Everyone is flawed. We claim to know that and yet, in some cases, we either can’t accept it or won’t allow it. This fact is especially true with people raised to the status of “hero”. Flawed heroes, well, we can’t let them be flawed and heroes. Perfect or villainous, no in-between. While some real-life and fictional “heroes” are truly flawed to the point of incompetence or villainy, many just make mistakes. That’s how it should be and that’s how we should portray the world in our writing.
Here’s a real-life “flawed hero” moment: J.K. Rowling recently came under attack for a mistake, i.e. a Twitter attack against President Trump regarding his treatment of a disabled boy. Her criticism, it turned out, was based on a video taken out of context. According to the boy’s uncle’s Tweet, Rowling’s words seemed to cause emotional distress to the boy involved and his family. Rowling admitted that the source did not present the information in the complete context and apologized profusely and politely to the boy and his family. That should’ve been the end of it but, of course, it wasn’t. While some appreciate her honesty and willingness to apologize, others insist on villainizing her for an honest mistake and for not apologizing to President Trump. She’s either a hero or a villain, not just a generally admirable but flawed human.
It’s interesting how we can’t allow our heroes to have slip-ups. Either they must always act perfect or we must be so delusional as to think they are always perfect no matter what they do. We can never admit to the existence of flawed heroes. It makes me wonder, do we hold the same delusions in fiction? Should we?
In an earlier post, I discussed the appeal of flawed characters, particularly flawed protagonists. Flawed characters are human, and readers relate to human characters. That’s why a flawed–maybe even hated–protagonist is better than a Mary Sue or Gary Stu.
If this appeal applies to flawed characters, including flawed protagonists, shouldn’t it still apply to flawed heroes? As writers, we strongly believe so. As readers, it’s a more bitter pill to swallow when thinking our heroes could be flawed.
While the line is very fine, there is still a difference between flawed protagonists and flawed heroes. The plot of a novel focuses on a protagonist, i.e. the main character. This character can be good or bad, loved or reviled, active or sedentary, etc. Heroes, on the other hand, become role models of sorts, characters to whom we aspire. For example, Macbeth is the protagonist of Shakespeare’s MacBeth but, I would argue, is no hero, certainly not someone I would use for a role model. Nymphadora Tonks, on the other hand, is not a minor character in Harry Potter, not a protagonist. Nevertheless, I look up to her and would not hesitate to call her a hero because of her sacrifices and bravery.
With this difference in mind, should there be flawed heroes in literature? My answer is of course.
Flaws, whether in heroes or a minor villain, give the reader something to hold on to, something of themselves which they can find in the character. I would go so far as to argue that flaws make heroes in literature possible. We see all our possible successes in our fictional heroes; when we see these successes coupled with flaws much like our own, we latch onto that character as a possible version of ourselves. We sympathize with their struggles, root for them to prevail, and feel their emotions at every turn. Flaws give us our connection to fictional heroes; take them away and we just have another saint or martyr who’s nothing more than a name.
Theoretically, heroes are like any other character. Readers relate more to them when they’re flawed, and so the best heroes should be flawed. Yet readers have a hard time admitting that their heroes are flawed heroes. Criticize Harry Potter for being a hormonal teenaged boy soaking up the limelight and Potterheads will descend upon you like a flock of vultures. (I would know, I used to react that way and sometimes still do.) What we don’t realize is that we can still look up to certain characters even with their flaws. We just cannot make them some inhuman idol to worship. We must also remember that the flaws make the stories interesting. If our heroes didn’t have flaws, we wouldn’t have any reason to worry about their success, would we?
In life, we have to take our heroes and their digressions with a grain of salt. Some are forgivable, others are not. Some mistakes can be righted with an apology and others take much more, if they can ever be righted at all. Mistakes are a part of life and as long as our heroes learn from them–more importantly, so long as we learn from them–then some bit of good may come from it. Admire the good flawed heroes have done but judge their wrongs as you would anyone else’s. After all, they’re human, too.
Thoughts on creating flawed heroes? On our tendency to idolize heroes, both fictional and in real life? Drop a line in the comments. Let’s start a discussion!