Nov 18, 2011

Our Hero's Flaws

I've been thinking a lot lately about character flaws and how they're used. The kinds of quirks that flesh out a hero and make him feel more alive. In my experience there tends to be two main types of flawed character, around which their specific traits are defined.

On the one hand you've got the highly-capable protagonist who has skill and the wherewithall to use it properly, but who is in some way unlikeable. Antiheroes tend to fit into this quite well, and this kind of character is a staple of fiction. The ruthless assassin who redeems himself. The career criminal who turns on his old associates. The badass loner who reluctantly joins the fight against the villain. Scarface, Leon, The Killer, even X-Men, all feature such characters. These heroes's flaws are ones of character, in the real-world sense. They rarely make mistakes or fail when faced with a challenge, so the drama of their development comes from seeing them choose to do the right thing when everything about who they are tells them to do otherwise.

On the other hand, we have the person who wants to help and do the right thing, but who is either woefully undertrained or prone to making mistakes which create even further complications for them to overcome. The Dresden Files, Thor, Tombstone, and The Hunger Games feature heroes that generally want to do the right thing where they can, but because of rashness, denial, or simply not having all the information available, make poor chocies which lead them into trouble. Their failings are still personality flaws, but they get things wrong more often than their other counterparts, and their development becomes less about how they choose to become better people, but how they learn to do so.

The first type of hero tends to be more cynical and world-weary, and their stories often reflect this. The second fits a more idealistic type of story, though both can be mixed and there are certainly characters that fall between the two extremes.

Let's talk! Personally I find I relate more to, and sympathise with, the second type of hero. If I just plain don't like a character, I'll find it harder to care about their struggle and I'll usually start rooting for one of the supporting characters and become more invested in their story rather than the protagonist. Of course, there have been movies that have just swept me up in story and performances and made for forget the character's flaws. I'm less likely to experience this when I'm reading a book, though, probably because I like to get myself into the head of the hero and feel what he's feeling right along with him.

Do you have a preference for one of these two extremes? What examples do you know where the hero shares traits of both?


  1. I tend to appreciate characters who don't seem superhuman and make as many mistakes as I would. The more believable a character to me, the more I enjoy the story.

  2. Oh, you got me thinking now!
    I really like people who are really trying to do the right thing. That resonates with me. But we all do make mistakes so there is a resonation there as well. I think I am of your camp on this one.
    Harry Dresden is quite the everyman but with a power he only knows partially how to control. The everyman character is someone we like.

  3. A thought - Aristotle contests that the tragic hero has to be a man “who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” He is not making the hero entirely good in which he can do no wrong but rather has the hero committing an injury or a great wrong leading to his misfortune.

  4. Sonia: Yeah, I'm the same. I like seeing characters get the chance to make amends for their mistakes as well.

    Shelly: Yeah, I'm much more readily drawn to characters who want to do the right thing, even if they don't know how quite to do it.

    Anyaphoenix: I think that reading of what Aristotle said presumes that an inherently good man can do no wrong. I'm not sure I'd agree that's the case. A character can be a just person and still make terrible mistakes or fail in his attempts to challenge the villain.