character feels hard? I’d make an exercise for myself by putting down ‘Writing extrovert characters is hard because:’ and trying to list a few things (e.g. ‘I don’t know what extroverts fear’). Then read up around these attributes on sites like Psychology Today that explore human psychology (I can empathize with writing extroverted characters being a challenge being an introvert myself).
Sometimes turning a challenge into an exercise like this makes the process a little easier. Also I would suggest some directed reading. Look for books with protagonists that are very different in type to the type you feel you’re creating repeatedly. Take notes on their goals, motivations and conflicts, how they develop, what their flaws are. In my experience, extroverts tend to fill social spaces because they enjoy the spotlight/attention. This can become a problem when, for example, two extroverts like to hold the floor and clash because they don’t like the other person hogging the group’s focus. Extroverts may also find it hard to be alone, as they get energy from being around others (whereas introverts tend to find socializing draining). So an extrovert going through a period of isolation (such as lockdowns in the Covid pandemic) may be particularly challenging. I hope this helps!
Hello, I read this article and it really helped a lot, if you have any time I would be very appreciative if you could give me some advice. I am having trouble with giving my female protagonist flaws and I’m not sure why, I think it is because I want her to be a likeable character so bad and want her to not be boring. For her personality, I wanted her to be cheerful. I’m not sure how to give a cheerful and kind person flaws, I don’t want her to be a mary sue or a not interesting character. I also am not sure how to give this type of person character development I would really appreciate your help.
Hi Summer, thank you for sharing that. I would say any character attribute could have a shadow side or downside. For example, if your main character is cheerful and kind, this could lead to problems sometimes (for example, someone who attracts friends who are selfish and self-focused because they listen and are supportive when others with stronger boundaries might say ‘enough’ at some point). When one is cheerful and kind and sees the good in people, this can open up the possibility of being let down at best or being taken advantage of at worst, so a ‘flaw’ or rather drawback of being open, kind and friendly could be not having firm enough boundaries for others’ misbehavior. You see this in the ‘rescuer’ archetype often, where people try to ‘fix’ others and sometimes get hurt in the process.
You could also give your character darker past experiences that make her want to be cheerful and kind but push this over a point of balance. For example, a character who struggles to be assertive or show vulnerability because there is an element of their cheerful kindness being forced. There’s a Mike Leigh film called Happy Go Lucky where the protagonist is something like this (optimistic to the point of seeming delusion) and the scenes where they encounter miserable supporting characters (such as the protag’s driving instructor) are rich with tension because of their excessively sunny temperament and the contrast between this and others. I hope this helps!
Yes, this helps a lot thank you so much! I hope you don’t mind me asking a second question and hopefully you can reply while you can. I have these other characters and I was wondering if you could give me advice on how to make the main character different from them. also I made the main character have a short temper, will this work with want you have said also yes the main character has a dark past. I was also planing to make her blunt as well, I really like what you said so I was wonder if these traits work with your advice. for the other characters, there are two girls and one boy. the first girl’s personality is she is very emotional and passionate, she is shy, at times she can be childlike, shes caring and gets excited easily and shes insecure. The second girl’s personality, she displays a bright, friendly, and cheerful demeanor, she always has a easygoing smile on her face no matter what situation, but her the behaviour is a front and not how she really feels, she enjoys teasing others to a point where she seems sadistic, she’s usually calm, she can be rather cruel towards other’s who hurt people, behind her smile she holds a deep haterad because of her past. The boy character’s personality, virtue, generosity, honesty, and humbleness, he is brave when he needs to be, he’s caring and protective, he can come off as stubbrone and he’s empathetic. thank you for reading all this and thank you if you reply.
Ok I already posted a comment but it like disappeared or something, I went to look at older comments because they are very interesting and then I literally lost mine. I even got off the website and then got back on and it was still gone, lost in oblivion I guess. Anyways I read the Article which was very good and was hoping you could help me with something. I am an inspiring Author and hope to publish my first book before I graduate from Highschool. I know I am not that good since I am only 15 and am a freshman but I am contemplating starting a book. I am currently working on Character Profiles (which is my fav thing 2 do) and the overall plot of the story. It’s like a huge jig saw puzzle and I am trying to find all the pieces to create a complete puzzle. Anyway my Main Protagonist is a 16 year old female named Raelynn Nurvell who has been in foster care sense she was 8, after her mother was found murdered and her in a coma suffering from blood loss in their apartment. She was in a coma for 5 months and all things considered recovered quickly with no permanent disabilities despite having head trauma when she was found, her only “injury” that remains is a peculiar claw mark on her abdomen. Since she has no next of kin and her father was never in the picture she ended up in foster care. She moved around from foster home to foster home for years, never staying anywhere for a long period of time, the longest being 1 year and 6 months, but after a unfortunate accident with the families youngest biological son she was back in the foster care system. Despite her traumatic backstory, by first glance one would assume anything is wrong with her. She does not appear emotionless or anything like that, in fact the complete opposite. She often portrays a happy, enthusiastic, optimistic person, looking at her smile you would never know she had problems. She does not see her self as beautiful or anything, just average (even though she is pretty). I am still working on my character a lot and already have a few solid foundations to work with, appearance, background, Skills (Climbing, Playing Guitar, and writing.) I want my character to be realistic and likeable, though she technically is not “human” I want people to relate to her, and see her as someone who could exist. I don’t want her to seem unreal which is why she needs a flaw if not more then one flaw, nobody is perfect. The thing is I can’t find a flaw that I think suits her. I was thinking maybe insecure, Depressed, Anxiety, maybe Self-Denial or something along those lines, but they all seem pretty generic. I don’t know I just Know I need help, so if you could take some time to respond that would be awesome! I just need a little help to get started.
Hi Lyllien, thank you for sharing this. I think it’s awesome that you’re writing at 15 (it’s very unusual for anyone to be an exceptional writer at this age so don’t knock yourself too much – writing effective fiction takes practice and experience).
Your MC’s backstory sounds very interesting, and her being in the foster system is something that would likely endear readers as there is the suggestion of loss (of biological parents) as well as struggle in this (having to assimilate to different families, not having the bedrock of a strong nuclear family that not everybody gets in life).
Regarding flaws, or rather as Carl Jung might call it her ‘shadow’ side; a common struggle for someone in the foster system could be:
a) Fear of abandonment (due to being passed from family to family, abandonment can become a trigger making the abandoned person recall the fear or pain of past abandonments).
b) Difficulty opening up (the person could go the other extreme, struggling to show vulnerability or affection because they’ve been through trauma that makes them want to be tough as a coping/survival mechanism.
c) It could be something completely unrelated to her backstory, too – you suggested depression, anxiety etc. These can be rooted in past experiences, brain chemistry, or a mixture of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ (physiological and social/environmental causes).
I hope this has given you some ideas. Generic struggles are fine in stories – it’s the adventures or change processes they lead your characters down that make the difference. Good luck!
My POV character is a 15-year-old Latino high school sophomore living in 1974 Massachusetts, a whiz at foreign languages, and a burgeoning track star with Olympic Games potential. He is fun-loving, good-hearted, and a natural leader in his peer group, but cocky about his gifts. He and his military father often lock horns over trust issues. My reading group, after hearing the first ten pages, advised me the character is entertaining but seems almost too good (other than the cocky attitude). Any suggestions for a humanizing, relatable flaw?
Hi Ken, thank you for your fantastic question. Reading over your story scenario, I would say there’s probably something that could be linked back in terms of underpinning psychological factors to his difficult relationship with his military father. Some thoughts/ideas:
If your MC’s father hasn’t taught him by example the qualities of ‘natural leadership’ by being more top-down in style, where has he gained this ability from, by trying not to be like his dad? This in itself (an avoidance of that harshness) could create challenges and be something like a flaw (at least in terms of his objectives) in the highly competitive world of Olympics-level sport.
I hope this is helpful! Consider joining our online critique groups if you’d like regular feedback and workshopping of ideas.
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