Creativity · Writing

Flawed Heroes

I’m not a fan of perfection. To me, it’s boring. Perfection means never making mistakes, always making the right decision, knowing the answers, always having an elegant solution. I’ve read a fair-share of stories that had these seemingly perfect characters and I usually find them boring and repetitive.

I can give you a good example. There’s a sci-fi series by Harry Harrison that follows the adventures of an anti-hero nicknamed The Stainless Steel Rat. When I was a kid I read a few of them and found them okay, not necessarily memorable, but they entertained me on long plane rides.

A few years ago I remembered the stories and picked up a collection, hoping to relive some childhood adventures. Wow, was I disappointed. I hadn’t remembered how ‘perfect’ the Rat was. I read through two stories in the collection – and it was a struggle – but gave up. When a character gets out of every situation completely unscathed, always makes the right decision, is always one-step ahead of the antagonist…well, like I noted above, it’s repetitive and boring.

For some reason, there are writers who feel their characters need to be larger than life. I don’t think they realize that in doing so they turn their characters into caricatures. Hell, even Sherlock Holmes made mistakes. They were rare, but it happened.

Even the best character needs to have flaws, needs to make mistakes, needs to fall and skin their knees. In other words, they need to be human. Yes, even the aliens in science fiction stories. I mean, they need to be flawed, not necessarily ‘human’.

Flaws are make makes characters unique, just like people. In real life, all the people that are held up as examples of greatness, as icons, as people we should emulate, are all flawed in some way. Micheal Jordan, who was a legend in the National Basketball Association, a good teammate, and a fan favorite, ended up with a gambling problem. Mother Teresa, now sainted, believed that sick people needed to suffer like Christ and apparently withheld medicine and palliative care from those in need.

Just because someone is good and put up on a pedestal doesn’t mean they aren’t broken or damaged in some way. We all make mistakes, and so should our characters. We need them to be flawed, not only to make the story more interesting, but also to make them more relatable.

In my opinion, there are no true heroes. In fact, I think it’s wrong to classify characters into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. That’s too black and white. We need shades of gray, ambiguity. It’s far more interesting when I have to wonder who I should be rooting for in a conflict. I want to see both sides of the issue, I want to see context, I want to feel sympathy for everyone involved.

Actually, a good example are some of the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, some of the heroes and villains are two-dimensional, but some are incredibly well-rounded. Loki is the first to come to mind. Over the course of the films the character has been in, he’s gone from a stereotypical ‘I want to rule the world’ bad guy to a sympathetic adopted brother with family issues. The big baddy in the films, Thanos, wants to wipe out half the living creatures in the universe. While it sounds horrifying, his reasoning – to restore balance and allow for more resources for those who remain – sort of makes sense in a twisted sort of way.

As far as the heroes are concerns, Tony Stark/Iron Man is another good example. Tony only wants to protect the Earth, but he allows his obsession with peace to overrule his better judgement and he ends up creating Ultron, who almost wipes out humanity. A genius making bad decisions for the right reasons. Flawed hero indeed.

But that’s what makes characters interesting and exciting. We can better relate to a hero who makes mistakes because WE make mistakes, too. I know this will probably annoy some readers, but I find Superman to be a boring character. At least, the early incarnations of the hero. They’ve made him more human over the past couple of decades, but when I was a kid Superman was invincible, always knew what to do, always saved the day. He was too perfect, and that, to me, was boring. What’s the point of reading the comic books if I already know what’s going to happen? Give me some ambiguity and I’m all in. Otherwise, I’ll pass.

I’m sure there are those who will disagree with my sentiments, but I stand by them. I want characters who are realistic, who stub their toes, lose their eyeglasses, say the wrong thing and hurt someone’s feelings. Those are things I can relate to and I think most readers will agree.

Perfection is boring.




4 thoughts on “Flawed Heroes

  1. Thank goodness, another person who finds Superman boring! I agree with you wholeheartedly, he always felt so… dull to me. Plot-killingly dull.

    I really loved this post. Flawed characters are some of the most interesting. My favorite characters have so much baggage. Quirks. Or they’re put in situations which demonstrate their shortcomings. I hope my current protagonist is flawed enough.
    And I also agree with what you say about context. Black & white characterization is easier for some people I think, but for me isn’t memorable. They’re not ‘people’ like that, they’re like plot items. While I do like my plot items, people define stories.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lila.

      Everyone is entitled to their preferences when it comes to character traits. Much like humor, fiction is subjective.


  2. Heh… Ironic. Another writing blog I follow had a rant earlier today against every villain being a grey villain. Made some damned good points too, especially in light of the SJWs even trying to get Orcs in fantasy settings to be “less offensive and racially stereotyped”.

    Somewhere there has to be a line… a happy middle.

    Iron Man is a crappy example btw. I’d all but flag him as a villain given many of his actions in screen and in comic books the last decade. You also forgot his trying to murder an innocent Winter Soldier who had no control over his actions, and turning on his friend in the process. That’s mild compared to some of the crap he’s pulled in the comic books, like giving away a nanotech that was nearly a cure all, but addictive and then charging a subscription fee to half the planet for it continuing to stay working.

    Even in the movies, he’s pretty much Trump with power armor, better hair and a better press agent. Ego and willingness to screw with anyone he doesn’t like is certainly the same. Yeah… I liked shell head better when he was just an occasional drunk. They pushed the flawed hero concept too far there.

    Superman… the thing was watching HOW he overcame things. We all knew it was going to happen. We all know the good guys are ultimately going to win regardless. At least in 99.9% of stories out there. Personally, I think we need a few paragons in the world. It annoys me the way characters like Superman and Captain America have been torn down too.

    Yeah, generally speaking characters should be flawed. There’s room for a few paragons though, and a need not to push the envelope too far with humanizing. Heroes are supposed to be above average; people that the reader can look up to and aspire to be like, however unlikely.

    1. Some very good points.

      There was a comment I read about Marvel and DC comics many years ago that stuck with me. With Marvel, you have humans dealing with having god-like powers, where with DC you have gods trying to be human.

      I agree, we need to have a few paragons, but ultimately, for me, I like imperfections. Maybe because I can relate to that.

      Thanks for your comment!

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