I'm working on a plot-driven novel. The plot stands, and the changes the characters undergo, that is, the character arcs have been devised.

What I need now is the lack or fault that makes my characters who they are at the beginning, that are an obstacle to their goal, and that they finally overcome. There seem to be several options, none of which feel perfectly right.

So how could I deduce a character's lack, fault, flaw, or weakness from the plot (or character arc)?

I'm asking this without examples from my own writing and in a general manner, because I hope to find a method that can be used by other writers and in other situations, too. But do use examples if you feel that helps your explanation.

  • Do you need the flaw which impedes the plot or the plot will fix, or a flaw in general which may or may not affect the plot? Sep 12, 2016 at 9:35
  • Thanks, @LaurenIpsum, I forgot that. I edited my question to address that.
    – user5645
    Sep 12, 2016 at 9:55
  • Thanks. Next question: If you already have plot and character arcs, why are you trying to shoehorn a flaw in after the fact? Shouldn't the flaw be part of the character arc already? If you have a dragon and you need to steal his gold, the story of "sending a thief" and the story of "sending a quiet, homebody hobbit and ordering him to learn to be a thief" are not cosmetic changes; they are entirely different books. Or are you saying that you're willing to rewrite your entire plot/character sketch to accommodate a flaw because your character is "supposed" to have a flaw? Sep 12, 2016 at 10:22
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    But putting that aside, what you're asking seems to be "Given that I've set up this plot and character, how do I figure out the moral choice of the ending?" Because that's your quandary: you don't know your character well enough to determine if he would let the bad guy go. Once you know that, then you can go back and salt the foreshadowing so that it looks inevitable. (That question is still on-topic here, BTW; it's just not the one you asked.) Sep 12, 2016 at 12:13
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    The choice at the end was an example. In my case, I need to motivate the character arc. I know what I want the arc to look like, but I don't know what causes it.
    – user5645
    Sep 12, 2016 at 13:16

3 Answers 3


Ok, considering the information in the comments, what you know for your character is that in the end he sympathizes the antagonist. I would take this as inspiration for his flaw. So in the end it turns out the antagonist was right in a way. I'd make the reason why the protagonist didn't see that at the beginning (that the antagonist was somehow right) as the protagonist's flaw and prove it throughout the plot. For example the protagonist was too superficial or he was too conservative or the detective was too brutal with the criminals etc. The antagonist will "help" the protagonist grow this flaw of his.

P.S. I always try to answer the WHY question and not the WHAT. If you have the what... happens for example, show the reader why actually it happens.

  • Thanks, Teddy, but the choice at the end was just an example. My situation is different. I wrote my story plot first. As they are in tune with the plot, I know the changed the protagonist goes through. What I now need is something in the person to present an obstacle to those changes and make them meaningful to the protagonist personally, beyond the plot.
    – user5645
    Sep 12, 2016 at 13:19
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    Well, maybe the question is why this protagonist has this flaw - what caused the flaw to appear at first place. It might be something in his past which dictates his lifestyle - for example being conservative might be caused by religious parents but in his later life it is kept by the fact that he/she keeps going to church and meets religious people - this is an obstacle. So an obstacle could be a habit. You mentioned that you tried some techniques in order to achieve this goal which don't work. Could you give an example of such so we get a better idea what is the answer you are looking for. Sep 12, 2016 at 13:33
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    This is the answer: "the WHY and not the WHAT." Figure out why your character would do X at the end, and then work backwards to create obstacles to doing X. Sep 12, 2016 at 17:01

I think you may be making too much of the idea of a flaw. To have an Achilles heel, you must first be Achilles, and who among us is? Most stories are not driven by a single flaw (which would imply an otherwise perfect hero -- an Achilles, a Superman) but by the ordinary circumstance of human life. Human being are limited in so many ways, and those limits stand in the way of our achieving our desires. Mere humanity, the reach that exceeds our grasp, is enough to fuel a million stories.

Nor is the overcoming of a flaw central to the emotional or moral climax of a story. It is usually a choice, and a choice not driven by a particular flaw, but by the very nature of human existence. We all must make hard choices in life, and those choices are the stuff of stories. All that is won comes at a cost, and the hero must be willing to pay that cost, flaw or no flaw. Different character's strengths and weaknesses may bring them by different routes to the moment when that price must be paid, but it is the paying of the price that is the climax.

The question I think you should be asking is, does the plot I have sketched out bring the character I have invented by a plausible series of incidents to the moment where the price must be paid?

  • I think you are right. Characters should not be molded rather they should be like a tree - grow in a direction they feel is natural. Flaws usually come naturally as the idea of the story develops. Sep 12, 2016 at 18:31
  • Humans have multiple flaws, you are right, but you are also right to note that a single human's many flaws are enough to fuel a million stories. When one story is written, it cannot describe the complexity of human existence but has to focus on one (or a few) aspects: one flaw, and how this one flaw is overcome.
    – user5645
    Sep 13, 2016 at 6:56
  • And yes, a hero needs to have a flaw. A flaw in story theory does not have to be a psychological disorder, it is usually only an aspect in which the hero has to grow further. It is a flaw from the perspective of the perfection we are all striving towards (being a good parent, being a good husband or wife, being successful at life) but which we will never achieve. So, a "flaw" could be not being beautiful, and this flaw is overcome by realizing that physical beauty is not necessary to be loved, showing that the flaw was not ugliness but a feeling of being hampered by ugliness.
    – user5645
    Sep 13, 2016 at 6:58
  • @TeddyMarkov Stories are often constructed. They are not usually conceived as a perfect whole by divine inspiration. Most writers have to adapt plot, character, setting and other story elements to each other. So, of course characters can be "molded" to fit what other parts have been created first – or the other way around. As I said, I am writing plot first. Others write character first. Both are legitimate and common approaches. So saying that "characters should not be molded" is prescriptive and a stupid rule that I don't accept. We should all write in whichever way works for us.
    – user5645
    Sep 13, 2016 at 7:03
  • @what I don't know if you understood me correctly but what I mean is that you should develop your character naturally in a direction he belongs. If you mold them with force to fit roles and situations you planned before then they wont feel natural. This is why I say that they should grow like the branches of a tree. I don't think it is a good idea to have a plot finished first and then try to fit some characters in it. I mean the plot can be leading but it should also be matched and changed to fit the characters. Sep 13, 2016 at 7:44

Here is how I solved my problem:

Unlike channeled texts, that are transferred into the mind of the medium as a complete whole, creative writing usually begins with an idea and unfolds from there. Different stories grow from different seeds. Sometimes a writer has a scene in mind and develops the story around that scene: Who are the people in that scene? How are they related? What led them here and what happens to them now? Sometimes a writer has a character they find interesting and develop the story around that character: What would the life of such a person be like? Sometimes the initial idea is a relationship: What kind of people have such a relationship? How does it evolve? Will it last? Sometimes it is a world: Who lives there? What problems do they face and what culture evolves to deal with them? In my case the seed for my story was a plot, that is, a series of events, and I needed to develop my characters to fit that plot:

What kind of person would do these kind of things?

I had the series of events the characters would go through and even how this experience would change them. I knew, very roughly, a few rudimentary aspects of what kind of person they were at the beginning, and who they would turn into at the end. I had the basic form of their story arc.

The plot was thrilling, but to make the narrative interesting on the character level, too, I needed a "flaw" that my characters would have to overcome to succeed on their "quest", something that my readers could relate to and which would help them identify with the characters and care about their involvement with the plot.

  1. To find these missing aspects of their characters I tried to identify the key elements of their character arcs in clear and concise terms.

Using the example that I have used in my comments, of the detective who comes to understand and sympathize with the motives of the murderer, the key terms for this character arc might be something like these: At first, in the beginning of the story, the detective was focused on solving the case and bringing the murderer to justice. That is, he was law-abiding, principled, and correct. At the end, the detective had come to think that there was a good and valid reason for the murderer to kill his victim and he had to face the choice to bring him to justice regardless (upholding the law even when the law is wrong), or to let him go (and approve of and support the deed for some higher justice). That is, the detective had become sceptical, compassionate, and humane. I'm sure there are better terms to describe the personality states of that detective, and of course there are different personalities that fit the character arc. For example, at the beginning, instead of being overly correct, the detective could have been identifying with the victim, feeling affected by the victims fate, wanting revenge.

  1. With the key descriptors of what kind of person the character was and turned into, I then researched both the initial personality and this personality change.

Again using the example, I began to look into developmental and personality psychology to understand which persons are emotionally rigid and overly correct and law-abiding and what kind of experiences force these people to become more empathetic (or how victims come to understand and forgive perpetrators).

  1. Finally, I worked both this flaw and the motor for change that I had identified into the narrative.

In the detective story, I would have given the detective a background that explained his emotional rigidity (or victimization and vengefulness), making it a problem in his private life just as it was an asset in his profession. And I would have identified and expanded those aspects of the plot that could serve as catalyst for the detectives growth and help him overcome the self-limiting aspects of his personality.

There are some comments that insist that developing the characters after the fact is "unnatural", and that characters must "grow" and not be constructed.

This is wrong.

Of course developing the characters after the plot is a lot of work and it means that I have to rewrite much of my current draft. But rewriting is an integral part of writing. Tolstoy wrote the whole of War and Peace seven times. Hemingway wrote the end of A Farewell to Arms 47 times. So I'm in good company.

And doing research to find elements of a story does not mean that this will make my story (or my characters) "unnatural". Research is an integral part of writing, too. It would be unnatural if I just pasted what I found into my narrative. But if I process what I find, translating the results of my research into ideas, then they will either melt into the story, adapting to it, or the story will evolve to accomodate the new information.

All information that goes through my mind will harmonize with each other, because it will be turned into what makes me who I am. People are translators. They turn everything into their world view. So the research I do cannot disrupt what I have already written. It will become the nutrient from which my writing continues to grow.

But then maybe research is not – or not always – a means to find new information but rather an opportunity for self-reflection, and rewriting is not a forced process at all but rather a way to find out what feels most natural.

What surprised me was how seamlessly the results of my research fit into my existing plot. It was as if I had subconsciously known my characters all along and they had already guided me when I developed the plot, and I had only needed the research to help me become conscious of it.

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