Creating Flawed Characters

I’ve been giving some thought to creating truly wicked characters and I came across this article on the science blog about words and how computer analysis makes them windows into the soul of a psychopathic killer. The researchers analysed the stories told be 14 psychopathic male murderers and compared them with 38 convicted murderers who were not diagnosed as psychopathic.

Psychopaths used more conjunctions like “because,” “since” or “so that,” implying that the crime “had to be done” to obtain a particular goal. They used twice as many words relating to physical needs, such as food, sex or money, while non-psychopaths used more words about social needs, including family, religion and spirituality. Unveiling their predatory nature in their own description, the psychopaths often included details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime.

Past as prologue: Psychopaths were more likely to use the past tense, suggesting a detachment from their crimes, say the researchers. They tended to be less fluent in their speech, using more “ums” and “uhs.” The exact reason for this is not clear, but the researchers speculate that the psychopath is trying harder to make a positive impression, needing to use more mental effort to frame the story.’

This creates an interesting insight for a writer who is trying to create the inner workings of a killer’s mind . But people who are just evil because they are evil are pretty boring.

Most people aren’t like Professor Moriarty. In real life people make mistakes, they act on impulse, and often they don’t have clear motives that they understand. Sometimes they don’t understand until years later what prompted them to take a certain action.

We are writing fiction, so we are trying to make sense of the world. We try to bring closure to our stories. We need the character’s actions to make sense to the reader, even if the character doesn’t have the insight to understand why they acted.

I’m in the middle of trying to create some really flawed characters and finding it really entertaining.

This is my last post as a regular on the Mad Genius Club. I’d just like to thank Dave for inviting me onto the shared blog and the MGC team for making me feel welcome. I’ve learnt a lot over the last two years.

With the list of things I have to do getting longer and longer, I feel like I’m running on the spot to stop myself from going backwards. Something’s got to give and I don’t want it to be my sanity.

Here’s wishing the MGC bloggers and everyone who has supported the blog the very best with their writing endeavours!



  1. Ooo! This could be so useful . . . I wonder if we, on the receiving end, pick up subconscious clues. “Run from this preson!” That would help set up the bad guy in the reader that the reader might not even notice.

    I’m going to run off and NaNo with some folks, then come back and read the article.

    We understand about being over booked and lacking time. This is supposed to be fun for all concerned, not one more stress point. So don’t forget to come back and read, and there’s always room for guest bloggers any time you find something interesting.

    1. Thanks, Pam.
      I’m creating flawed characters right now and I’m trying to make them believeable so their motivation is clear to the reader, even if it isn’t clear to them. Very tricky, but fun!

      Good luck with NaNo.

  2. This is a different take on “Flawed Characters”. When I think of “Flawed Characters”, I think of characters (created by authors) that I want to kill to put them out of my misery. People who in real world who don’t amount to anything and I don’t want to read about them.

    What I see you’re doing is adding believable flaws to otherwise competent characters. [Smile]

    1. Yes, Paul, the trick is to build the flaw into the larger character. For instance in book one of King Rolen’s Kin, a lot of Byren’s problems stem from one act (when he claimed Orrie’s incriminating pendant as his own). But he did it to protect his friend. So his flaw was being impulsive and not thinking things through. It sprang from loyalty to a friend, so the reader can forgive him.

  3. Letting the characters’ flaws show, without being heavy-handed and blatant about it, is something I’m still working on learning. Your post is right on the money, I think.

    Farewell wherever you may fare, until your aeries receive you at the journey’s end … We will certainly miss you! And I’ll still keep turning Rolen face-front on any shelves where I find him, I promise. 🙂
    (By the way, I think he is nearing the top of my wife’s to-be-read pile …)

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