By Chantal Boudreau
Those who know me know I think having heroic characters with flaws in my stories is important for realism. It’s not unreasonable to find a beautiful protagonist who is vain, arrogant or promiscuous, a highly intelligent character who is absent-minded, overbearing or socially awkward, or a physically strong character who is overly aggressive or not so bright. Protagonists might be naive or gullible to begin with, or they could be more mercenary than one might expect.
These are all what I would consider minor flaws and for the most part forgivable because of the characters’ more positive, heroic attributes. But what about serious flaws – the kind a reader might find more difficult to accept in a hero? I’m not talking someone who likes to pick their nose or lacks acceptable grooming habits and personal hygiene. I have a hero like that, Shetland, who appears in Magic University and will be returning in the third book in my Masters & Renegades series, Prisoners of Fate. Most readers really like him, despite his repulsive habits. I’m talking extreme flaws that would normally be reserved for villains: addictions with real repercussions, mental illnesses that exceed a mild neurosis, or a propensity for violence beyond what is necessary for self-preservation or the preservation of others.
Now in some cases, you might anticipate these types of flaws in the kinds of heroes who straddle that gray line between good and evil. If your hero is a reformed villain seeking redemption, they might carry some of their old villainous habits with them, like my somewhat reformed bully characters, Royce, in Elevation and Transcendence, or Crag-Climber in The Blood Runs Deep. I think it’s important, however, to sometimes have these types of severe flaws extend to the ordinary protagonist and I’ll happily explain why.
When you consider the type of stresses the average fantasy hero has to endure, it is entirely unrealistic to think that the basic “good guy” won’t sometimes fold under pressure or break from the strain. We see this happen with real world heroes all the time. Soldiers with PTSD, emergency workers suffering from mental illness, to the point where some of them commit suicide because they can’t cope with the things they have witnessed, people burdened with heavy responsibilities turning to addiction to escape the pressure. It certainly seems reasonable that characters in fantasy stories might react to their stresses in the same way from time to time.
This is why I have made a point to include protagonists in my stories who do exhibit these more extreme flaws. In the sixth book of my Masters & Renegades series (not yet released) I have a protagonist who turns to alcohol when she feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities, I have a character in the fifth book in that same series (also yet to be released) who has a severe mental break when forced into a situation that challenges her to choose between her core beliefs and love and loyalty – she also happens to suffer from anger management and aggression issues – and my character, Fawn, in my Snowy Barrens trilogy has a combined mental and physical breakdown when exhaustion and grief drive her past her breaking point. All of these characters are only human, and I think it’s important to reflect that in their responses to overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.
Do extreme flaws have a place in proper protagonists? I believe they do and I hoping I’ll see more of this in my future fantasy reading.