It is amazingly tough for writers to give heroes and heroines really big flaws because they love them and identify with them. (There are similar problems with creating real obstacles, genuine losses, and real pain.)
The argument that there is no big character arc if the protagonist only has peccadilloes and that villains can’t be as interesting unless the main character has a big sin to exploit is not heard by many writers I work with. In an earlier post, I recommended giving heroes and heroines a deadly sin, one of the classic ones (Greed, Wrath, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, and Pride).
But with many writers, a trait like shyness becomes the “sin.” Usually, the response is usually along the lines of “my hero cares too much” or “my hero is too giving.” Fidelity, honor, respect, and so on are brought out as the major flaws. Hmm.
I hope this is clear:
Virtues are not vices, no matter how they get twisted.
They may need management and balance, but they are essentially good. With some exceptions (like revenge tales), few readers wants to see a hero or heroine jettison kindness or courage or loyalty or generosity or empathy or gentleness or self-sacrifice.
A good test is whether, in any context, the behavior caused by the flaw would be problematic. If not, maybe it’s not a useful flaw, storywise.
Let’s look at three flawed protagonists, beginning with the villains.
Singing’ in the Rain
Villain Lina Lamont wants Don Lockwood and to stay on top at the studio. Ultimately, by grabbing Kathy Seldon’s voice, she rescues her career and has a contract written so she can take the studio away if she’s crossed.
The hero, Don Lockwood, is prideful. He lies about his past. He holds onto the matinee image he hates because it is tied to success. He offers up Kathy’s voice as a way to save his career.
Until the end, he is willing to humiliate and sacrifice Kathy to spare himself failure.
Villain Jaws is a big shark, malevolent, eats people. The shark’s ally is the Mayor who keeps people in the water despite the dangers.
Hero Chief Brody faces problems like a terror of water and ignorance of the community and the environment, but — until the mother of a lost child slaps him in the face — he doesn’t own the responsibilities of his job. While the stink of cowardice about him is intense, I’d tag him as someone who is Slothful. (As I recall, in the book, he is a cuckold who just takes it.) He doesn’t see himself as someone who can take charge of dealing with the shark, either indirectly or directly. The Mayor seems to know this, and gives him “outs” to avoid taking charge and to back away from his decisions.
The villain, Katherine, has everything. Looks, education, and power. She wants to keep all of these, and is willing to connive and lie at the end.
Before she figures out what’s going on, this story's villains are people who are supposed to be the heroine's friends — Cyn and Mick. They know about all her bad choices (usually going along to get along) and use them to great effect to keep her in her place.
The main character, Tess, lies, steals (identity and possessions), and uses her sexuality to get ahead. Sloth (in the beginning, not standing up to others), Greed, and Dishonesty are essential parts of her behavior. The dishonesty is probably the worst of these, and that is what she gets entangled in at the end. Truth, truth, and more truth are what turns the ending for her.
I like all these protagonists, but they are all seriously flawed. I like them anyway. It is normal to like flawed protagonists. Heroes and heroines don’t need to be perfect.
More importantly, their flaws make me worry about them, and they give them plenty of room to grow and to sacrifice or act with courage in the end. I cheer when they finally find what they need to be all they can be by the end of the story. All of the stories above are big and memorable… and they all include serious growth for the main characters.
If you want to explore this further, analyze a favorite movie where you see a big character arc. Dare to name the flaws of your beloved protagonists. It will set you free to give the main characters of your own stories big flaws.