By David E. Sharp
I don’t know why anyone would trust me with hiring practices. Nevertheless, I have been on both sides of the job interview process. When I conducted interviews for positions in a Texas library, I had a canned set of questions I was supposed to ask. Among them was the single-most hated job interview question of all time: Tell me about one of your flaws.
People usually respond with comments on their dedication, passion, or focus on their job. And they want to convince me this is somehow a problem we’ll just have to cope with.
It’s a lame answer for a lame question.
But it is absolutely a question you should ask of your characters! Oh, they’ll try to weasel out of it. They’ll tell you they have insecurities about how awesome they are. They’ll talk about how their nobility gives them grief because they’re misunderstood. They’ll complain they have to keep their sheer audacity a secret from the public for some reason. But you don’t let them get away with that!
Characters need flaws. Real flaws.
Real flaws come in the form of a blind spot or a false belief that causes characters to contribute to their own problems. Natural defects remove the guarantee that characters will always make the right decision. This creates tension for the reader.
Your character may have legitimate flaws if they:
- Advance their own goals, blind or aloof to the damage they do to others in the process.
- Apply their own personal issues to situations that have nothing to do with them.Solve problems by creating more significant issues instead.
- Are unable to see around their misconceptions.
Flaws make characters human.
Sometimes, it is difficult to give our characters flaws because we want people to cheer for them. We worry that readers won’t be willing to back an imperfect character. The opposite is true. Giving a character believable flaws humanizes them. We can relate to weaknesses.
An unflawed character is unrelatable to readers. We can’t put ourselves in that character’s shoes because we have no idea what it is like to never make a mistake. To never burn the wrong bridges. To never say something we wish we could make unsaid.
But when a protagonist really blows it, we know what that’s like. We sympathize. We get invested. We want to cheer for people who are just as messed up as the rest of us to overcome their flaws, detect their own blind spots, or realize their worldview is inaccurate. And that leads to my next point…
Flaws create opportunities for storytelling.
Characters need a chance to grow. Classic storytelling involves the relationship between exterior plot developments and interior character journeys. This is what creates the story. And a story is what readers are really after. Without that internal story, all you have is a play-by-play of events, which gets boring fast. You need a character arc.
Characters will not be able to bring the plot to resolution unless they first overcome themselves. It’s the narrative behind the events. Once your protagonist realizes how she contributes to the problem, she can knock it off and become part of the solution. Now you’ve got yourself a story.
As for job interviews, the last time I was asked about my flaws, I didn’t answer with some lame account of how my passion and dedication were problematic. Instead, I talked about some of my actual shortcomings. I followed up by talking about my efforts to improve my weaknesses and listed the strategies I have implemented to overcome them.
I told them a story. Ha.