The Appeal of Flawed Characters

For my end-of-year essay, I’m writing about flawed characters in Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. I decided that discussing flawed characters on this blog would both help me think for my essay and help my readers think about character development in their own work. Two birds, one stone.

I’m going to start with a quote our program director gave us:

We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness.

–George Eliot, The Natural History of German Life

Eliot hits the mark on this matter. Readers don’t care about perfectly heroic or sympathetic characters. Frankly, they’re boring. There’s a reason why writers cringe when a character is labelled a “Mary Sue” or a “Gary Stu.” I personally feel less sympathetic/empathetic for such characters, let alone feel any sort of connection to them.

That being said, not all flawed characters work well, either. Some of them can be too mean or their traits so incongruous with each other that the characters don’t seem to be human at all. How, then, can flawed characters work in a writer’s favor? What does it take to make us feel “for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness”?

Let’s dip into a little Freudian psychology for this answer. In particular I want to turn to his concept of the id, ego, and super ego.

It’s helpful to think of the subconscious as an iceberg. Most of what shows in the conscious mind is the ego with some of the super ego; the id lies beneath, in the unconscious, along with most of the super ego.

Visual retrieved from this web page on Freud

Now, I’ll admit that I don’t understand everything about Freud’s theories. Nevertheless, here’s my best explanation of the id, ego, and super ego:

The id, ego, and super ego are the three levels of our subconscious. The id houses our primal instincts; it’s essentially our impulses and basic needs and desires unfiltered. Our super ego criticizes and moralizes our actions, stopping us from doing what the id wants. Finally, the ego is our organized, rational side; it acts as a mediator between our id and our super ego. (For more information, here’s the Wikipedia article.)

Each level of the subconscious can represent a different kind of character: entirely good, entirely bad, or flawed. Entirely good characters are like the super ego. They are overly-righteous and crying too hard for the reader’s sympathy. Just as we would get annoyed with real-life people who are too moral and push those morals on others, so would we get bored of characters who are too good, not flawed at all. Entirely bad characters are the id. They do whatever they want without caring about the consequences, have no conscience or guilt, and are just mean. An unrestrained id would be chaotic, hard to stop, and destructive with no real purpose; we’d have no sympathy for that person because they’ll get what’s coming to them if they act with no thought. Similarly, we can’t really feel for a character with no redeeming qualities.

Finally, the ego represents flawed characters. We see a mixture of the beastly id and the saintly super ego, resulting in a complex character with whom we can relate. We can see bad traits we hate, good traits to which we aspire, and everything in between. We feel for when they fail or something else bad happens to them because we recognize them as someone like us who makes mistakes and at least has the potential to regret them.

 I’m going to turn to an example from one of the stories I’m studying for my essay, Clemencia from “Never Marry a Mexican”.

As I said in my review of the collection, I don’t typically read stories about adultery. They conflict with my morals too much. “Never Marry a Mexican”, however, keeps my attention from start until end and I believe it’s due solely to Clemencia’s character development.

Clemencia is far from the perfect heroine: she sleeps with a married man, actively seeks control over him and his family through even the most minute actions, and is pretty crazy. However, Cisneros also shows us her background and her troublesome relationship with her dead father and her remarried mother. Despite her willingly and knowingly having an affair with a married man, I understand and feel for Clemencia. I don’t approve of her actions but I understand that she’s trying to gain some control in her life, have power over a marriage and a family when she didn’t have any power in how her mother acted during and after her father’s death. Her admittance that she doesn’t want to marry and that she knows that she can be vindictive and cruel, by the end of the story, are not solely flaws to me; they’re signs of a woman who knows who she is, accepts who she is, and draws power from this knowledge and acceptance. Were she the “perfect” woman aside from her affair, I would’ve hated her and been too perplexed by her actions to read the entire story. Were she an entirely malicious character with the haunting sadness of her background, I would’ve thought without a doubt that she deserved whatever bad thing happened to her and wouldn’t have been able to stomach her long enough to reach the end. Her flawed character is what made me interested in a kind of story that usually repulses me.

Flawed characters draw our sympathy because humans are, at their core, flawed characters themselves. We are neither entirely super ego nor entirely id. We make mistakes, we regret them, and we fix them; we fall in love and we break hearts; we are kind and we are cruel; we restrain our desires and we indulge in them. We want to see characters like us. We’d rather be reminded of the good and bad together, rather than one or the other.

Do you have any opinions on flawed characters? Have any good examples of flawed characters that you feel for? Leave your thoughts in the comments. To keep up with all our support, advice, and distractions, remember to sign up for email updates in the lower left-hand corner.

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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