The Yin and Yang of Flawed Heroes
Guest post by Steve P. Vincent
Superman is boring.
There, I said it. He has too many powers that he didn’t really earn. He fights for nothing against enemies that are well below his weight class. He has no weaknesses, except for a rock. Worst of all, he has no personality, either as Superman or as Clark Kent, who’s possibly the most boring person on Earth. I’ve never been very interested in him as a character.
That’s because the essence of a great story is flawed, complex characters pursuing their goals in a way that creates conflict, with bonus points if it’s set somewhere cool. From Achilles to Indiana Jones to John McClane to Tony Soprano to Omar, characters who are flawed – emotionally, morally, physically or psychologically – are more fun to cheer for.
Flaws help to balance characters out, to give them weaknesses to compensate for their awesome and things to overcome either as the main plot or important side plots. The true test of a champion isn’t simply winning, it’s overcoming obstacles on the way to that triumph.
But there’s also more important reasons to celebrate flawed characters:
– Flaws create tension. God mode is boring.
– Flaws help to make things familiar. Nobody likes a boyscout.
– Flaws make a character relatable. Everyone screws up sometimes.
– Flaws provide fun ways to learn about a character. Eye patches are cool.
In my own writing, across the three Jack Emery novels – The Foundation, State of Emergency and Nations Divided – I’ve relied heavily on Jack’s flaws. He’s not an action hero, but a journalist who drinks too much, gets himself in too deep, doesn’t really feel safe doing so and yet can’t help himself.
Jack is a a character who I think readers want to cheer for and his inherent flaws also keep the stakes high. When he’s being shot at, he can’t really shoot back and he could die. When he’s being beaten up, it hurts. When he’s unable to solve a problem, he gets frustrated and drinks beer and eats fried chicken. He’s a bit of a jerk.
But he’s also saved the world. He’s overcome the nastiest parts of his drinking problem. He divorced his wife but treats his new partner well. He sees the best in people but often deals with the worst. He’s afraid of danger but doesn’t back down from it. Through his flaws, it is possible to learn more about him and cheer for him to succeed, but never be sure doing so.
This doesn’t mean a hero needs to be a womanising alcoholic who is a bit of a sissy when the fists start flying, It does mean that a few minor flaws are welcome, helping to humanise the character and often combined with a major flaw that impacts the plot becomes the defining struggle in the book. Then there’s the tragic flaws, which usually bring down the hero.
Flaws shouldn’t be limited to heroes, either. Meglomaniac baddies with no real weaknesses who still manage to lose anyway are just as boring as Superman.
But that’s another story. This writer’s flaw is that he’s inherently lazy…
When he’s not writing, Steve keeps food and flat whites on the table working for the man. He enjoys beer, whisky, sports and dreaming up ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to write about.
He has a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Political Science and History. His honors thesis was on the topic of global terrorism. He has traveled extensively through Europe, the United States and Asia.