Thursday, September 16, 2010

Characters: Flawed = Strong, Stupid = Weak

Reading thuRsday

I read a review of a book that follows its protagonist through a dazzling array of bad choices. That final phrase, "dazzling array of bad choices," catalyzed my thinking about character flaws.

I trust you've been around the block enough to know that perfect characters aren't very interesting. Superman without Kryptonite and his ethics is simply a demigod, unconstrained by the limitations of mere mortals. It's much more interesting to read about someone with an identifiable mix of strengths and weaknesses.

But there's an important difference between characters with flaws and characters who are stupid. Characters with flaws believe they are good, moral people who are trying to do the best they know how. Characters that are stupid know what they are doing is wrong or self-destructive but do it any way.

"Wait," you may say, as you rise up in righteous wrath, "there are really people like that in the world and I have a duty to tell it like it is."

"Yes," I answer. "And there are people who lead utterly unremarkable lives, who put the bore into boring. Why don't you also have a duty to tell those stories like they really are?"

To be clear, I'm not arguing stories that are all sunshine and flowers. Indeed, there's a grand tradition of cautionary tales whose purpose is to warn by showing us the full extent of the tragedy. I'm arguing for strong characters.

A character headed for tragedy along a trajectory that makes sense (at least from their perspective) is far more interesting and far stronger than a character that knowingly fails because they haven't the energy or strength of will to do anything else.

Perhaps a simple way to sum this up is with the reminder that the antagonist believes they are the hero of their own story.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /