Welcome to Writing Tip Wednesdays, where I post (you guessed it) tips on writing every Wednesday at 5:00 PM ET. This week’s topic:
Evening, everyone! This week we are talking about something really awesome and potentially contradictory: flawed heroes!
We all know that your main character/protagonist/hero should have at least one or two character flaws. Maybe your character drinks a lot, or maybe they’re as greedy as Mr. Krabs despite having a heart of gold. (See what I did there?)
But why is it so important that your main character be flawed? Shouldn’t we leave all of the hyperbolic flaws to the villain?
Well, maybe not. I’d argue that it’s often times more important that your hero is flawed, which is why this week we’re going to look at something I don’t usually talk about or encourage:
The reason I shy away from formulaic writing is that while it can appeal to the masses, it can also appeal to the masses. Get my drift? In my experience, formulaic writing results in rehashed clichés—something I’m not interested in.
There are truisms about writing that maintain their integrity within writing all over the world. Truisms like…
Who doesn’t love a good underdog?? We root for them, watch them grow and struggle and work their way to the top, and end up feeling like we can do it, too.
But we can’t relate to the underdog’s success if he is perfect to start with.
Think about it: they can be a genius who is poor, but if they started out as a genius who is rich, their success would mean nothing.
Now this example is just a warm-up. Let’s take it a step further by challenging an idea:
Perfect characters are boring. Perfect characters make all the right choices, have a one-track mind for goodness, and basically never even break a sweat doing it. Heck, they don’t even break so much as a nail, because every fight they’re in only leads to a sexy scar over one eye. Even their wounds are beautiful! It’s basically god-modding. We complain enough about it when we play video games—why do we want to write it into our books?
Because we’re scared.
What if someone should read our book and think that we, the author, are actually vouching for the bad/immoral actions our main character just took? What if they choose to emulate our hero’s bad moments and justify them because So-And-So, who is a good guy, did it?
Well, that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. And I’d argue it’s something that every author goes through—and there’s a historical reason for it. Authors, especially the during the 19th century/Victorian era were viewed as morally responsible for not only the content in their work, but essentially for how the content affected its readers.
This moral responsibility created a lot of bad things, such as the deaths of women who exhibited “looseness” or behaviors that would have normally been attributed to men, because, in the society at the time, there was no place for independent women. So in order for their books to sell, they wrote strong women…who eventually had to be killed.
This served many purposes. For conservative readers, the woman’s death meant that the author did not approve of her actions. For other readers, this was injustice, but still largely thought to be the direct correlation of what “should” happen to women who stepped outside their social norm box. For the author, however, it was a subversive way to present the possibility of a woman’s freedom and get people used to it—the only reason they included the death, usually, was because of social necessity. Because of the moral responsibility of the author to present only what is good and correct.
(There’s a great example of this in a famous work of literature called The Awakening by Katie Chopin where the woman literally walks into the sea, thus killing herself, because there is no place for her in society…which I always emulate every time I go to the beach, and laugh, hahaha.)
Academia, literary theory, and even people today will tell you the moral responsibility of the author is dead. That it has walked out into metaphorical sea. But the reality is?
People still want stories with happy endings, or they feel gipped. And how do we write realistic stories with happy endings?
By writing a flawed hero. A hero who strives for goodness, falls short, and keeps trying to do good anyway. The hero who saved the world, but lost it all, and somehow still believes in goodness. This greatly correlates with the importance of incorporating hope into your novels—something I talk about in my post THE ONE SIMPLE WORD TO KEEP YOUR READERS ENGAGED.
As far as a moral responsibility, I’m not saying you have to write a story where everything ends tied neatly in a bow; I am saying that you need to have the hero struggle, give him a purpose that he desires, but naturally falls short of in some way, not because he is a fictional character, but because he is a human.
Frodo believes Sam is a liar and sends him away, succumbing to the power of the Ring. Thor is brash and quick to anger, and almost gets his friends killed by ice giants. Lelouch is so driven by his need for justice that it blinds him. Sailor Moon is a klutzy crybaby who doesn’t believe in her own strength. BBC Sherlock is a snobby sociopath.
And the reason we still read about them and believe in them is definitely not because we believe them to be perfect; it is precisely the opposite.
We believe in characters who are flawed and strive for goodness anyway.
Essentially? Because in them, we see us. We are not perfect. We can try to be, but we’re not. Heroes mirror us in similar, though different ways than our villains.
Heroes show us who we can be when we have hope; villains show us who we can be when we lose sight of it.
So, when you go to write your heroes, I encourage you to remember yourself. Why do you strive for goodness? When you fall short, why do you still keep trying? Why do so many believe that goodness is worth it?
I encourage you to ask yourself questions like these when writing your heroes so that they, unlike the woman in The Awakening, don’t have to walk themselves out into the sea.
Want to read about villains? Read our two-part series: THE 7 WAYS TO WRITE A BELIEVABLE VILLAIN (Part 1) and WRITING BELIEVABLE VILLAINS: THE CODE OF JUSTICE (Part 2)
You can also find Alyssa on Twitter: @alyssagracem
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