I was (and still am) a great aficionado of tabletop role-playing games. What are those? Well, the most well-known example is still Dungeons & Dragons, although that example still occasionally suffers from someone who thinks of teenagers in black cloaks gathered in secluded areas to perform sacrifices to Satan. The truth was always closer to a bunch of teenagers in t-shirts gathered around a dinner table to roll dice and stuff their faces with junk food.
Also, even back when I was a kid there were more games around than just Dungeons & Dragons. In particular there was a game called Champions, where you could create and play super heroes! I even did a retrospective article on the game, if you’re interested. Regardless, it remains to my knowledge the first game system with a baked-in feature where along with figuring out how strong or fast your hero was, you also had to specify weaknesses. Flaws, which could range from physical ones like the poisoning effect of certain space rocks, to purely psychological conditions like a fear of the dark or a refusal to kill. You could theoretically create a character who had no flaws, but if you did that you wouldn’t have as many points to spend on cool stuff.
This system was perhaps my first real experience with the greater concept that a well-rounded, memorable character is defined as much by what they can’t do or have trouble doing as what they’re awesome at. I believe this is at the root of a lot of the nerd protest regarding recent Batman and Superman re-imaginings, where for decades they’ve been defined by a “no kill” policy — perhaps arguably to their detriment, but it’s also arguably a big part of what makes them interesting. Characters with no drawbacks get boring, and boring gets forgotten.
But you don’t want to just do the proverbial blind throw at the dartboard for character flaws, either. They should make sense to who the person is and what they do and what their past has been like. For instance, Frank in our comic has had a history of expressing himself poorly when he’s stressed, so in this week’s comic when he tries to indulge in some wordplay it doesn’t go well. Rosa possibly could have made the line work, but Frank just gets crickets and confusion and comes close to blowing his top as a result.
A character like Frank can have the danger of seeming “too cool for school”, so it’s good to take him out of his comfort zone on occasion and remind the reader that there’s a beating heart under that stoic exterior. Meanwhile some characters like Chuck and Lacey can seem more flawed than competent, but just like those Champions characters I used to make I like to pretend that the scales balance out, and if someone seems more or less capable at the moment it tends to be a matter of circumstance and perspective rather than objective worth.
Pretty much anyone I know — certainly including myself — has had moments where they felt out of their depth. Letting those same kinds of moments happen in fiction is an excellent way to keep your audience connected and invested, even when the character in question is some otherwise absurdly competent being like James Bond, Indiana Jones or Ellen Ripley. Or a full-on superhero. But at any level of power, I keep that mental character sheet of strengths and weaknesses in my head, ready and waiting for the circumstance of the narrative to bring them out.