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I have a particular character in my story who I feel is great. He's a retired monster hunter who settled down with his wife for his later years. He's all-around friendly, respectful, empathetic, wise, and still extremely strong compared to the average man (albeit pathetic compared to younger fighters). Overall, the typical Obi-Wan, who works as the conscience for my anti-hero and the passion for my reluctant hero.

But what irritates me is that I can find no obvious flaw in his character. He has bad manners (while remaining respectful of people), is extremely nostalgic for his old life and is often overlooked or forgotten by other characters. While those three traits are nice quirks, I don't really feel them to be flaws. How do I continue developing his character so that it has flaws, making him more well-rounded and realistic?

  • Welcome to Writers! This is a good question about character construction, and I've lightly edited it to be a bit of a better for for this site. Asking for specific suggestions is a bit on the edge of what's on-topic here, but asking for the how in a problem is much more answerable and lends itself to answers that are more useful to others. Please feel free to add to my edits, or revert them if I've changed something critical that should be left as it was. – Neil Fein Dec 17 '15 at 4:22
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    @NeilFein Thank you very much! I'm new here, and am still trying to get the ropes of everything here. I appreciate your help. – J. A. Dec 17 '15 at 4:27
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Overbearing pride.

He's done a lot. He's seen a lot. He has a lot of experience. He's very accomplished, and he thinks anyone would benefit from learning from him.

The "nostalgia" and "being overlooked" you mentioned are the keys. He loved being helpful, loved being the strong protector, loved being the one everyone came to, loved the attention. It was for good reasons, but still. He enjoyed the spotlight, and now he doesn't have it any more.

Maybe he wants to teach the reluctant hero because he wants the hero's praise and adulation. He may genuinely have a lot to offer, but he's being a jerk about offering it because he's honestly a little desperate for the old days when everyone admired him.

He is very proud of what he did back in the day, and he wants everyone to remember it. It's not that his accomplishments are petty, because they are significant, but they were a while ago. So he feels like he has to remind everyone of what he did, often, and he's hoping to be asked to teach so he can be useful and admired again.

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    I may be able to make that work. I have gotten to a conflict-heavy bit with the anti-hero I mentioned getting arrested after my Obi-Wan declared her under his protection. The police are trying not to step on his toes, but I imagine that he could feel put off for being defied like that. – J. A. Dec 17 '15 at 0:57
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    Taking your character trails and projecting them to their logical conclusions, keeping in mind a person's self-interest and need to feel good about themselves, will generally reveal some slightly darker side to a person. This answer makes a lot of sense. – Neil Fein Dec 17 '15 at 4:24
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    @NeilFein, your comment about projecting a good or neutral personality trait to its logical conclusion bearing in mind the character's self-interest and self-love, could be the basis of an answer addressing the general question of how a writer finds flaws in a character. – Lostinfrance Dec 17 '15 at 7:38
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    @NeilFein I agree with Lostinfrance; make that an answer. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 17 '15 at 10:45
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There's already good answers here, so I'll add in what I think are some of my techniques for constructing rounded characters.

Making Strengths Into Weaknesses

Ever heard the phrase 'honest-to-a-fault'? Even the most noble and virtuous of attributes can become weaknesses if they are improperly moderated.

It's easy to stretch a trait such as determination and turn it into ruthlessness, having someone so single minded on achieving a goal that they will climb over others in order to get there. People who have a great work ethic can sometimes also be stubborn when it comes to admitting defeat.

In your example, having someone who is wise and experienced may also make them stubborn and close minded, unwilling to listen to the opinion of others because he believes that he is correct due to his greater levels of experience.

Making Them A Hypocrite

Nobody is perfect, and sometimes even the most idealist of people can fall off of the wagon.

Having someone following their own rules all the time to the letter doesn't always make the most interesting character. Interesting moments occur when a character has their ideals tested, and then they may break them for 'the greater good', or to help achieve their goals in the long run.

Characters don't have to be a "do as I say, not as I do" type of person, sometimes it's just impossible for people to maintain their views all of the time. They may be challenged in such a way as they will change their beliefs in order to fit with new revelations, going entirely against something that they staunchly maintained previously.

Your example character may train your hero for a long time, building them up to accomplish a certain goal/ quest, only at the last minute to sabotage their chances in order to allow room for the anti-hero to tackle the challenge instead, as he believes they are more experienced/ qualified to handle it despite the training that the hero has received.

That's a pretty radical example, but it can make a character more interesting to realize that they were only being kind in order to use the hero as a means to an end, and switching as soon as a better option presented itself.

Having Compatible Qualities

Similar to the "strengths into weaknesses" point, certain qualities fit with certain types of people, whereas others don't. As suggested in another answer, pride would work very well based on the description of your example character.

There are certain things that would be very incompatible, and would be a difficult character to make believable. For example having a character who is helpful and performs kind deeds for others anonymously, but they're also a narcissist, would be a struggle to pull off. Why would someone who is self-absorbed perform these acts in the first place, of they weren't doing it to receive recognition? Or a self-made business tycoon who is lazy; they wouldn't be able to achieve such success if they had that flaw.

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    Great answer overall but I must take issue with this: "For example having a character who is a charity worker, but they're also a narcissist, would be a struggle to pull off. Why would someone who is self-absorbed become a charity worker in the first place?" Simple answer: they are in love with their own virtue. They became a charity worker so that they bask in the admiration of others, or yet more narcissistically, revel in the contemplation of their own superiority. Apologies to all the charity workers out there who aren't like that at all, but this is a possible character type. – Lostinfrance Dec 17 '15 at 15:04
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    @Lostinfrance Exactly. Such a person might open and fund community centers or scholarships, which are useful and helpful, but make sure they prominently bear the person's name. "Look what a great philanthropist I am!" – Lauren Ipsum Dec 17 '15 at 15:13
  • @Lostinfrance you're right, upon rereading I probably should have made clearer that I meant it in terms of a person who does benevolent acts and goes out of their way to help others, yet is also self absorbed. You're right in that they would likely do it to make themselves look good in front of others, but would not do it for the simply for the reason of helping others. I'll make an edit. – Mike.C.Ford Dec 17 '15 at 15:18
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    Great answer. I really like how you give general principles and apply them to the particular example. – Standback Dec 17 '15 at 18:21
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What I do as I'm discovering my characters is to just write them into scene after scene. Don't worry about whether the scene has anything to do with your story. Put him in an argument with his wife. Sit him next to a drunk at the bar. Put a pebble in his shoe. Have the neighbor knock on his door at dinnertime. Just put him in a bunch of scenarios and write them. He'll reveal himself to you.

Then, because this is just discovery, we pitch all those scenes and get to work on the real story with a new understanding of the character. (This discovery phase could even change some foundational elements of your story.)

  • I like this approach! I'm not at all a discovery writer for my actual stories, but for character development, this could be quite fruitful. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 20 '16 at 12:32
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The thing about character flaws is that people who have them will often think they are assets. Its possible you are looking at all your character's attributes and imagining them to all be positive assets. Perhaps you could look again, because it's up to you as a storyteller to pontificate on any issue, and not necessarily pass judgment in the most obvious manner. Ask yourself if there is a dark side or a weakness inherent in these attributes, then use your story world to bring that idea to life. In other words, think: my character is this, but the world needs that.

You could put a negative spin (via the story) on pretty much everything you stated. He's lazy, naive, cut off from the world's problems (purposely). He thinks everything's going to be fine, everyone's nice deep down, and the world doesn't need his input anymore. He's a physical guy, a gentle giant, when the world needs a cynical manipulator.

Of course, this may lead to a somewhat dark story. You might prefer to build a world where your hero's niceness, strength etc. are the solutions to the overall issue, and then work backwards to create reasons why he is initially unable to deploy those attributes. Those could be your flaws. Perhaps he has a learned behaviour to hide his niceness from all but his closest friends, or perhaps the world* perceives them as weakness, and he (wrongly) agrees, leading to his isolation.

*And when I refer to 'the world' I mean the most influential characters in your story, or the 'problem-space' not necessarily everybody in the story.

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Someone who is "extremely nostalgic for his old life and is often overlooked or forgotten by other characters" has trouble fitting into the modern world.

That's not necessarily a "flaw," but will certainly be seen as such by more "with it " people. More to the point, that is a character trait that will irritate others in a manner that will create the conflict you want. At least when he exerts himself and tries to make himself "relevant" to people who would rather not regard him as such.

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Ask his wife

Either you're so much inside his head that you're not seeing him the way others do, or you're an outsider suffering from hero worship. You need to get into other people's heads and see him from different angles.

His wife knows (mostly) all his flaws. She may love him anyway, but she'll know what he's like to live with.

His kids (if any) will have a different version of him, and will see flaws their mom missed. If there's more than one kid, they'll have different sets of pros and cons.

Go around his town and ask others he interacts with. Not everyone will know his hero past. Is he grumpy with kids? Rude to service workers? Tips badly? Yells at jaywalkers? Or just completely forgettable?

Ask his family of origin. Do they live in the town or are they glad to only see him once a year or so? Or maybe never? Why is that?

Don't worry about finding his "tragic flaw" or whatever the English teachers tell you he has to have. Your goal of making him well rounded and realistic is a good one. Not everyone in real life is super flawed; maybe a few quirks is all he has. But chances are you'll get a different story if you look through the eyes of various characters, not just his or the narrator's/author's.

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