Creating a character in D&D is a hell of a lot of fun. You can be almost anything, from a devil-spawn who has renounced their heritage to become a champion of good, to a ferocious gnome barbarian with a penchant for silly hats, to a good ol’ fashioned human who just wants to fling some fireballs. The mechanical process of making a character in D&D is, to quote Matt Colville, something that’s fun to do if you already know how to do it. But the less mechanical side, the “fluff” as it’s known, is a huge part of the fun too. This is where you can get into the guts of what makes your character tick, where they come from, what they believe, who they’re close to, and all the spaces in between. And wonderfully with the advent of Backgrounds in 5th Edition D&D, this fluffy part of character creation has been rolled into the mechanics too. Not a huge amount, but just enough to force even the most number-crunching power-gamer to think about who their character is.
So with that in mind I’d like to delve into the downside of your character – let’s talk about flaws.
It’s All Lies
The seed of this post was planted in my fertile little brain while watching some videos from the YouTube series Lessons from the Screenplay, a really great series that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in the craft of storytelling. The particular video that sparked this post was Michael’s comparison of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Jin in Rogue One. The whole video is an interesting exploration of character and definitely worth watching if you’re in the process of making a new character, but in particular I want to talk about what he touches on about 6 minutes in: The Lie Your Character Believes. This is described as “a flaw or weakness that prevents your character from being their best self”. The book “Creating Characters” by KM Weiland, referenced in the video, says:
“In order for your character to evolve in a positive way, he has to start out with something lacking in his life, some reason that makes change necessary…
He is harbouring some deeply held misconception about either himself, the world, or probably both.”
Hot damn that’s some juicy fodder for character creation. I don’t know about you but reading that quote sparks about a dozen different character ideas in my head.
I typically DM far more than I play a party member in D&D. I honestly enjoy DMing more (who doesn’t enjoy being omnipotent?) and actually find the idea of playing a character sort of… stressful? Being locked into playing the same character for hours at a time weighs on my mind and affects my decisions when making a character, trying to ensure I make the character appealing to play mechanically and also create a personality and backstory that I find engaging. If I’m DMing and I get bored playing an NPC it doesn’t matter, there’s always another one right around the corner!
One character I can point to that I have enjoyed playing in recent years is Cinders, my half-elf alchemist. Cinders started life in Pathfinder but I brought him over to 5th Edition when that game jumped systems, simply reflavouring him as a Transmutation Wizard. Cinders had a loose but what I thought interesting backstory: he served as the personal pharmacist for some local thug and after a failed attempt to kill the thug he fled the city, leaving his young apprentice to take the fall. Not a bad starting point but when I looked at Cinders character sheet recently through the lens of “the lie your character believes” I saw that his flaw doesn’t tie into his backstory. Here it is:
“Most people scream and run when they see a demon. I stop and take notes.”
This is taken from the Sage background and… it’s fine I guess. This is a flaw that will complicate the character’s life at certain times, usually for a bit of comedy, but doesn’t really leave a lot of room for growth. I’ve noticed with a number of characters I’ve made recently that I’ve gone for the more light-hearted or obvious flaw than something more nuanced and I think this could be part of the reason I’ve lost interest in them. So what’s the solution?
A Halfling, a Bat, and a Jedi Walk Into a Bar
Great characters are defined by the trials they overcome, be they internal or external. So why not look to some of these characters for inspiration to see what makes a great flaw? Going forward I think it would be helpful to think of flaws in this regard as “The Lie Your Character Believes”, so with that in mind let’s take a look at a few famous characters.
Frodo Baggins: Frodo is an really interesting (and tragic) character. He spends his days in the Shire dreaming of big adventures and when he finally gets to go on one all he wants is to return home. For me, and please feel free to disagree, Frodo’s flaw would be “Once I do this, everything will go back to normal”. This is the lie he believes. Once Frodo accepts that things will never go back to normal, he resigns himself to what he must do and saves all of Middle-Earth. Even more tragically is that once he has accepted this, and things do go back to normal, he is so warped by the events that have happened that he has to leave his home for good in order to find any peace.
Something like this is fantastic for a character, particularly a soldier or adventurer. “Just one more dungeon/one last kill/one more job and I can go back to my life” is a tried and tested character trait that we often see in films. At the end of these films the protagonist usually comes to terms with the fact that there’s no going back to their old life and walk off into the sunset as the credits roll. But we get to see what happens beyond the credits. When confronted with that emptiness and loss of one’s old life, what purpose can a person hope to find?
Batman/Bruce Wayne: The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, Old Rubber Nipple George – Batman has stood the test of time. He is one of our greatest modern myths and has inspired and captivated countless people. This is even more impressive considering the media of comics relies on characters to be almost frozen in time. Things can happen to them sure: people die, they make friends, they fall in and out of love, but there’s always a “default” state that we expect them to return to. Its why new people taking on the role of Batman (or any other famous superhero) always falls a little flat – Dick Grayson might be under the cowl now but we know that sooner or later it’s going to be Bruce Wayne back under the mask.
So with a character expected to return to this default state we can’t really have a true character arc. Or more accurately we have numerous arcs that end up looping back on themselves: Bruce thinks Gotham needs Batman so he dons the tights; Bruce thinks Batman is doing more harm than good so he hangs up the cape; Bruce realises that Gotham is better off with Batman, so the pointy ears go back on; and on and on. So what is the core of Batman? What’s his biggest flaw? What single conceit has fuelled innumerable stories?
“I know best.”
That’s it. It’s my opinion of course but I think that Batman and Bruce Wayne’s flaw is “I know best”. It’s why he becomes Batman, it’s why he ignores the law, it’s why he often turns away his friends and allies, it’s why he keeps secrets, and it’s why he refuses to kill a psychotic clown who has murdered thousands of people. Bruce/Batman is completely certain that he is in the right and that is what has spawned so many stories. And that certainty in anything, be it oneself or some deity or perceived universal constant, is always a dangerous quality.
And ripe for storytelling!
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader: Continuing the black cape theme, let’s look at one of the most iconic villains of all time: Jar Ja- I mean Darth Vader. Whatever you think of the Star Wars prequel films, Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side is an interesting journey. Whether it was one that needed to be told is a separate conversation altogether but since it has been it allows us to look at what a hero’s fall to evil could look like and what the “lie they believe” along the way is.
I actually think Anakin’s flaw is the same as Mr Wayne’s above: “I know best”. Or if you want to change it up: “I’m powerful enough to handle anything.” Either of these as flaws could have lead him down the path to wearing a big black respirator on his face (and it could serve as a pretty nifty flaw to give to that overconfident barbarian).
As for Vader himself, to me his flaw has to be “True power comes from giving into hate”, or to be more concise “Love is weakness”. Vader’s evolution and growth by the end of Return of the Jedi proves this belief to be false when he turns back to the light side and defeats the emperor.
For our purposes, this type of certainty and ideology for a character is fuel for great stories. It will lead to conflict with NPCs, other party members, the world around them and much more.
Cinders from the Ashes
So having looked at three iconic protagonists (or two, and one iconic antagonist!) where does that leave me with Cinders? I want something that is more of a belief rather than a personality quirk and I think I know what fits.
“Nothing good ever comes from playing a hero.”
At first blush this might look like a terrible flaw for an adventurer whose primary occupation is generally heroics but hear me out! To me this speaks of a person who tried to do right once and got burned for it, but who wants to be proven wrong. It also contradicts one of his other traits:
“I have a soft spot for urchins, orphans, and the discarded.”
Now this is a conflicted character, and conflict is at the heart of great storytelling! He’s fighting with two sides of himself, one of which is an outwardly aloof alchemist who claims to not want to help people (but does anyway), and another side which is that a former orphan who can’t help but look out for the little guy.
I’ve actually been playing Cinders close to this when I’ve gotten the chance recently but having now nailed down this flaw I think it’ll give me a really clear “go to” when considering how he would approach situations as they present themselves. Cinders wants to be proven wrong, he wants to know that being a hero can change the world for the better.
So what say you? Do you use flaws as fun little character quirks or do you like to go deep and explore “the lie your character believes”? What are the flaws for some other famous protagonists? Mal Reynolds, Roland Deschain, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Walter White, Geralt of Rivia, Wonder Woman, Indiana Jones? Let me know in the comments!