So, our question for today is: how flawed does your hero need to be?
There is little more boring than a flawless character. I mean, it may be OK for your occasional summer read when you can’t take a trip to Paris or Bali so you read a novel where the hero outwits the bad guys at every turn, charms all the buxom beauties with his steely good looks and witty conversation, continually overcomes hopeless odds, both by his amazing skills in hand-to-hand combat or his world-class marksmanship and lightning reflexes. But one should pretty much last you for the summer, probably for the year.
My first experience that I can recall with a mildly flawed hero in an action/adventure novel was James Bond. Ian Fleming, considered by many today to be hopeless dated, was extremely deft in creating a character heroic enough to be loveable and flawed enough to be interesting (if you’ve only seen the movies and never read a novel, get one today!) But at age 10, I was astonished. I mean, the heroes in the kids stories that I’d read weren’t like that. Well, there you have it: kids stories. Even if they’re written for grown-ups.
The other end of the spectrum is the tragically-flawed hero. Hamlet, for example. But now you’re talking about serious literature, not what “we” write (if your fiction has been compared to Hamlet, you can stop reading this now–you are not the audience for this post).
So, back to the original question: how flawed is enough?
Let’s start by dividing character flaws into two categories. First you have your:
→ QUIRKS. These are eccentricities that make your character loveable. If you were dating the character, you might find them mildly annoying but you’d be OK living with them if you ended up marrying the guy (or gal; this is not a gender-specific discussion). Or maybe not: some quirky characters are loveable in books but you shudder at the thought of marrying one. Your character is probably going to end the books with these, so don’t make them too obnoxious.
→ AREAS FOR GROWTH. In good books, heroes grow. In order to grow, they have to have areas to grow in. Places where they’d like to be different, and during the course of your story they have opportunities to change.
Here’s some advice from an email exchange I had with a young writer. He was working on a first novel and had patterned his hero after an idealized version of himself. I first cautioned him that you have to have some distance between your and your character or you’ll have serious blind spots, and so while it’s OK to have the character “like” you, it can’t “be” you. Then I added this:
Once you get some basics down, build in some flaws. Shy? Afraid of the dark? Loses his temper easily? Can’t stay focused on anything, sort of drifts around looking for direction? Tends toward violence? Something that isn’t TOO obnoxious–otherwise, you won’t like him–but gives him something inside to fight against, work on, AND GROW (what makes books good rather than OK is when the main character grows).
Caution: if your character’s flaws get in the way of him performing his primary purpose in the novel, you’ve stepped over the boundary into Literary Fiction. Indecisive and aversion to violence are probably not good choices for your secret agent type. Likewise, pathological homeliness and a low libido may not work well for either partner in your erotic romance.
Another Caution: if you are planning a multivolume series with the same main character(s) throughout, handling growth is a significant consideration. Make progress in one growth area while creating another? Slow progress but not there yet? No growth (oh, horrors!). I confess that this is the major reason why I’ve never considered writing a sequel, much less a series.
You’ll probably notice that we’re at the end of the post and I haven’t answered the question for you. That’s because there isn’t A right answer (or if there is, I don’t know it). But if you do it well, your writing will be significantly better.
Instead, I offer these Questions for Readers:
- What are Rick’s flaws?
- Do you like him because of or despite his flaws?