Character Flaw as Subplot

Do we really want to read a story where the protagonist is perfect? For example, Jill is a shining example of virtue, never doing anything unethical or illegal and never breaks the rules. Why would we really want to follow Jill in her world for very long? Recall being back in high school and hanging out with your friends at one of their houses. Did you talk about the Jeff at school, who got good grades and responsibly worked at the local grocery store? Or did you talk about Doug, who got drunk and so sexually aroused at a party last week that he tore off Kathy’s clothes in the hallway to her horror? Not only is Jeff boring as a story character, but he’s unrealistic. On a spectrum of virtue on one end and vice on the other, most people fall in the middle. Most people are afflicted with flaws, even though they don’t want those shortcomings. Thus, flawed characters create more realistic stories. Not enough has been said, however, about the mechanics of creating a flawed protagonist.

The character flaw is a subplot in a story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the introduction of it. The middle consists of the obstacles for overcoming it. The end is the either overcoming it or not. These three steps comprise the arc. And overcoming it should not be easy, both to create a good storyline and because people don’t rid themselves of flaws easily. Why? First, we may be unaware of the flaw. Second, we may not be aware of why we are behaving in a flawed way. Third, we may have no real incentive to figure out those reasons and change.

This progression would be one way to progress through this subplot. The protagonist will need to be made aware of the flaw (other characters will point it out). Then, the protagonist must reflect on the reasons for choosing that behavior (usually there are several historical reasons). Finally, the protagonist must do something about those reasons (e.g. change his or her thinking). Isn’t this process the therapy real-world psychologists offer in their offices?

Regarding the character flaw as a subplot helps the author in another way—making it relevant to the main storyline (Story A). Subplots that change the direction of Story A now have a connection to it. Without that connection, a subplot can seem too independent and irrelevant. So how does the flaw subplot change Story A? The flaw drives the protagonist away from achieving his story goal in Story A. Take, for instance, Braffin. He’s a medieval warrior charged with slaying a dragon: he wants the fame. He must journey across a realm to find the mighty beast. But Braffin’s flaw is greed: he also longs to be rich. As he enters different towns during his journey, he sees opportunities to pursue treasure, which he takes and which leads him geographically away from the dragon. These treasure hunts are wild goose chases, never resulting in wealth. He’ll never encounter the dragon and slay it until he overcomes his greed, a conflicting desire. The principle here is that the protagonist must overcome his flaw in order to fulfill his story goal in Story A; without doing so, he will never achieve that story goal.

If the character flaw is treated as a subplot, it will more likely develop properly.