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My main character is realistically flawed with a few good points. I'm very satisfied with where she is at. As I begin to connect the internal and external conflicts however, it seems that there is a limit to the number of flaws that can ultimately lead to the external conflict resolution.

Take the example of a paranoid loner suffering from addiction. Assume those are 3 distinct problems: The larger mental health issues resulting in paranoia symptoms, difficulty with relationships, and the separate mental health issue of addiction. Assume also that the external conflict is unrelated to the flaws. Maybe this person has to care for their parent suffering from dementia.

Can all three of these character flaws be resolved? How much the character can change in a novel? Is there a general rule to determine how many character flaws can be fixed?

This question about flaws helped.

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    Paranoia and addiction are not character flaws, they are medical issues. Novels are not the place to deal with medical cures. Characters can, of course, have medical issues, but that is not the same thing as a character flaw. A character flaw is a persistent moral failure. Paranoia and addiction can, of course, exacerbate moral failures, but it is important to distinguish between the two. – user16226 Sep 29 at 5:15
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    Thanks for the clarification, @MarkBaker. Where did you hear that it was impossible to deal with mental health problems in a novel? To me, it seems to be a type of performance fiction. Either way, the example is not from my own work. Ideally, someone wouldn't need an example to answer the question. – MXMLLN Sep 29 at 6:10
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    Apologies for the misspelling. Thanks for the correction, @Mari-LouA – MXMLLN Sep 29 at 23:54
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    Obviously, it can depend on the size of the novel. Also on the type of story you want to tell: in a road trip, there will be many events that could change a character deeply in a credible way. Or if your story is about the whole life of your character (think about French novelists like Maupassant), they will have a lot of time to fix their character flaws (and develop new ones!). Of course, it is possible that a single event will make your character go through a 180-degrees change: having a child, loss of a relative, discovering God, new perspective in life,... the bottom line is realism. – Taladris Sep 30 at 0:18
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    Note: As the author you can declare these things to be independent of each other, but as a reader I would immediately consider them intrinsically linked: the addiction might be rooted in a form of maladaptive self-medication for mental issues or the paranoia might be partially drug-induced; paranoia would obviously harm relationships due to trust issues etc. I'd be hard-pressed to see major influences in one's life not interacting with one another. – Pahlavan Sep 30 at 9:40
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Characters don’t need to overcome all of their flaws. They should, (there are exceptions) overcome at least one. But the character is still imperfect, and sometimes removing all of their struggles can make the character boring, which creates problems if you’re considering a sequel.

I would try to stick to resolving one, and try to tie it into the plot somehow. Find a way to make the flaw stop the character from reaching their goal. If a flaw is standing in the character’s way, that will be their reason to overcome it.

  • I think your answer is probably the closest to the consensus. Can you update your answer to why sticking to one or one set of "tied together" flaws is ideal? – MXMLLN Oct 3 at 10:32
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OP: Can all three of these character flaws be resolved?

Probably.

OP: Is there a general rule to determine how many character flaws can be fixed?

No, it all depends on how clever you are in the introduction of the character, inventing the flaws, connecting them, and inventing the journey of the character in the novel that gives her the experiences and epiphanies to grow and overcome these flaws. And how realistic you want her to be.

Now to your specific example:

a paranoid(1) loner(2) suffering from addiction(3). Assume those are 3 distinct problems: The larger mental health issues resulting in paranoia symptoms,

Stop right there. This is non-sensical, they aren't three distinct problems if they are linked, you bring up "larger mental health issues" that resulted in all three of these! How are they distinct? You are contradicting yourself.

Assume also that the external conflict is unrelated to the flaws. Maybe this person has to care for their parent suffering from dementia.

Why? Or perhaps I should say, fine, you made this job easy. If the conflict is not related to the flaws, the flaws are just a disability the MC does not have to overcome at all. They get in the way, sure. But for example, a murder detective paralyzed and bed-bound doesn't have to overcome her paralysis to solve the murder, it is just a daunting complication she has to work around to complete her mission.

Disabilities and flaws unrelated to the central crisis do not have to be overcome.

They can get in the way whenever you want, and if you strive to be realistic as an author, can get in the way when you don't want, and make your story more complicated to write. Those interferences can influence the plot, and make your job of inventing actions to lead to your desired outcome far more difficult. But you don't have to overcome them! Superman never becomes immune to kryptonite.

Your drug-addict hero may be stoned and get captured, or miss an important meeting.

Now, if you want the MC to overcome their flaws, then you have to be sure your flaws don't produce an irredeemable MC that most readers cannot forgive. Is their flaw a pedophile murderer that forces children into pornographic acts and then kills them? Forget it, that is an extreme case of irredeemable. Doing irrevocable harm to other people (like maiming them or killing them or coercing them into such acts or acts they will not plausibly forget) out of purely selfish interest (money or pleasure) is my definition of "evil", and permanent harm (mentally or physically) is what can make evil irredeemable.

Personal flaws, harming nobody but yourself, are redeemable, and correctable. Paranoia is often correctable, as is drug addiction, and even being a loner.

Off the top of my head, other correctable and redeemable flaws: Being an asshole is correctable. Depression and apathy and carelessness are correctable. Promiscuity and infidelity are correctable (although the latter might not be forgiven, an unfaithful MC can overcome, with someone else, their issues with remaining faithful). Being a thief or liar is correctable.

There are no limits to "how many flaws can be overcome" other than your ingenuity in devising plausible scenes that link together and make sense to the reader. I'd definitely try to link them together, so solving one meta-issue leads to solving multiple individual issues. For example, a lack of impulse control can plausibly lead to promiscuity, infidelity, drug addiction, irritability (being a jerk) and petty thievery. Getting a handle on the impulse control makes all the others easier to overcome.

Often, in stories, the crucial point of change for an MC with flaws is when one of these flaws is about to result in an irredeemable offense: Permanently harming someone, or doing something they themselves could not forgive themselves for doing.

As an example: In "Flight" (2012) Denzel Washington is a pilot, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a liar, a jerk, a cheater, his son and wife are estranged and hate him. None of these are causing any serious problem for him, he has a love life, he enjoys getting high and drunk, he gets his job done without causing anybody harm.

Then the plane he is flying has a mechanical problem and is going down hard. He saves (legitimately) a plane load of people. A hundred+ survive, but seven die, including a stewardess he was in love with. But in the investigation it turns out he was drunk at the time with cocaine in his system. After legal wrangling the blood evidence is thrown out and he is about to get away with this. He can make it all go away by slandering his dead girlfriend, on the stand and under oath, in front of the world.

That is what he finds an irredeemable act. He loved her. He can't do it, and confesses he was drunk and stoned. The save was truly legitimate, his flying saved a hundred some-odd lives, but he was drunk and high on coke when he did it.

In the movie he is redeemed, goes to prison for a few years, overcomes his addictions, repairs his rift with his son. That is a nice happy ending, but the climax was brought about because when provoked to what he felt was an irredeemable act, he broke.

So if you want to write a story in which the flaws are overcome, I suggest devising a story like this: The flaws are manageable, they are harming themselves more than anybody else, but eventually the flaws lead the MC into being forced to choose between an irredeemable act (in their eyes) and facing up to their flaws, and they choose to face up to their flaws.

  • Great example and epic answer. Sadly, my sentence is ambiguously worded. "The larger mental health issues resulting in paranoia symptoms" are unrelated to the two other problems. Either way, linking together flaws is extremely useful. I obviously hadn't thought of that. – MXMLLN Sep 30 at 0:31
  • There's an important constraint in your answer: Only one change happens. In the example, Denzel acknowledges he IS flawed and that a change is required. He goes on to change ALL his shortcomings and that works very well. If the flaws are not linked, it is more problematic. I've based all my characters on different levels in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The protagonist is the only one at the bottom of the pyramid, with only their physiological and safety needs met. The flaws preventing her from ascending the pyramid do not have to be resolved, but two separate ones are central to the story. – MXMLLN Sep 30 at 0:40
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Before you read this answer, understand that this is written not so much as a writer, but as a reader with knowledge of mental health issues, both professionally and personally.

Take the example of a paranoid loaner suffering from addiction. Assume those are 3 distinct problems: The larger mental health issues resulting in paranoia symptoms, difficulty with relationships, and the separate mental health issue of addiction. Assume also that the external conflict is unrelated to the flaws. Maybe this person has to care for their parent suffering from dementia.

Firstly, you should look at what you mean by 'paranoia'. In the real world, this label can range from the minor 'doesn't really trust people, due to previous bad experiences', to the full-blown medical term paranioa, where the sufferer can become convinced, despite all logic, that everybody is conspiring together to defeat them for some nefarious purpose.

The first is a character flaw that can be resolved by the character herself as part of her journey, while the second is a disease that requires professional intervention.

You should do the same for 'addiction'. Is your character somebody who hides from her problems by drinking too much, or is she actually physically addicted to her drug of 'choice'? Can she stop without medication? What about councelling? Is willpower going to be enough?

There is a massive range of symptoms and resolutions that can be considered for these issues, and you need to be sure what your character actually has. There is a very blurred line between 'character flaw' and 'mental health issue', and you should be careful when treading that line to keep things believable, and to avoid offending people.

Despite what some people may believe, however, a mental health issue can still be treated as a character flaw, and can be 'resolved' in the same way, as long as it is done with care and compassion. I suggest reading some books/blogs written by people who have issues similar to the ones your character has, to get a good grounding in reality.

Once you've done this, you can then look into how interconnected these issues actually are. Mental health issues rarely present as separate, distinct elements. They usually overlap. They influence each other; they can actually feed on each other. You can't (and I would argue shouldn't want to) separate these issues into distinct, unrelated problems to be dealt with or resolved individually.

An addict, for example, can push people away to hide her addiction, and thus increase her distrust of others, feeding her paranoia. Take away her addiction issue, and she could better understand her other issues, and be more willing to resolve them. Conversely, her paranoia could lead to her not trusting somebody who is trying to help her beat her addiction.

Finally, you can rarely remove these issues from external confict either. In the example you gave, your character is caring for a parent with dementia. This is a highly emotional issue for the character, which would almost certainly influence her addiction, and her ability to deal with others, as it is a lonely, isolating position to be in.

Once you examine these factors, and how they interact with each other, it will become easier to see that they do not necessarily need to be resolved individually and distinctly. They may not all be resolved at all.

There is no limit to the amount of flaws your character can have, as long as you interconnect them believably, treat them with understanding of the underlying issues, resolve them believably (or not at all), and show compassion to real-life sufferers.

Write what best fits the story you want to tell, and good luck.

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Question: How many characters flaws can the main character overcome?

Answer: Six.

But seriously, there's no way anyone could give a hard number.

If the hero has no flaws at all to overcome, the story is likely to be boring. Like I always had a problem with Superman: They make him invincible, but then to say that an invincible man defeats ordinary mortal people is boring, so they have to drag in artificial limitations, like, oh, but he's allergic to kryptonite.

If the hero is too seriously flawed, the reader may find him unsympathetic. Like if the hero is trying to achieve some great and worthy goal, but his pride gets in the way of him seeking the help he needs, that can make an interesting story. But if he's not just proud but also greedy and exploitive and rude and lazy and twenty other personal flaws, at some point the reader is going to decide that he's just not a likable person and that he deserves to fail.

Another issue is plausibility. If the hero is struggling with drug addiction and finally triumphs and overcomes it, ok, that can certainly be plausible -- real people have overcome drug addiction. But if he's struggling with 20 separate mental health issues and personal problems and overcomes them all, that could be hard to make believable. Not impossible, of course. Many stories are about a hero facing incredible odds and winning. But it's harder to make is believable.

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