Characterization: the difference between “flaws” and “faults”

1180301_silhouetteI wrote yesterday about characterization, and how it’s really the driving force behind fiction. Today, I thought it might be fun (and useful to my current WIP…. no I’m not thinking about myself here at all….) to consider those attributes that are not so endearing, but that are necessary for a character to seem human and to be someone the reader can relate to: you know, the things we don’t like about them. The things that are weaknesses and get them into trouble.

Flaws versus Faults

To have this discussion about characterization, I should start with the distinction I make between flaws and faults as they relate to fictional characters. (This is, of course, totally arbitrary, completely made up by me, and based in no way upon any kind of dictionary definition of those terms.)

  • Flaw: an aspect of a character that might get said character into problems, but that isn’t in and of itself something morally wrong and always worthy of condemnation: curiosity, would be an example. Loyalty to family (who might not deserve it) would be another. Single-mindedness of purpose. Ambition. Hotheatedness. Impulsiveness. Self-doubt or a bit of arrogance.
  • Fault: a character trait that is pretty much always frowned upon: greed, envy, cruelty of intention. Flat out narcissism.

I have always loved, for instance, the way Harry Potter’s friends call him out on the way he always has to save everyone and has to play the hero in “Order of the Phoenix.” This, to me, is a great example of one of Harry’s great flaws: he’s well-intentioned, meaning only to help other people, but he doesn’t understand that sometimes people don’t need his help or that maybe someone else is better suited or more qualified to step in.

What I like to remember as a writer is this: readers will forgive FLAWS in my characters. It’s much more difficult for them to forgive FAULTS. So, if you want to assign something that’s a fault to a character you want your readers to relate to, you might consider downplaying that fault where you can and not let it control the character more than other traits do. Conversely, consider giving a baddie some flaws as well as faults. Make your villains really human by filling them with drives and emotions that, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily evil and that, in fact, might even be things your readers share (I talk more about villains in this post here.)

FLAWS can be great to work with in terms of building plot from characterization. They’re those little things about your characters that really make them tick, and also have the propensity to open doors to all kinds of fun and sticky situations. While they push your heroes into dangerous, humorous, or frustrating situations that are exciting to write and to read about, they won’t paint your characters in such a bad light that you and your readers stop relating to them or caring what happens to them.


14 responses to “Characterization: the difference between “flaws” and “faults”

  1. I’ve never actually seen anyone separate flaws and faults, but I think you have a good point here. For me, flaws are both the most fun and the most frustrating part of creating a character. I’m still trying to find a good one for the lead in my screenplay.

  2. Interesting article. Food for thought. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Virginia the Viruliferous and commented:
    This is one of those aspects of writing that I always follow, but never directly define in my writing process. Victoria does a fantastic job making easy distinctions between character flaws versus faults, and how they contribute or hinder your character throughout the plot. A very useful thing to keep in the forefront of your mind when beginning writing.

  4. Replace ‘fault’ with ‘vice’ and I’ll agree with your distinction. Also I like that phrase near the end ‘fun and sticky’. It’s this duality about plot conflict that is concise and catchy.

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  8. Interesting way to think of it. I hadn’t considered the question in this sense, but it makes some sense. There is probably some use in distinguishing between a “serious” problem (a character is a racist) and a less serious quirk which may get the character in trouble, but is no reason to condem them (maybe they’re a tightwad). I think that it may be the faults that define characters, it is the flaws thatmake them real and believable. Thanks for the reminder!

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