Today we had a rather interesting discussion in my Science Fiction and Fantasy class (for those of you new to the blog, yes there’s such a thing. Apparently Ohio State’s English Department has been studying the foundations of nerd culture since 2007. And possibly there’s a grad student in the Sociology Department who’s studying the actual people of nerd culture, but that’s an investigation for another time). Anyway, we were talking about the differences between heroes in science fiction stories from pre-WWII and the stories written after WWII.

In the pre-WWII stories, the heroes were always larger than life, able to overcome evil and fight off any villain with ease. In a sense, they were Supermen without superpowers, and they still won every battle, got the girl, saved the world, and were home in time for tea. Some great examples were John Carter of Mars from the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Freder from the movie Metropolis.

But then you have World War II. There you see death camps, POW marches, bombings, jungle warfare, beaches that run red with blood, mortars and claymores and bullets, racism and nationalism, beheadings, and several other bits of Hell made incarnate. Those who came back from the war were given a darker outlook on the world, and those whose talents were more geared to the written word and who in turn enjoyed a little space travel incorporated that new world view into their work. The best examples I can give you of the sort of hero that became popular after WWII are Barton from the short story The Cold Equations and Han Solo from Star Wars. They are not Supermen. They are simply men. They have problems, conflicts, flaws. Barton is haunted by what his job requires him to do when he finds a stowaway on his ship. Solo is looking out for himself and his ship and nobody else, though the Expanded Universe of Star Wars says that he’s like that because his lover died leaving him cynical and jaded. And then he met Jabba the Hutt.

The point is people liked these characters. A lot. They’ve been around since then in some way or another. Look around at science fiction and fantasy stories today. Harry Potter admits he’d be lost without his friends, and as Hermione is fond of pointing out, he’s useless with girls. Katniss Everdeen is troubled by her feelings for both Peeta and Gale and her memories of the Hunger Games, and is only in the situations she’s in so that she can protect her sister and stay alive, in that order…though she does love a little revenge every now and then. Max de Costa from Elysium is trying to be a better man, but with his life on the line he becomes the definition of a survivalist, willing to do anything to live. And Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a host of issues that inhibit her life, especially in season six of the series. Jeez, that season was psychologically dark!

And it’s not just science fiction. Other genres of speculative fiction have these sorts of character. My own fiction has these sort of flawed characters:

Zahara Bakur (Reborn City): low self-esteem and a sometimes overwhelming timidity and fear of violence.

Rip (Reborn City): recovering drug addict with image issues.

Snake (Snake): highly disturbed serial killer due to abusive childhood.

Laura Horn (Laura Horn): pathological shyness, social anxiety and general anxiety due to sexual assault.

Why are these characters so popular when they are so far from perfect? I think it has something to do with the fact that’s what they are: imperfect, They care deeply and try hard, but occasionally they fail and they fall and the consequences are terrible. To the readers, that makes them real. We don’t want to read about infallible heroes, because we know all too well that they don’t exist. We want heroes who are a little more like us. They depend on people, they hurt, they need a good smack occasionally to see that what they’re doing is hurting both themselves and their loved ones. We’ve all been in positions like that to some degree in our lives. And that makes these characters relatable to us, and our problems, even if they don’t involve magic or spaceships or fighting in an arena with other young kids.

Not only that, but these protagonists tend to grow in the story. They tend to become better than what they were before. And I don’t mean better warriors or fighters or healers or wizards or whatnot. I mean better people. They learn what’s really important in life, or how to express their love for others, or they come back as true leaders who put the lives and interests of those who depend on them first. In other words, the sort of people we want to be.

I personally prefer using these characters with their flaws and warts and troubles. I used to be more into characters that were impervious, Granted, I was a kid at the time, and all my favorite TV, movie, and book heroes seemed impervious to me. But I’m older now, smarter, wiser, and a bit more aware that the world doesn’t usually produce such heroes. So I like to use the heroes with problems, with something that’s keeping them back. Along with the conflict of the story, it gives me something to grapple with and for the characters to grapple with as they fight onwards. After all, a story is not just getting from Point A to Point B, it’s also about letting the characters grow and become better people.

“I’m not even perfect, and I’m bloody brilliant in all my forms.”

Now are these sorts of characters here to stay? I’m tempted to say yes, at least for the meantime. If you look at the latest movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books, the main characters all have problems of some sort that makes life difficult for them. Watching them grow, take on these problems, and overcome them is part of the appeal of the story. And I certainly plan to use these flawed characters in the future, as do other writers I know. So yes, it’s quite possible these flawed protagonists will be staying for quite a while.

How do you feel about flawed characters? And are there any that you particularly like above all others?

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Comments
  1. We need characters that have flaws in order to be able to relate to them as you pointed out. A flawless character is practically a god, which we cannot relate to. For a flawless character, any obstacles that are put in their way would be too easily surmounted and would lack the emotional ups and downs that would keep us interested. Life for us isn’t smooth sailing and so we expect conflict and hardships, or else we will feel disconnected from the story the person is trying to tell. As a matter of fact, it’s said that we need to feel a wide range of emotions towards something or someone to develop an emotional connection with the subject. The roller coaster ride of feeling sorry for the person, grieving for the person’s loss, berating him or her for doing something foolish, laughing with or at him or her…all of these help to bring us closer to the person and want them to triumph, especially if we see they really are trying. For characters that I like above all others, I’d have to say Walt and Jesse from Breaking Bad and Rick and Daryl from The Walking Dead. Walt is a special case for me. I’ve grown to hate him, I want him dead…yet I can see that at the end of the day, he feels he is doing all this for family, no matter how twisted he has become…and that makes me want him to triumph to an extent. I’ve watched Jesse grow from this gullible and highly insecure individual to someone who is able to think for himself, and I also want him to succeed in…whatever the hell he is trying to do at this point. Rick is an interesting character for me because he is fighting a war within himself. He wants to do right by everybody he meets, but he realizes that the world isn’t allowing him such a luxury. He often slips to the other extreme, showing a not too endearing side of his character. But hey, that’s what makes him so real. I can see myself acting quite similar to him if I was faced with the same circumstances. Daryl started out as a possible troublemaker and then we slowly see the better side of him and come to realize that he has a strong enough character to stand up to his brother. Of the four characters I’ve mentioned though, Jesse and Daryl are my special favorites. They push against the mold. We start out not expecting much of Jesse, but then we see that given a little self assurance, he has moments of brilliance. Daryl started out with tough demeanor, which cracks in the absence of his brother, and eventually builds a reputation for himself as Mr Dependable. Nice article. Good thoughtful read.

  2. Interesting post! I definitely think I can relate to flawed characters a lot more than to the others. Obviously, I love the Doctor, but I also really like the main characters of the show Misfits, Dollhouse and Veronice Mars. If I now start with literary characters, I might never finish.

  3. It’s very true. Flawed heroes reflect our own flaws at times. They grow, they learn and they stumble. We like that because their mistakes tend to have greater consequences than ours and their missteps lead to bigger problems than we think we can ever face. Their problems are our problems. Just bigger. 🙂

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