Bad Advice: Flawed Characters

We are told, over and over again, that only flawed characters are interesting. That characters who are simply heroic, or competent, are boring–they make the right decisions, they figure out the mystery, but they fail to grow as people. Even worse, readers can’t relate to them and will find them dull.

This ignores the fact that all the most successful characters from literature (the ones you can name off the top of your head, from Superman to Zorro) are static, unchanging heroes who look good while they save the world and never struggle with chemical dependencies or tragic flaws.

Flawed characters can be interesting, it’s true. The story of someone struggling to overcome trust issues is a good story. The alcoholic who needs to get clean to run a day care center is inspiring, and that character is absolutely relatable. We all have problems in our lives we’d like to overcome. We all need inspiring stories from time to time.

Yet when you actually look at some famous supposedly flawed characters, you quickly find that they aren’t following the track you might reasonably expect. In fact, I’d say that truly flawed characters are much rarer in successful media than we’ve been led to believe.

Is Batman a flawed character? I’d say no. He has a tragic backstory, but he’s super-competent now and while he broods quite eloquently, the loss of his parents isn’t something he seems to struggle with day-to-day. The Joker is arguably much bigger problem for him that survivor’s guilt. Calling Spiderman a flawed character is a bit of a stretch. He may feel a certain level of guilt for the loss of his uncle, but as he whoops and wisecracks as he swings around on webs, it’s hard to find his darkness. For both of these characters, their flaws are character traits we can find charming or sad but which come up in their stories about as often as their eye color, or their favorite flavor of ice cream–their flaws are characters details, in other words, not plot elements.

Walter White is an antihero. Tony Soprano is actually an antivillain (we use these words incorrectly all the time). They both do bad things and revel in them. They seem less torn apart by inner demons than empowered by them. They aren’t flawed characters. They’re personality flaws masquerading as characters–and as a result, neither of them changes by the end but instead announces to the world that they love being bad. These are truly flawed characters but their flaws don’t drive the plot–it’s their unwillingness to change, their refusal to see their flaws as anything but superpowers that makes them who they are. That’s… not very sympathetic. Both their stories were commentaries on how foolish it is to think that villains can also be heroes. Trenchant analyses of how we consume stories.

You may also have noticed that a lot of the flaws these characters have are… unusual. Unlikely. They aren’t relatable. There’s another kind of flawed character who hits a lot closer to home–the addict, whether that means they’re an alcoholic, a heroin abuser, or someone who needs to be loved so badly it makes them do unlovable things. These sorts of flawed characters have powerful stories to tell. But their paths are much more dangerous, and as a writer you have to be careful not to let their flaws derail your story.

A character with real world flaws is defined by those flaws, not just bothered by them. Jack Torrance from The Shining is an honest-to-gawd flawed character. We know what he needs to do–stay sane, stop drinking, be good to his family. He can’t do those things because his flaw drags him down, so he becomes a villain. We root for his downfall, because he deserves it, somehow.

Simply giving a character a sad backstory doesn’t make them flawed, it makes them sympathetic. A true Tragic Hero is someone whose flaw–classically it’s hubris–is their downfall. Think Achilles, not Odysseus. We don’t create a lot of characters like that anymore, because we live in a culture that values second chances and redemption (IMO, this is a very good thing). A character with a real flaw who makes terrible decisions because of their flaw must, in a modern story, turn things around by the end–one way or another. They end up beating the flaw. Either healing from it, or at least achieving something despite it.

Anyone who has actually dealt with an addiction can tell you it ain’t that easy. You don’t break a bad habit because your kid sister needs to be rescued from evil clowns. You’re more likely to turn to the bottle to help ignore her screams. That’s awful, but it’s true. Recovery, true recovery, has to come from within and that’s not the most exciting story. It also comes with a lot of backsliding and recidivism that would kill a reader’s sympathy dead. We hit rock bottom only after we’ve burned through the patience and forgiveness of our loved ones. Truly flawed characters would be anything but relatable or sympathetic.

So we don’t really want flawed characters. We want characters who had some kind of darkness in their past but who got over it. At most, we want characters who are in the process of overcoming their flaws. And it had better work, too–90% of addicts may use again. Your flawed hero had better be in the other 10%. Otherwise your “flawed character” narrative will be described as “depressing” and “pointless.” At most you’ll create a moral lesson, a cautionary tale.

“Flawed” characters are relatable. What isn’t relatable is their ability to best their demons on a tight schedule, or because some outside element requires it of them. Yet that’s exactly what works when it comes to flawed characters. The person who isn’t broken, just sprained. And sprains heal.