By Scott Bury
On April 8, Chantal Boudreau blogged about the flawed hero. She wondered how badly flawed a protagonist can be before it doesn’t work anymore — when readers are so turned off by the character’s flaws, they don’t want to read the story.
It seems to me that a writer can go a long way with the protagonists’ flaws. It just doesn’t seem to happen very much in fantasy, especially in YA fantasy.
Other genres don’t seem to have a problem with flawed characters. Inspector Morse, for example, in Colin Dexter’s novels and in the British TV series, has a fondness for drinking and socializing with people involved in the cases he investigates. And he’s just one of a whole category of drunk or addicted heroes in crime fiction.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, is worse than unlikeable: she makes an effort to repel the world. And yet, she’s a compelling character, probably the most memorable among all the bestsellers of the past several years.
And on TV, all the best characters are flawed: Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, Tony Soprano, Dexter …
Weaknesses as the writer’s advantage
Even in the fantasy genre (or is it “genres” now?), there are plenty of likeable, flawed heroes. Without kryptonite, why would we ever be interested in Superman?
Greek mythology is all about heroes whose strengths become their weaknesses. Achilles, for example, was the greatest warrior in the world, but his pride led him to forget his one weakness.
Conan the Barbarian is brutal, short-tempered, illiterate, smelly and often downright mean. And yet, he’s one of the most enduring characters in fantasy.
All the characters in Lord of the Rings overcome a personal weakness, or are overcome by it. Sam overcomes his trepidation to carry the One Ring through a crucial stage, while Boromir is destroyed by his desire for the Ring.
My favourite stories in fantasy or any genre are about characters who turn their weaknesses into strengths. The girl with the dragon tattoo has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. It makes her socially inept, but it’s also the source of her strengths: intelligence, skill with computers and ability to concentrate.
I can argue that the biggest problem for Icarus Fell, the hero of Bruce Blake’s On Unfaithful Wings, is that he’s dead. Sure, he has several other character flaws: addictions, anger and a willful blindness to his ex-wife’s problems. But being dead is probably the worst problem I can think of. IHis status as being someone between this world and the next, however, enables him to overcome the villain in the story.
The protagonist in my first, fantasy novel, The Bones of the Earth, is autistic (and I wrote it long before I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Javor is socially inept and has trouble understanding other people and their emotional reactions. As a result, he’s a social reject, an outcast. But the characteristics that made him seem so strange to his own people are the same features that allow him to survive and prevail over the villains in the story.
My challenge to you
Problems and conflicts are the core of any story. The hero has to overcome some kind of challenge. But an external challenge, like a quest or a monster or an invading army of the dead, is usually enhanced by a parallel internal struggle, like the hero’s battle against addiction, fear or self-doubt.
I think a real challenge for a writer would be to create a completely despicable main character, someone so foul and repellent that no reader would ever want to be near him or her, and then write a story that keeps the readers turning pages.
My challenge to all Guild members — and readers — this month: create a new unlikeable character and put him or her in a situation where the reader wants to find out what happens next. Post it here. Let’s see who pulls the readers along.