Are Your Characters Wearing This Badge?
More often than I expect, I read stories with characters that are good at everything. If watching Australian Idol auditions taught me anything, it's that people should be aware of their shortcomings. By knowing what you are hopeless at (for me anything that requires balance or talking to strangers), then you can focus on the areas you excel, and those traits will endear a character to the reader.
Charismatic, clever and brave James Bond had his weaknesses - alcohol and girls. A femme-fatale carrying a martini (shaken, not stirred)? Then forget it, he's a goner. In Devil May Care (Sebastian Faulks), the narrator comments that James is excellent at knowing who to trust. Really? It seems to me that in every mission he ends up getting mixed up with women who try to kill him, or accepts a drink from a villain only to find he's been drugged.
Choose flaws for your character. Make sure that shortcomings cause them problems on their journey through the story. Perhaps it's something that's necessary to achieve their goal, solve the murder or escape death? You could make them face it (Indiana Jones and his snake phobia) or give them a sidekick that can pick up the slack.
They could be clever, talented and attractive, but... not a very nice person. Lots of great characters have personality flaws, Sherlock Holmes wasn't very pleasant to people, he was only interested in the mystery. This character has been recreated today as Dr Gregory House (in the TV series House). When the occasion requires sympathy and emotional understanding, that's where their sidekick, Watson/Wilson, steps up.
Sam Spade got the job done, but when he wasn't on the clock he was drinking himself into a stupor or bonking his partner's wife. Even sweet old Miss Marple had her moments: in Towards Zero, while on a boat, Miss Marple accuses a suspect of swimming from his hotel to the victim's house. His defence is that he can't swim and everybody knows it. Sly Miss Marple gives him a little push into the ocean but it turns out he was telling the truth.
I'm reading Too Many Murders by Colleen McCullough, featuring chief of detectives, Carmine Delmonico. The plot is great, it's set in 1967 and one April day 12 separate murders are committed, but the detective suspects a link. I find myself skimming parts about Delmonico's private life because it seems too perfect. Great job, well liked, talented, beautiful home, beautiful wife, gorgeous daughter (also extremely talented) and a beautiful bouncing baby boy. *Yawn*
Your character can think they're perfect, as long as it's obvious they're not.
We want characters to be really bad at some things because it provides conflict for the story and makes the character accessible to the reader. What do your characters really suck at?
Some links on Characters and Flaws: