Character: C is for Critical Flaw

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

We’re under a tornado watch today, so I’m charging my phone and blogging my post right now, just in case.  Welcome to spring east of the Rockies!


I’m in yer backyard, rearranging yer patio furniture.

 Image:  NWS/NOAA  / Wikimedia Commons

A critical flaw is something inherent in your character that will affect the story conflict in some way.  It might drive him to act, perhaps wrongly, in situations or keep him from acting when he should.  There are a million examples—Harry Potter always trying to do everything himself without asking for any help, the Marquise de Merteuil’s blindness to the consequences of her mean-girl enjoyment as she toys with her lovers (and everyone else) in Les Liasons Dangereuse.  I’m going to use Sherlock Holmes as an illustration, because I’m reading the stories right now.

 No, truly, I am.  Did I really need an excuse to post this?  Did you mind?  I think not. 

No, truly, I am.  But did I really need an excuse to post this?  Did you mind?  I think not.


Holmes’s insatiable curiosity and expansive intellect make him an excellent detective, because he 1) can’t resist the mystery, and 2) he’s driven to learn what he doesn’t already know.  He’s also an eccentric jerk.  I’m talking about Literary Holmes, not BBC Holmes, though my first impression of that version was “What an ass.”

The stories are from Watson’s point of view, so we get a bit of an exalted impression of Holmes.  Watson is enamored of his intellectual friend and partner.  He’ll get up out of bed in the middle of the night to go run off on an adventure with this guy, who basically treats him like an adoring and slightly annoying puppy.

Literary Holmes is a perfect example of a charismatic sociopath who is capable of occasional social niceties, though he can hardly be bothered.  He’s more engaging with people than the BBC Holmes and even laughs.  I don’t recall BBC Holmes ever smiling, except in the “His Last Vow” episode, and I knew in one second that was fake. [NOTE: He does–even laughs, but only genuinely with Watson.]

At times, I find Literary Holmes’s superior way of explaining things insufferable.  I wish Watson would tell him to stuff it, but he’s far too polite.  He often reminds me of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, only without the insecurity that makes Sheldon so endearing.


*knock knock knock* Watson…*knock knock knock* Watson…*knock knock knock*Watson…

*knock knock knock* Watson…*knock knock knock* Watson…*knock knock knock* Watson…


Sherlock Holmes has an interesting critical flaw; because he’s so intelligent, he thinks he’s one step ahead of everyone.  As Irene Adler clearly showed him in A Scandal in Bohemia (1891), he isn’t.  It interests me that Doyle chose to make this defeat come at the hands of “the woman,” which was ballsy for a writer in protectionist Victorian times.  Despite his admiration for her smarts, Holmes neither trusts nor exhibits any apparent physical desire for any member of the female sex.

It’s a pity Doyle didn’t work this flaw to a greater extent.  I’m not finished reading the stories yet (you should see the size of the collected works—oof), and I know there is one where Sherlock shows a bit of affection for Watson, who is just about his only friend.  (Not like that—good cripes, get your mind out of the gutter!)

What I would like to see on the show is someone (not Irene—too easy) utterly destroy the great detective with an entire episode series story arc.  Make him flail.  You can’t appeal to sociopaths on an emotional level, so the only way to do it would be to frustrate him nearly to death.  I want to see Sherlock Holmes LOSE HIS COOL COMPLETELY.  Perhaps this could happen after they’ve worked their way through all the story adaptations.

Give your character a major flaw, and then exploit the hell out of it.



4 thoughts on “Character: C is for Critical Flaw

  1. Liz, do you watch Elementary? Jonny Lee Miller plays an often unlikeable, obnoxious sociopath, often walking or even putting a toe over that fine line that defines “redeemable”. I know, he’s not Brandenburg Cragglethatch, but I still like him a lot as an actor after getting into the show.

  2. You’re posting marvelous, valuable material. Employing Holmes (we all know Holmes needs to be employed!) here is not only fun, but sharply effective. Another flaw, potentially fatal, in all versions of Holmes, is the OCD driven will-to-knowledge plunging him so deeply into Self he becomes vulnerable to “outside” physical threat. I admit, though, this might be hair-splitting a bit, as Holmes seems to be hyper-vigilant. Your blog is fascinating. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! :)

      That’s a good point about Holmes. I’m not that far into the stories, but I’m already seeing how many risks he takes. His pursuit of the truth can be absolutely hair-raising.

      On Thu, Apr 3, 2014 at 9:06 PM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:


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