Use Character QUIRKS, Not Flaws
Yes, I'm still on a My Hero Academia kick. It's really good, you guys!
YOU'VE SEEN THIS STORY BEFORE . . .
If you're reading this, chances are you've probably heard this tip—that if you're designing a character, you should give them flaws to make them more interesting and more realistic. And you know that IT DOES WORK. In fact, you probably have characters out there who are your favorites in large part BECAUSE of their flaws.
After all, flaws are what makes a character relatable, human, and multi-dimensional. A character design with no flaws is essentially "perfect" . . . but they're not really a character yet. They're just a concept.
More importantly, flaws give you, the storyteller, something to build off of when you're designing a story to go along with a character. Flaws are the foundation of good character development. If they're flawless, it can be really hard for your audience to follow along with your story because there's no tension pushing the characters forward to become better (or worse) than they were on page one.
IT'S HARDER THAN IT LOOKS
The problem is, storytellers often get stuck trying to give their characters flaws to make them stand out . . . and they can't get un-stuck. Here are just a few bad examples:
Making the character a plain ol' jerk and leave it at that. These characters are boring and flat—and honestly, nobody needs people like this in their life.
The flaws don't have an impact on the plot. This is fine, but at least some flaws should have an influence on what's happening, otherwise the flaws serve no purpose.
Giving the character too many giant flaws. In extreme situations like this, the character becomes so convoluted that the audience doesn't know which psychological issue they're dealing with at any given moment.
For me, the trick to making a character stick out—whether it's a protagonist, antagonist, or bystander—is to give them character "quirks" instead of character flaws. (Yes, this is My Hero Academia language, but it works well for this, I promise!)
WHY A QUIRK?
The difference between a flaw and a quirk is critical: A flaw is something that's inherently negative that prevents the character from doing what they want to do. On the other hand, a quirk is something that is merely an identifying trait—something that's not necessarily good or bad.
By making that element of the character design morally ambiguous, you open up your characters to the opportunity to build a relationship between themselves and their "flaws." Sometimes, the character doesn't like that this quirk is part of their personality . . . and other times, they love it. And those feelings might change from situation to situation. In the end, this quirk could be a tool in the character's arsenal OR a thorn in their side.
As human beings, we're always growing and changing. And, hopefully, that means we're always trying to become better versions of ourselves—which means that we have to deal with the aspects of our personality that might prove more challenging than others. If we apply this same principal to the development of our characters, we allow them to maintain that relationship with themselves just like real human beings do. Plus, we can touch on those topics at applicable points in the plot to develop the story itself. Quirks make a character MUCH more interesting than simple flaws.
CASE STUDY: ALL MIGHT VERSUS SUPERMAN
Since I'm on a My Hero Academia kick this season, let's take an example from my favorite character on the show: All Might. (Yes, I'm a sucker for a Superman type.) But that's the thing—All Might is LITERALLY a Superman type. He was designed as the perfect American-themed superhero with super strength, sort-of flight, and an indomitable spirit who serves as a symbol of hope for the world. In fact, if you put their character stats side by side, they look remarkably similar.
However, All Might is objectively MUCH more interesting than Superman (even though it pains me to say it). Many superhero fans say that Superman is one of the most boring superheroes around, and that's totally fair. There are plenty of Superman stories that fall flat. The hero gets depicted as the "perfect" person, with Clark Kent serving as Superman's mask.
And that just doesn't really do it for me.
In the end, the main reason All Might's story kicks Superman's story's butt sometimes is not because of any difference in power type, construction, or plot. It's because All Might has a super-compelling set of CHARACTER QUIRKS that both make AND break his character.
Let's break this down with my favorite All Might story arc: Toshinori Yagi, a.k.a. All Might, was the number-one professional hero in Japan for decades. He was popular, powerful, and super charismatic. But time eventually comes for us all, and when All Might wins his final battle against the forces of evil and retires, he has to come to terms with the fact that he's no longer the person that he used to be.
All Might spent his whole life fighting for the good of everyone else in the world—and now, he's forced to accept that that part of his identity doesn't exist anymore. He can't jump feet first into a fight and expect to win; instead, can he learn to rely on others for his protection, often those he mentored? He doesn't spend his days fighting the bad guys; so what will he choose to do with his time? He's no longer in a position to give up his life in service of others; so what will he live his life for now? Himself?
This disconnect between his new life as basically a normal retiree is RADICALLY human, painfully beautiful, and just plain SUPER.
THE MAN & THE HERO
As an added bonus, it's interesting to see the aspects of his personality that made him into the number-one hero in the context of this ordinary old dude. All Might is charismatic because he makes huge claims like "You're safe now! Why? Because I AM HERE!"—and he can deliver on those promises. But when an ordinary guy acts like that, it comes off as goofy and ridiculous. (Like, what rando on the streets says stuff like that?) Yet he HAD to be like that in order to become All Might.
Similarly, his diligence, determination, and compassion come across in a whole new light when we see these character quirks in action in the plot—and this makes the character all the more compelling. He turns his diligence for crimefighting into a diligence for teaching. He turns his determination to win every battle into a determination to make a difference in a new, less violent way. And eventually, slowly, he turns his compassion for others into a compassion for himself.
These character quirks have both good and bad sides, and the way the character deals with those quirks is a great way to make truly riveting characters. All Might's audacity can be used for good, or it can make him seem foolish. His diligence and determination could make him seem tenacious or obstinate. His compassion can be seen as a positive (since, after all, heroes should care about the wellbeing of others), or it can be a crutch that he uses to avoid dealing with issues in his own life.
SERIOUS & SILLY QUIRKS FOR YOUR WORKS
You can model your own characters after strong examples like All Might. But you don't have to make them as world-changing as the ones I explained above. You can choose from a wide array of serious and silly quirks like these:
Your character gets especially claustrophobic when they're nervous.
They're bubbly or optimistic to a fault.
They value health and physical fitness and believe that everyone should have the same drive to exercise as they do.
Their broken relationship with a parent has made them too trusting of authority figures.
They're really into plants and could talk to you for hours about feeding and watering schedules.
Whatever quirks you give to your characters, let those quirks find a way into your story—and you'll find that your character development is all the more interesting for it.