I've created a character named "Mathias Mindblade" who is trained by a wise wizard to lead a rebellion against the Darkness Empire and eventually to establish an Empire of Light.

Mathias has some severe obstacles to overcome and he will come into possession of some very cool powers. But I also want to be able to illustrate his humanity.

What I'm missing are ideas for his personality and character, and for some flaws or problems that might make him more interesting.

That last point is particularly important - in a previous question of mine, responses made it clear that readers have little interest in omnipotent, "Superman"-like characters. So what I want for Mathias is the kind of flaws that will keep him from being a boring Superman - but still allowing for him to have good points and a plethora of "bad-ass" abilities.

How do I choose what flaws to give him, and how do I prevent those flaws from overwhelming the likable, cool core of the character?


11 Answers 11


Suppose he's an invincible superman with no character flaws. But he's supposed to establish a kingdom, which means that after he waltzes over and personally defeats the Dark Empire army and kills its leaders, he needs people to support him--oh, and it's supposed to be an Empire of Light. Problem is, the power-hungry opportunists who were following the Dark Empire now want to follow him instead. And the idealists who were thinking about starting their own revolution paint him as a murdering dictator. Well...that's not too successful, now, is it? There can be plenty of challenges beyond simply defeating the bad guy. If you can't come up with an interesting plot even if he's personally perfect, then you should think more deeply about the consequences of his status and actions.

Now that you can foresee some of the problems that he'll have even if he's perfect, make him imperfect in ways that complicate things in interesting ways. He's supposed to found a kingdom, but he's afraid of or uninterested in public speaking; he likes to act, not talk. Or he deeply, deeply cares about his mission but gets arrogant when angry, and that tends to put off the very people who he's trying to rally. Or he underestimates his own power and thus is terrified of the power of the Dark Empire. (Or heck, maybe he's right to be terrified.)

  • 2
    Wow, I'm suprised I hadn't considered that! Thanks! Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 13:48
  • Its great to be on this site.... Learning alot :)
    – ndotie
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 18:09

A plot consists of conflicts. If you do not have conflicts, you do not have a plot. Your character has to face conflicts, otherwise he is boring. Just flipping with your fingers to solve a problem, is not a conflict by definition.

There are two kinds of conflicts: outer conflicts and inner conflicts.

Outer ones are easy: battles, evil people, save the world, blablabla. Nevertheless they should make sense to your story. Just saying your antagonist wants to conquer the world is lame. Tell us why.

The inner conflicts are the more challenging and interesting ones. They normally decide if you have a shallow story (= boring), or a real engaging one. The whipping cream on your book dessert is the interweavement of the inner and outer conflicts.

So Mathias has to kill King Evil for what reason so ever. He needs a priest to do that and the only available one is his former girl-friend and their relation ended in catastrophe. So he really does not want to see her, but he has to.

Additionally he falls in love to the wife of King Evil. The priest knows her and hates her to death. She always tells Mathias that they have to kill them both. Cruel, hard and merciless.

Now rescue the world and your love with an ex-girl-friend who hates you and your dears. Have fun.

  • This is very interesting! I don't understand how it can fit with character-driven fiction though. For example, I just finished reading The Idiot (highly recommended) and I don't know why I enjoyed it so much because it centered around Prince Myshkin and hardly had a plot. If you would address character-driven fiction, I think it would make this an even better answer.
    – sirdank
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 14:39
  • Personally, I find these sorts of contrived situations with extreme emotional tension between characters who have poor control of their feelings to make for trite and dull reading, kind of like Dragonball Z of the Emotions. But they are fairly popular.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 23:21

First off: How do you make a character quintessential, but not cliched or cartoony?

Should provide some groundwork.

After you've mulled that over, specifically in this case there's two ways to go about this.

  1. Mathias is meant to be a badass hero. Stay the hell out of his head, view him through others. The amazing Celtic heroes were always viewed through the eyes of chroniclers who idealised them from a distant perspective. The only evidence of what was going on in their heads was from their deeds. A badass hero is mysterious somewhat beyond human and this is their tragedy, no regular person will ever understand them however fascinating they are. The recent reboot of Doctor Who on the BBC is really a huge treatise on this. The Doctor is not a viewpoint character and the series plays with this fact that he's benign and godlike but, at the same time, lonely and beset by tragedy. Study that hard if you're going for this.

  2. Mathias is meant to be a regular joe who happens to accomplish some badass feats. In this case it is important to establish his humanity in short order. A cheap shot is to give him a wholesome girl-next-door to dote upon and set him up with a desire to be a family man. Be careful the relationship is wholesome and emotionally pure and not some kind of sentimental or soft-paw corn fantasy, be careful to communicate clearly that he just wants to live a normal life, go to work, come home, kiss the wife and spend quality time with the kids, for real. Then hit him with the news that before any of that can happen he just has to, oh, defeat the evil empire and save the world. Then his quest for power is not presumed to be a quest for glory and you can show him screwing up occasionally but being devoted to defeating the evil ones because really his goal is to take Mrs Mindblade (nee Goodheart) up the aisle and retire into a job as an insurance clerk.

The latter case, for reference, is something Shakespeare did to make Henry V into the Elizabethan action hero. In that play Hal spends his youth getting drunk with a bunch of reprobates in a pub. Then his dad dies, a messenger arrives, delivers the sad news and Hal puts down his beer mug, sobers up, raises an army, gives the French a jolly good thrashing at Agincourt and then marries to create an alliance and lasting peace for the lands of Britain. Shakespeare is careful to set Henry up as desiring this life as an idle drinking prole who then mans up spectacularly to become a dream king who does his duty regardless of his own personal desires to party his life away. That's not a cheap shot, but then Shakespeare just worked out the shot that worked, sometimes they were cheap, in this case it happens not.


First off, unless "Mindblade" is a use-name he took or was given because he has some kind of esper abilities, give him a last name that doesn't sound like it was lifted from Shadowrun.

Second, if you want him not to be a superman, give him some physical challenge he has to struggle with on an daily or even hourly basis. Give him a bad leg. A club foot. Terrible scars. One eye. What the hell, give him three eyes, just to be different. GRRMartin is doing awesome things with a dwarf these days.

  • Well, I've never read "Shadowrun". And for the beginning, he has a gaping void in his chest. Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 0:24
  • And Mindblade is a family name. He's never given a title before he encounters the wizard. Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 0:35
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    If "Mindblade" is his actual last name, there should be some crackling story to go with it about how they got it. And it should embarrass him to carry that name around until he's earned it. It's like calling your hero "Scott Ninja-assassin." Shadowrun is a Dungeons & Dragons spinoff which spawned many novels. Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 11:09
  • I wouldn't characterize Shadowrun as a Dungeons & Dragons spinoff, any more than Harry Potter is a Lord of the Rings spinoff.
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 17:16
  • wraith808: I stand corrected; I thought it actually was a spinoff. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadowrun Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 18:03

I'd recommend a character synopsis. In depth, google it. It'll force you to ask yourself some questions about your character(s)

This brainstorming may lead to some ideas, or scenes coming to you that fit the answer you seek.


Make your hero strong, but not invincible. Superman is almost invincible, as bullets/ knives don't work on him, which is why he is boring. But that doesn't have to be the case with you. Show that it is possible for superheroes to die, maybe by killing off one early in the book.

If the hero (and the readers) knows that he is not invincible, his actions will be more real. He won't charge into the enemies lair and wind up the story in the last 10 minutes.

As for giving him character flaws, don't give him the clichéd ones. Don't make him an angsty teenager, always moaning "Why am I different? No one loves me!" And avoid the Freudian "My puppy died when I was 5, so I find it hard to form relationships". (Yes, it is an exaggeration :) )

As to what flaws to give- that will depend on you and the direction of the book. My advice is, something that has worked for me, is to have a super strong villain, and a hero who is unsure of himself. It will take him a bit to realise that he can take on the bad guy. The hero doesn't have to go from a WoW playing nerd one day to unbeatable champion the next. The process can take a whole book, if need be.

  • Superman is boring to some, but not to others. It's not the measure of the personal invincibility that makes a character interesting or not; a character can be a loser and still be totally boring. It's a matter of the conflicts and characterization. Invincibility makes it harder to introduce growth and more human characteristics as much of that is based on the presence of or overcoming weaknesses. But its not insurmountable- the effort should be on giving voice to that human quality within him. Physical weaknesses are one outlet, but I'd not focus on that as the only outlet.
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 17:25

How about this: Mathias has a shady background. Maybe he was a petty criminal, or even a lieutenant favored by the Emperor of Darkness.

Sure, he repented, and now he's on the Path of the Just. But still, old habits die hard, and old loyalties die harder still.

Consider the following conflicts this would cause:

  • Internal conflict (such as doubting himself, whether he's really doing the right thing)
  • Feeling he betrayed friends or family
  • Lack of trust from fellow rebels
  • Downright difficulty with his new-found way of life
  • Every so often, he might start slipping back into his old, evil habits

Mathias might also have an urge to simply ditch all the responsibility and live a life of freedom and carelessness. Tempt him to do so! Imagine how he must grind his teeth while struggling to aid the rebellion while none of the rebels trust him, his family views him as a traitor, and he's not even sure he's doing what's right!


I think the best way to attenuate the blandness in your superhuman character is by dropping the superficiality of invulnerability. Your protagonist might be an epitome of impeccability but what you have to keep in mind is that his challenges are equally overwhelming. The negative character that he is supposed to overcome or deal with should be having equal and opposite powers of similar amplitude and should be overall equally resourceful. That way no one is an underdog and what we have is a battle of equals, which is interesting in a way.

Now once your plot has these elements in place what you need is a personal life attached to these characters, which is going to spin enough controversy to keep the reader interested. Now there are various ways of depicting an impaired personal life. The most usual way to go about it is to create a character from the opposite sex who has a history with the protagonist, and maybe seduces the protagonist or gets him/her in a trance by so much as looking at her/him, but unfortunately plays for the opposite team. This sounds exaggerated but you have to decide on the meticulous details depending on what kind of picture you're interested in painting/at what pace you want your novel to move/in which era of history does the chaos breed, you know basically the 'theme'.

Another way of doing it is by showing him having an emotionally malnourished childhood and the fact that he went into drugs and is unable to quit so needs rehabs and without a regular visit to a rehab or without refueling himself periodically with a certain chemical he is no more than a freak dancing to the music of oppression. Use him like a lock with a rusty key that needs to be lubricated for the lock-key system to work properly and give the lubricant to his opponent and watch the story take shape...


Get him drunk and start to ask him questions. Maybe - as others suggested - about his surname. Maybe about his childhood.

You don't have to write all of it, but imagine it, and see what comes out. Somewhere in his drunken - i.e. open and uninhibited state - is the real person, and the real flaws. Once you have had that (possibly quite long) conversation, you will know the character better, and you can write some of that.

If there is something embarassing about his name in context, then someone taunting him about it might be a good setting to explore this. If he has a physical characteristic, then maybe it gets worse after some activity, and you can explore it then.

But once you have revealed these flaws, problems, irritations, then he needs to draw strength from them, and not be defeated. So maybe it is his heredity that he feels he needs to live up to. Maybe it is his disability that will not stop him. Then you have a super hero that other s can relate to, because they are drawing their real strength from their own failings.

From a readers point of view, they then know about a serious vulnerability, and how the character can react, so their super-humanity then becomes something he might possibly deserve.


Give him a totally unexpected hobby or interest that seems at first to be antithetical to his character. For example, if he loves to bake in his spare time, or likes to do Karaoke on the weekends, that reminds us not to assume we know everything about him. What other unexpected traits might he have?

Don’t be afraid to give him typical flaws. A character doesn’t have to be perfect to be likable. If we see one of our flaws in him, that draws us to the character and makes him more real. It could be as simple as never picking up after himself. Or he doesn’t feel comfortable around dogs. Or he can never resist sweet foods.


Part of the reason we read is to learn. When Superman stops a bullet with his bare hands, it doesn't really teach us anything. But if Superman overcomes his own pride and arrogance, we might glean something useful from that.

In general, if a character successfully and believably overcomes a challenge we also might face, that is compelling. And even a character who has vast powers still has internal struggles such as arrogance, insecurity, lack of empathy, selfishness, laziness, paranoia, etc.

That's part of the reason so many movies have a "training montage." The lesson is that if you want to go from hero to superhero, you have to put in the time and hard work.

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