Flawed Heroes

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:

  1. What are Rick’s flaws?
  2. Do you like him because of or despite his flaws?

James Bond Pan Book Covers2



4 thoughts on “Flawed Heroes

  1. Actually in the next chapter Tatum puts it pretty well: he’s a “snake with the morals of a tom cat” & “an unenlightened Norman”. Without his flaws he wouldn’t be any fun.

  2. I’ve been out of touch a bit… And I’m sure summer contributes to the delayed readers.

    If your hero isn’t flawed, you don’t have a story. That sums it up for me. Rick is flawed, but he’s flawed in a way that is acceptable to society at large—a “boys will be boys” type of flaw. This isn’t one that many will do much more than snicker or frown at, but it’s enough to bring in the tension and conflict, internal and external.

    My 2 cents.

  3. When we meet Rick in Chapter 1, he is considering the aftereffects of his drunken “encounter” with the boss’s daughter–a teenager and 13 years younger than Rick. Definitely a tomcat. And definitely immature for a 32-year-old.

    Adding the line “OK, maybe I should have used a bit more judgment” gives the reader hope that there is some opportunity for growth here. And I want there to be growth because I like him in spite of his flaw.

    I have a strong (over?) reaction to the whole “boys will be boys” theme. It’s walking a tightrope where one small misstep leads to the military sexual assault horrors.

    From CNN,
    “Addressing top military officials, [Sen. Saxby] Chambliss, R-Georgia, said: “The young folks that are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22-23. Gee whiz — the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. . . . ”

    And a response by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz: “I think he should think about whether if, God forbid, a sexual assault happened to a daughter of his, would he think it was OK for a senator to just chalk the assault up to raging hormones?”

    NOT saying that Rick has crossed that line–clearly he hasn’t–but he’s set up in the beginning as a witty lead character with a lot to learn. More fun for the reader.

  4. I am thinking that Rick’s flaws are that he does not have a clear vision of where he wants to go or what he wants to be when he grows up. So far, he is doing a good job of following through on the assignment that he has been given, but he also seems to be a bit distracted by the fact that he has gained this plum assignment which includes pretty much everything but a goddam TV. He’s got a nice little spot. He is out of the fire which included the 19 year old hitting on him. He has managed to find something more interesting and lucrative than sitting around reporting on high school football games, but is he really working hard at solving this mystery? I am not sure at this point. He’s kinda fumbling around hoping that the answer will just drop in his lap and he will collect the 25k, and get to sleep with with the cute divorcee that put him up to this.

    Yes, I like him a lot. Great voice and feeds into my basically lazy outlook on life that things should just drop into my lap as opposed to being something that I have to work hard to accomplish. Of course, that is the struggle that I have every day waking up. But, I seem to have found a better balance than Rick at this point.

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