Writerly Sound Bites, Number 1: On Characters, Flaws, and What Really Makes a Flawed Hero Heroic

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Something I have discovered over the years is that advice from those in the field of storytelling – or from those who teach creative writing – tends to fall into two categories. The first consists of long descriptions which can almost be considered stories in themselves. Reading through these dissertations and parsing them out can take time, and it is easy to get lost in the explanation. This is particularly true for the novice writer who is still learning the craft; advice in this class often appears confusing and/or contradictory at first glance, especially if one treats it like a lecture he should take notes for or a book he must write a report on. Only when one has put several thousand words under his or her belt does such guidance start to show its true merit.

This is where the second type of writing counsel comes in, and which I will call the “sound bite.” Everyone has heard this kind of advice at one point or another. We are typically inundated with it, and it usually goes something like this: “Make your characters flawed! Perfect heroes are boring,” “The villain is the hero of his own story,” and of course: “Kill your darlings!”

In its own way, this simplified guidance is more confusing and harmful than the longer paeans to the craft. Too often an aspiring storyteller will take the surface meaning of the “sound bite” and try to apply it to their work without thoroughly unpacking the declaration to understand it properly. The result is a painful lesson in digging deeper into the meaning of a given statement and in order to understand it properly. The words one chooses or omits matter a great deal, something these “sound bites” prove on a regular basis.

For sound bites are never the whole story, never the entire picture. They are pithy simplifications, snippets cut from longer and more involved digressions. They have more traction now than they did once upon a time because they are easy to consume and they sum up – or seem to sum up – the views of the speaker. What was the cap statement in a speech or a small sentence in a fifteen minute lecture is often used to distill the speaker’s and/or the writer’s entire view of life or some type of work into an easily digested line.

Having seen and suffered through the consequences of trying to abide by these “sound bites,” this author would like to take the time to explicate at least a few of them for aspiring writers setting out on their journey. The “sound bite” in today’s article is quite frequently seen in conversations about how to create believable characters. It is the oft quoted statement, in one form or another, that a writer’s heroes and/or protagonists “have to have flaws to be interesting!”

Far too many people, novelists included, repeat variations on this theme as though it were the most profound declaration in the universe. And while it does condense hard-earned experience into a neat little package, it is far from the “deep” proclamation so many talking heads appear to believe it is. Why?

Because, readers, everyone has flaws. Even the Iconic or Aspirational Heroes have faults, because to be human in any and every sense of the word is to be imperfect. It is natural for men to be broken, damaged, or somehow deficient. The best individual members of mankind are not immune to failings, and this is the case whether one looks at fiction or real life.

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Too often aspiring writers take this sound bite about faulty heroes to heart when they set out on their storytelling journey. They saddle their main protagonist or cast of characters with outsized flaws such as anger, licentiousness, guilt, or doubt. In some cases, these vices are not even flaws; they are overwrought states of concern and confusion. A man can be and often must deal with doubts of various kinds during daily life, but to “angst” about them constantly is counterproductive and can lead to death.

Doubt, for instance, is not a character failing. Neither is guilt, as we all bear guilt for actions taken day in and day out. Myopia (“angst”) is also not a fault – not unless someone is prone to focusing on some aspect of themselves to the Nth degree, whereupon they obsess over a particular mistake or proclivity to the point of driving themselves into depression. (Conversely, a person can be myopic in the opposite direction as well, leading to hubris and a sense of superiority over others. That is an issue typically assigned to the villains now, whether they are minor or major, so we don’t associate it with heroes very often.) Defining what is and is not a flaw, therefore, should be something beginning writers do when they set out to design or “find” a protagonist.

The seven deadly sins are a good place to start searching for character vices. Does your hero have a penchant for chasing the ladies? Then it is likely he will struggle with lust, especially if he has pledged his heart to a single woman but encounters a temptress of some sort during the course of his adventure. Does he have bouts of fury that drive out all thought, leading him to commit acts he would not normally perform if he were not blinded by rage? Wrath will be the chink in his armor. Does your hero think himself the best at what he does, even if he does certain things less well than he could (or can) with a little extra effort? Pride and sloth will be his besetting sins, the things he must conquer to become a hero.

And now, future authors, we come to what differentiates a hero from an ordinary individual. Ordinary individuals, within fiction at least, do not struggle to overcome their faults in the grand manner that the protagonists do. We are all, as I said above, flawed creatures. Most of us realize that, sooner or later. For many of us, regularly and consistently putting in the effort to triumph over whatever imperfection most besets our souls is difficult. A large number of people throughout the history of the world go along to get along for this reason, as it is easier than “working out” every day to conquer some blemish in their souls.

For a mild fictional example, let us say that a story protagonist loves chocolate. He will eat chocolate at every opportunity, even when he really should not do so. Occasionally, he will indulge in devouring a great deal of the sweet, either when he is quite happy or extremely distressed. As a result, while he is not out of shape per se, he is also not as healthy as he could be.

Now let us say that something happens in this hypothetical protagonist’s life which leaves him with a choice: he can either cut back on his consumption of this specific sweet in order to get in shape and accomplish some important deed, or he can just give up and eat chocolate to excess for the rest of his life. No matter which path he chooses the third option – maintaining his eating habits as he has been up to this point – is closed to him. There is no going back to casually devouring chocolate, with an explosive increase in ingesting the treat in celebration or as an attempt to cheer himself up occurring every now and again.

Yes, this is a silly example, but it is meant to make a point. Remaining static or stationary in life is not something your protagonist can afford to do in this scenario. He has received, as Joseph Campbell put it, the call to adventure. He can ignore that summons, attempting to maintain an average existence and stunting his growth forever, or he can answer the invitation and advance himself.

Choosing the latter course will take effort. There will be setbacks, moments when the addiction to chocolate becomes too much and he indulges in devouring an entire bag full of Hershey’s kisses, making himself quite sick. In other words, there will be trials and travails that test his will, endurance, and commitment to his goal of self-improvement. How he responds to those hardships will determine just how high he climbs the ladder leading up to the virtue of temperance (the virtue opposed to gluttony).

If he meets these impediments with renewed vigor and a stronger desire to perfect himself in the virtue of temperance, our chocolate-eating protagonist has risen above the norm. He has chosen the path of heroism by avoiding the road to gluttony; he has climbed to heights those who do not take the time to moderate their chocolate intake are unlikely to reach en masse. Some will follow him and reach his level, or one below it. Others will exceed him, either in his lifetime or after him. Whichever is true in the individual’s circumstance, our hero’s efforts have inspired others to stand up and improve themselves, thus offering the average chocolate-consumer a model to aspire to and hope to reach.

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This is where popular “flawed” heroes such as Spider-Man* gain their attractiveness. Spider-Man is a boy given the power of an adult. At first he misuses this fantastic strength to please himself, not unlike a teenager who has just received his driver’s license races around the neighborhood, ecstatic to have the ability to go where he wants and do as he wishes. Then tragedy strikes and Peter Parker must learn to accept the responsibility inherent in his newfound abilities. By rising to meet this duty despite countless setbacks, some of them of his own making due to his personal imperfections, Spider-Man becomes a hero whom others can cheer on and aspire to emulate.

Where, one may ask, does that leave Aspirational and Iconic Heroes, such as those discussed in the articles linked here and here? How does Captain America*, for instance, become a hero when he has no obvious flaws that beset him in the way Spider-Man’s consistently hold him back? Doesn’t he have to be deconstructed, or to have a particular fault forced upon him to make him more interesting?

No, Captain America does not need either of these things to be appealing. If Spider-Man’s journey to heroism has parallels with a boy gaining his driver’s license and initially running wild with the attendant privileges, then Steve Rogers is comparable to the responsible boy who recognizes that the license to drive comes with obligations. He will therefore be more careful in how he executes his duties while pursuing some good, an ideal that many aspire to but which few achieve in a balanced manner. Captain America has no need to struggle against an overwhelming personal imperfection on a regular basis; readers enjoy watching him maintain or exceed his present level of virtue through adhering to his principles, despite the increasing temptations to do otherwise.

Of similar note, Aspirational Heroes do not have to be plagued by specific faults to be of interest. Luke Skywalker’s* journey to maturity, which sees him rise above callow naïveté while maintaining his belief in the virtues he was raised to love, precludes him from needing this. His is the archetype reckless boys such as Spider-Man naturally seek to reach; the farmboy-turned-Jedi Knight’s flaws are held in check by his commitment to his ideals, which remains firm even when the ultimate temptation is put before him in Return of the Jedi*. Luke strikes at the Emperor once before being drawn into a duel with his father, whom he focuses his attention on for the rest of the battle.

It is not that he has no concern for the Rebellion or for his friends’ lives. But trapped aboard the Death Star as he is, he cannot help them. Even killing the Emperor would not help them, since by doing so he would install Vader in Palpatine’s place and himself as the new fist of the Empire. Luke comes to that realization after almost yielding to his emotions, before he recalls his training and decides to protect and honor his friends, as well as the cause for which they are all fighting. That is a far more interesting and inspiring role than Spider-Man’s, which is why the Wall-Crawler and others admire both Luke Skywalker and Captain America in the manner that they do.

There is always another rung on the ladder to perfection, future authors. Whether you are writing a Peter Parker-type character struggling with his flaws on a consistent basis, or heroes in the Iconic and Aspirational molds who maintain their self-control better the higher they climb, the fact is that they all have defects. The degree to which these affect them or cause them to stumble is the only difference.

Pushing an Aspirational or Iconic hero out of their specific categories into the more obviously imperfect file serves only to leave readers with no idea of just how high they can climb if they put in the effort to improve, day in and day out, hour by hour, minute by minute. We need Spider-Man and other characters to remind us that there is hope when we fail, but we also need heroes who resist temptation with all their might, who rise above their fallen nature when the test comes. We need heroes who will say “Not today!” and “I will not fight you, Father” when it would be so much easier to take the opposite course of action.

Without the Aspirational and Iconic heroes to offer us glimpses of heaven, all we have left to view is Earth itself. Climbing to the top of the “food chain” on Earth is far less rewarding than ascending the ladder to perfection and the Perfect One Himself. We see this most clearly when we watch what happens to those who take the path counter to that of heroism: the villains.

Villains are those who, on seeing the path of the ordinary closed to them along with the difficulties inherent in ascending the road to heaven, choose the course of least resistance. There is a reason why the Kingpin*, for instance, is so obese. Yes, there is muscle under the fat, but it is all directed toward fulfilling his base desires, his flaws. Wilson Fisk could do much good, both personally and with his wealth, if he chose to help others. Instead he decides every day, every hour, and every minute to satisfy only one person: himself.

The Emperor likewise wallows in the faults that make up the Dark Side. Anger, pride, aggression – these are his idols. He worships them and, thereby, himself. It leads to his downfall when he foresees Luke coming to the Death Star and pompously assumes that he can corrupt him as he did his father. Man is a small god, and the individual is even smaller, something made plain when Palpatine is thrown down the reactor shaft to explode and die.

Red Skull suffers under the same illusions. Where Captain America is the embodiment of America’s ideal hope to be a Christ-like figure in the world, Johan Schmidt represents the myopia and pride of a nation that worships itself. This is why Steve Rogers is “God’s righteous man”* while the Red Skull defies even Hitler in Captain America: The First Avenger*. Those who make an idol of any one thing, even if it is the size of a country, are doomed to fail and fall. But those who put others first, to the point that they will sacrifice their very lives for them, will find a greater reward than they can imagine.

Don’t make “flawed heroes” just to make flawed heroes, future authors. Write about men as they are, and as they can be. Yes, it will take some refinement of skill to make them “breathe on their own,” but do not think you have to burden them in some way. They will show you their true selves, both their graces and vices – but only if you give them the opportunity to do so.

Keep your eyes peeled. It may be that you already have a flawed hero in your narrative. You just haven’t recognized him yet.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

Looking for more help on strengthening your craft? Then check out Writer’s Market for 2020 by Writer’s Digest. Filled with tips, tricks of the trade, and no few lists of publishers, this book is sure to be a helpful tool in any writer’s arsenal. Pick it up today to start building your skills, future writers!

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9 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 1: On Characters, Flaws, and What Really Makes a Flawed Hero Heroic

  1. Very Good.

    Oh, too many IMO take the “Flawed Hero” idea and make their “Heroes” just as “Bad” as their Villains. They even go so far as to make the “Flawed Hero’s” side as bad as the Villains’ side.

    Why should we root for somebody just as Bad as the so-called Bad Guys?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! 😀

      Yes! Ugh, I wish people would stop *doing* that. Why should we root for people who are “less bad” than the Bad Guys? That doesn’t make sense and it renders all the effort put into the fight against the Bad Guys ultimately meaningless. Good grief, I hate that trend so much….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Obviously I sign on and endorse most of this. 😉
    https://natewinchester.wordpress.com/2021/03/22/flawed-characters-part-1-incomplete/
    https://natewinchester.wordpress.com/2021/03/23/flawed-characters-part-2-the-dragon/

    Another point I’ve been thinking on is the idea that flaws & weaknesses are your character’s strengths in the wrong context.
    i.e. The hero who is decisive and bold on the battlefield, is rash and quick-tempered in the royal court. While the cold, calculating chessmaster of the royal court, is hesitant when action is needed on the battlefield.

    This is one of my measurements of a mary sue. If their strength is ALWAYS a good thing, ALWAYS a benefit, especially in situations where the context should really turn that strength into a flaw – well that’s a mary sue right there.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 2: Chasing the Unicorn of “Relatability” | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  4. Pingback: Reposted: The Last Thousand Words | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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