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In the creation and criticism of fictional works, a character flaw is a limitation, imperfection, problem, phobia, or deficiency present in a character who may be otherwise very functional. The flaw can be a problem that directly affects the character's actions and abilities, such as a violent temper. Alternatively, it can be a simple foible or personality defect, which affects the character's motives and social interactions, but little else.
Flaws can add depth and humanity to the characters in a narrative. For example, the sheriff with a gambling addiction, the action hero who is afraid of heights, or a lead in a romantic comedy who must overcome his insecurity regarding male pattern baldness are all characters whose flaws help provide dimension. Perhaps the most widely cited and classic of character flaws is Achilles' famous heel.
In general, flaws can be categorized as minor, major, or tragic.
A minor character flaw is an imperfection which serves to distinguish the character in the mind of the reader / viewer / player / listener, making them memorable and individual, but otherwise does not affect the story in any way.
Examples of this could include a noticeable scar, a thick accent or a habit such as cracking their knuckles.
Protagonists and other major characters may (and usually do) have multiple minor flaws, making them more accessible, and enabling the reader / viewer / listener to relate to the character (in the case of a sympathetic character) or otherwise influence the audience's opinions of the character.
Many insignificant or archetypal characters which are encountered only once or rarely are defined solely by a single minor flaw, differentiating them from the stock character or archetype that they adhere to.
A major character flaw is a much more noticeable and important hindrance which actually impairs the individual, whether physically, mentally or morally. Sometimes major flaws are not actually negative per se (such as devout religious beliefs or a rigid code of honor), but are classified as such in that they often serve to hinder or restrict the character in some way.
Examples of this type of flaw could include blindness, amnesia or greed.
Unlike minor flaws, major flaws are almost invariably important to either the character's, or the story's development.
- For villains, their major flaw is usually the cause of their eventual downfall.
- For heroes, their major flaw usually must be overcome (either temporarily or permanently) at some point in the story, often at the climax, by their own determination or skill.
- For neutral characters, or those that shift allegiance, the major flaw is usually the cause of either their corruption, redemption or both.
- For the protagonist, the most visible flaw generally serves a more vital interest, as well, as it defines his or her core problem. It is the protagonist's reluctant (and usually unconscious) journey to address this problem that forms the spine of the story, sometimes acting as the MacGuffin to stimulate the plot.
This is a specific sort of flaw, also known as "Hamartia", which is possessed by Aristotelian tragic heros. It is a flaw which causes an otherwise noble or exceptional character to bring about their own downfall and, often, their eventual death.
Examples of this could include hubris, misplaced trust, excessive curiosity, pride and lack of self-control.
This fall usually occurs at the beginning of a story, with the story itself concentrates on the consequences or attempted redemption of the fall.
- Oedipus' downfall is directly linked to arrogance: Oedipus the King
- Macbeth suffers from hubris, leading to the murder of Duncan I of Scotland; he later becomes paranoid, leading him to order the deaths of Banquo and the family of Macduff: Macbeth
- Hamlet is indecisive and self-doubting, which thwarts him in avenging his father's murders.
- Victor Frankenstein suffers from excessive curiosity, leading to the creation of the monster that destroys his life: Frankenstein
- Sigurd has a vulnerable spot on his back, where a linden leaf fell as he was bathing in dragon's blood: Volsunga saga
- Agamemnon acts in greed when he takes Briseis away from Achilles: The Iliad
- Cyrano De Bergerac, despite his many accomplishments, suffers from self-doubt because of his huge nose which keeps him from pursuing the woman he loves.
- Marvin the Paranoid Android suffers from extreme depression, as well as extreme boredom due to his huge yet mostly inactive mind. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
- Tom Riddle has a fear of dying which causes him to make horcruxes, transforming him into the vile Lord Voldemort. Harry Potter
- Harry Potter's worst flaws, as stated by Rowling, are "anger and occasional arrogance": Harry Potter
- Percy Jackson has a fatal flaw of excessive personal loyalty: Percy Jackson and the Olympians
- Jo March's bluntness and hot temper cause conflict with her family. Little Women
- Rocky Balboa thinks of himself as a loser who cannot go the distance in the boxing ring: Rocky
- Anakin Skywalker's anger and fear of losing his wife Padme eventually consumes him, leading to his transformation into Darth Vader: Star Wars hexalogy
- In Casablanca, Rick thinks of himself as an unfeeling cynic who denies the pain and disappointment from a failed love affair with Ilsa.
- In Vertigo, the detective played by James Stewart is afraid of heights and has to climb a tower.
- Captain Hook is obsessed with Peter Pan
- Roy Batty, as a replicant, is powerful, but has a very short lifespan: Blade Runner
- Oskar Schindler in the film Schindler's List must overcome his greedy nature and find compassion to sacrifice in order to save his workers
- B. A. Baracus is afraid of flying: The A-Team
- Philip J. Fry (usually) has a severe lack of intelligence: Futurama
- Londo Mollari yearns to return to the "glory days" of the Centauri Republic: Babylon 5
- Mr. Spock relies heavily on logic and suppresses his more human emotions: Star Trek
- Darkwing Duck/Drake Mallard has a big ego. Darkwing Duck
- Peter Griffin is extremely impulsive and causes many problems for his family and friends: Family Guy
- Zuko makes misguided decisions in an effort to gain his cruel father's acceptance: Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Aang is too carefree and initially attempts to run from his responsibilities, rather than face them: Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Dean Winchester relies on family and is devastated when he loses them or they betray his trust: Supernatural
- The Tenth Doctor is constantly trying to help and save the lives of others: Doctor Who
- The Evil Queen Regina relies on magic to rid her of the one person who destroyed her life and which later made her evil. Once Upon a Time
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Primarch Lorgar Aurelian is extremely devout and reveres his "father", the Emperor of Mankind, as a god. The Emperor envisages a human civilization free of the shackles of religion and dogma and chastises Lorgar and his legion for worshipping him. Hurt and depressed by the humiliation of his father's rebuke, Lorgar and the Space Marines of the XVII Legion (the "Word Bearers") search for another purpose to sustain them, and in doing so become the first legion to fall under the malicious influence of Chaos. Their devotion to Chaos sees them instigate the devastating civil war known as the Horus Heresy, the events of which led to the current dystopian setting of Warhammer 40,000.
- In Metal Gear Solid, Liquid's jealousy of Solid Snake's "dominant genes" and his desire to be the better of the two sets much of the story in motion, leading to Liquid's eventual downfall.