A recent post by Rawle Nyanzi on virtuous heroes and how they have been attacked and maligned by many in recent times got me thinking about both heroes, and the somewhat more broad topic of main characters. Specifically, as the title suggests, the obsession with character flaws.
I remember seeing so much discussion of this idea back when I first decided to seriously start writing, as I was combing the internet for writing advice. So often, I would see people saying that characters need flaws, as though that was the most important thing about main characters. In one sense, you obviously don’t want characters who are completely flawless, as that often will lead to Mary Sue type characters. On the other hand, however, some reasons given that main characters need flaws don’t really hold up. For the sake of realism? No. That’s not a good reason; anything can be made believable if the writer is good enough. For the purposes of empathy? That doesn’t really hold water either, as readers can definitely empathize with people who don’t have major flaws. For the purpose of character growth? This holds some water, though to be honest, one can have character growth without an internal flaw that needs fixing, or at least not flaws to the extent that we see often today.
More on that. Many people have taken this focus on character flaws way too far, to where we see today so many “heroes” that are not good people. Game of Thrones has many examples of this, of course. As Rawle states in his article, there is a perception that a truly virtuous hero is “unrealistic” and therefore cannot be written, while morally gray characters, more “realistic,” are better. This also gets into the issue of moral relativism, where there is a belief that good and evil are all relative.
While truly flawed heroes can of course be interesting, I don’t want to see them all of the time. I want good people to root for in my fiction, just as I support good people in real life. And yes, truly good people do exist. That does not mean they are completely perfect, and lack any sort of flaws, those do not define them, even as they overcome obstacles that can include these flaws.
Building from this further is the obsession with character changes (distinct from character arcs.) As I am currently writing a series planned to be seven books, this is something I at one point worried about. I need to give everyone arcs in each book, but how will I keep having flaws or problems the main characters must change?
To take a look at this issue, I would like to cite two recent examples of things I’ve rewatched (both of which I hope to discuss in some more detail some time soon): The A&E Horatio Hornblower films, and the short-lived Zoids: New Century anime.
To address Hornblower first. He is a completely heroic and honorable character, the type of which we rarely see today. He fights hard for king and country, helps his friends, and merciful toward his enemies. That isn’t to say he’s some sort of superman, however. He is scared of heights, which can be a problem while serving on a sailing ship. He is initially overwhelmed by his new life in the navy, and reluctant to assert himself. Both of these, however, he conquers very early. And, honestly, he really doesn’t change a whole lot, character-wise, throughout the series. Even as he gains rank, he still feels like the same person, albeit with new responsibilities–though even in the first film he shows an aptitude for command. And despite his “lack of flaws,” Hornblower is a great character. He is one you always want to root for, and yet not everything goes his way. The fun is seeing this character we know and trust overcome various challenges, be it allies he does not like, be it a bully on the ship, imprisonment, a mentally unstable captain, and various crewmen with issues. He of course grows to some degree a long the way, but as I’ve said, he is not too different from how he was at the start. And yet he is compelling.
The second example is very different, as it’s a far simpler show. In Zoids: New Century, the main character, Bit Cloud (it’s an anime, names like that are to be expected) doesn’t change a huge amount throughout the series. He begins as a very brash, confident person, and though he learns some discipline and becomes a bit more measured later on, as well as more responsible, he doesn’t feel incredibly different. But that doesn’t lessen the fun of seeing him engage in (and nearly always win) zoid battles against progressively tougher enemies. He’s just a simple, likable guy.
John Carter is a good example of a purely heroic character who arguably doesn’t have significant flaws. He’s not a perfect person, and has some things he is not as good at, but none of this gets in the way of his being a great character.
Captain America and Superman are other examples of virtuous characters that really don’t change overmuch, at least in most of their iterations. But in today’s culture, they are viewed as too good, and thus have to be brought down a level; in the case of Superman, by becoming dark and brooding, and with Captain American, becoming a literal Nazi. As Rawle mentions also, Star Wars: The Last Jedi repudiates heroism; the only heroic character in that film, Poe Dameron, was actively prevented from doing anything actually heroic after the first scene of the film.
We enjoy fiction because we want to see heroes succeed in overcoming challenges. They can, of course, be internal, but most of them should be external. And creating characters readers or viewers like and want to succeed is more important than creating someone “flawed.” In writing, you will find opportunities, to make the character doubt, to struggle, without needing to saddle them with some heavy flaw or dark secret. People who start there, or obsess over it, are going about things the wrong way. The same for “character growth.” Again, while you obviously don’t want a completely static character, so long as they need to face and overcome challenges, they will adapt and evolve to a degree. But what is not needed is some huge “arc” or change in every book in a series. They don’t need to learn some kind of profound lesson every time. They just need to do the right thing and win the day.
I certainly have stopped worrying about assigning characters “flaw,” or obsessing over characters significantly changing in every book, and, in my opinion, my writing is all the better for it. Awesome characters overcoming obstacles, which may or may not include themselves at times. My readers can attest to that. Remember, anyone who says that you “must” do anything in your writing is either lying, trying to sell you something, or both. Write great characters and stories, however you want.
I write heroes, not villains who you are told to call hero.
That’s all for now; I hope this ended up coherent, as I wrote it very quickly due to lack of time. Have to head back to base tomorrow already.
You can check out the excellently reviewed A Greater Duty, and its sequel, A Looming Shadow, over on Amazon. And coming this summer, my first epic fantasy, while work on Galaxy Ascendant 3 continues to blaze forward.