Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Seeking a Character Flaw


I’m back at my novel, after having had a break, and I am deeply into a plotting exercise that I have to complete before I start the second draft. I’ve been trying to get inside the skin of my main protagonist, Lindiwe Dlamini, for over a year now. I know her fairly well, but it’s an ongoing process of discovery. Let me tell you a little about Lindiwe:

She’s in her late fifties, and, having started her career as a teacher, now heads up a Swiss-funded AIDS organisation. Lindiwe’s husband Andile was a community organiser who died in police detention in the Eighties. He was the love of her life and she has never – despite taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – had any closure on how he died or who was responsible. Her oldest son Peter died of AIDS in his mid-twenties. Her second child, Bongani, manages a small business and is happily married with two children. Her daughter, Mbali, is a fashion journalist in Joburg and shows no signs of settling down, though she has a handsome boyfriend who spoils her. Neither child approves of their mother’s work in AIDS: they think she has worked too hard all her life and that she should retire and enjoy her grandchildren.

However Lindiwe is committed to doing her best for her community. Shaped by apartheid and their religious beliefs, it’s how she and Andile tried to live their lives. Turning away now would be a betrayal of their shared goals. So she keeps working, helping those less fortunate than herself. During the course of the story, a series of events will challenge Lindiwe’s belief in community, and she will have to decide whether to choose a small group of individuals over the collective.

Here’s my problem: isn’t Lindiwe a bit too perfect? I’ve said before that I have a tendency to write lead characters who are too damn nice. As chief protagonist, Lindiwe needs to be relatively likeable, otherwise we might lose sympathy with her. I do feel though that she needs a flaw – apart from her sugar vice – that makes her a little more complex and nuanced.

You have more emotional distance from Lindiwe than I have. Please, suggest a flaw. She needs one.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

25 thoughts on “Seeking a Character Flaw

  1. Hmm. One flaw that many in principle too damn nice people have is that they let people down. They try to make everybody happy and they say yes too often. And then they cannot keep all promises made. The particularly bad thing about this is that they often let down those people most badly who are closest, i.e. the own children or the spouse.

  2. I worry that AIDS medication helps spread AIDS rather than prevent it or stamp it out but if one of my kids died of AIDS I could see that as a reason to keep fighting the disease, even against the advice of my other kids. Reading your description, I found that to be a more compelling reason for her not giving up the work, rather than just a common goal she shared with her husband. But sorry, that’s not what you asked. A flaw. Honestly she doesn’t sound too nice, she just sounds like someone with a mission. The kids sound a bit perfect, maybe they could be a bit more screwed up and she would have to choose between being there for them and being there for the people she’s committed to help. And if she chooses ‘strangers’ over her own fam, is that a strength or a weakness? Most of us tend to value our immediate circle more than the collective. Will she be different?

  3. Hi again …. I was abused by the SA police when I desperately needed their help in a really rough situation; it left a deep scar of mistrust of anything to do with the judicial system, and the police system specifically. Instead of seeing them as saviours and safe havens, I saw them as self-important, arrogant, vicious men and women who saw themselves above and outside the law. For the next year, I shook when I saw them, would do anything to avoid any encounter with them and found myself running them down as a group, when in fact it had been two specific people who had acted this way. Because of Lindiwe’s tragic past with the police, could she have a recurring suspicion of mistrust of the police’s role in the community, which subconciously shapes her actions and behaviours; she finds herself undermining their authority and their presence, almost without concious awareness, which in turn creates trouble within the community? Those who know her recognise her blindness and realise where it comes from and make allowances for it. Those who don’t, mistake her blindness as political posturing and she finds herself being a spokesperson for a radical element, without even knowing how or what she did to get there.

  4. Hi, sounds like an interesting story, but maybe have your central character struggling with anger over the things she has experienced (ie. husband and first son dying). Character stuff is always difficult, I’ve had some huge struggles with mine. All the best with your novel. I’ve posted quite a few writing tips on my blog. check them out if you have time.

  5. Interesting little exercise, the search for flaw… I know a number of “selfless” people, for me it’s that one step beyond altruism, where the self indeed becomes very vague. Reaching out to others who suffer is very enriching for the soul, but may also help to prevent too much thinking, looking back, closing, recharging. And this industrious well-doing can never be returned to the selfless individual at the level it was delivered. So she may feel let down a lot. People may feel uncomfortable around your character as she seems to have these masses of energy, while there’s plenty of humans who find getting up in the morning a great achievement. Is that a flaw? Not sure. I guess it depends how your reader interprets this?

  6. people who are that committed to a cause often overlook the needs of their family/children, or let them down at a critical time because their focus is *too* intent, and they have blinders on. or they fail to be there for their kids because they think others need them more.

  7. Hey, nice blog. Agree with the comments above. The violence experienced and South Africa leaves much in terms of scars and no one is immune to the effects. No matter how good the reaction is sometimes and intentions honourable, most SAFFERS have some form of anger, whether they live there, have experienced violence or not….

  8. Hey, nice blog. Agree with the comments above. The violence experienced and South Africa leaves much in terms of scars and no one is immune to the effects. No matter how good the reaction is sometimes and intentions honourable, most SAFFERS have some form of anger, whether they live there, have experienced violence or not….

  9. The first word that popped into my head was anger – she keeps a lid on it most of the time but occasionally it erupts at the wrong target – perhaps her children?

  10. You’ll figure it out. I have faith in you.

  11. I don’t know–WHY does she do all this work? Perhaps there is a little bit of selfish desire? Or a tragic reason stemming from a tragic flaw? And what does she do when she or the world does not live up to her ideals?

    anyway. I highly recommend looking into the Enneagram which is a personality model based on what each personality type is drawn to and moves away from. Lindiwe sure sounds like a “1” on the Enneagram: the Perfectionist/Idealist. Type 1s are idealistic and work on making the world a better place. They do NOT deal well with their own anger.

  12. Also–type 1s have “trap doors”: i.e., they work toward the ideal, they strive towards perfection…oftenthey get anger, having suppressed it because they perceive it as “wrong” to be angry…and when all goes wrong, they often step through a trap door and rebel against their own life (driven by anger).

  13. If you’re trying to get under her skin to expose her less savoury points, how about introducing another character who gets into her pants?

    This comment is meant to be somewhat cheeky. 🙂

  14. Her relationship with her daughters is distanced, if not lacking in true maternal love. They know their mother is well loved by others. They realise that the people her mother is helping need to see their mother as a saint, which makes it impossible for them to work out the disparities in the lack of connection in their mother’s relationship to them. Whether it was the police violence, the loss of husband and son, an unconscious societal devaluing of girls over boys, the vast darkness (AIDS) overshadowing their small needs… in truth, their mother doesn’t love them.

  15. Through her work she is trying to validate herself however due to her intense focus on her cause for which she works tirelessly she neglects her family and grandchildren – forgotten birthday parties, unreturned phonecalls, while she tries to alleviate the suffering of others she is causing the suffering of those closest to her, alienating the ones she actually loves and although she doesn’t believe she is doing it on purpose she does have a choice….

  16. It looks like the two main themes are anger and neglect of her own family, which are promising. I was also thinking self-riteous and holier-than-thou might work, although it would make her less sympathetic. No one likes a whiner. No one really likes a martyr, either, though, until about 100 years later. It also depends on from whose POV the flaw will be experienced. Will it be implied to the reader via her own thoughts or will the thoughts of other characters be visible? Maybe you could have her have doubts about her own commitment but doggedly carry on out of memory to her husband and son until the final crisis. Or you could cheat and do something that has worked extremely well for many writers of popular female fiction and just make her overweight and obsessed about it, but still have amazing, witty, supportive friends and get the guy in the end.

  17. Lol! It is very hard to make your main character the bad guy.

    Good luck.

  18. Sounds to me like she should just be a regular old obsessive-compulsive. She’s got so much in her life to have to try to control.

  19. Maybe you could have her remain emotionally distant from her grandchildren. I’m assuming she was a devoted mom, but perhaps she finds herself unable to feel much for her grandchildren.

    Just an aside, but your novel sounds wonderful!

  20. I’m not so sure that she sounds too perfect. Lots of people do noble and honorable things because they are driven by demons that are not so noble, in an attempt to for compensate, or flee from those demons. Maybe the flaw is why is she doing the things she does? What really drives her to do these things? You write her religious beliefs and apartheid shaped her, but why do they drive her to be so community focused? Why does she stilll hold true to those beliefs in spite of the pains that have happened in her life? Is it because she wants to make the world a better place? seek revenge for wrongs done or solace for having contributed to wrongs done to others even while going through injustices herself? What would her son Peter have thought about her choices? Would he have viewed this as some recompense for his death, some sort of cosmic bargaining that if only she had done somehting sooner he would not have died? some sort of means to make up for the fact that she can’t forgive those who have wronged her and her family despite feeling that she should (does she? should she?) Maybe her flaw is that she believes unwaiveringly in the power of community and that is what makes her choice between small group & collective difficult.

  21. Hmm, well, I can’t imagine the levels of grief you would suffer if you lost both a husband and a son. It’s the ability to carry on in a banner-waving sort of way that strikes me as perhaps less credible. People do it, but it’s fueled with terrible anger, distress, anxiety, even if that’s hidden for most of the time. I think you know yourself what’s wrong when you say she’s too nice. Perhaps you’d like to give her a manic edge, a pit of suffering, but find it hard to write that yourself? I seem to have the opposite problem – I can’t write about anyone who isn’t scarred by life, and that must be unrealistic too, as many find ways to carry on with strength and resilience. Good luck with it! Like Lilian, I have absolute faith you’ll find a way through.

  22. I agree with Jadepark on exploring the WHY side. Perhaps she blames herself for something related to her husband’s or son’s deaths?

  23. Far be it from me to tell you what to write. But I want to stick up for your heroine. I think she is just great. She ain’t 2 dimensional, she is very real. Why can’t she do her work out of a desire to make the world better? Why does she have to have a flaw anyway? Why can’t she just have a big bottom and pick her hangnails in public? That said, I know you know what you are doing. Listen to Lindiwe. I’m sure she’ll reveal any flaws she might have…

  24. Like Lilian and Litlove, I have total faith you’ll figure this out. I suspect you may already be mulling it over in the recesses of your mind. If you’re looking to jog that thinking into the conscious part of your brain, perhaps ask yourself what drives her crazy. What upsets her, makes her angry – and what does she always take pains to conceal from others? Our flaws often reside in our secrets.

  25. I know you’ll figure this out. I’m sort of liking the burning anger beneath it all as a flaw, and properly channeled rage can be an amazingly constructive thing. My biggest flaw is my desperate need for approval; it was one of my main motivators to set up my blog and that has been very instructive for me as I deal with my new need for approval from the internet community in addition to the other sources I “need” it from.

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