Thursday, July 11, 2013

Imperfect Light

Last time of Fiction Forge TV, I discussed my trials with creating a believable (and not cliched) anti-hero. This week's episode: Heroes. Specifically, protagonists with flawed characteristics and/or personas.

A few weeks ago, I went to see Iron Man 3 with some of my friends. A discussion ensued afterwards about the portrayal of Tony Stark. If you have not seen the movie, then I will just say that this version of the comic icon is decidedly human. He suffers from PTSD (i.e. - experiences from the Avengers saga) and self doubt by the metric truckload among other things. The discussion was between two opposing viewpoints. The first (championed by me) was that having a flawed protagonist adds depth to your character and makes him/her/it more empathetic to the audience/reader. The second opinion was that heroes (especially superheroes) should be invincible in both form and soul.

Yes, I realize that this subject is not a book nor is it based on one. However, the principal can be applied to all fiction visual or printed. My argument is this. If you have an invincible protagonist, then you have a number of problems. First among these is that your character becomes a monochromatic, 2D caricature. If he can never loose or is never affected by anything, then he becomes little more than automaton with the personality of a post. The surest way to loose an audience or reader is to have an uninteresting main character.

The second issue that I would raise is that without character flaws, there is nothing to create tension is the story. What drives the person? How can they possibly react to their surroundings if nothing affects them? Now, granted, the movie was based on a comic and that particular media tends to be melodramatic in nature. The script writers seem to have resonated that particular aspect of the comic into their movie, which I suspect is what put some of my friends off. Yet, melodrama aside, the movie would have been abysmal without the main character's struggles to overcome his insecurities.

This is true for all fiction.

I'm not saying that one should make the protagonist a simpering mass of foibles and neuroses, but rather that some character flaws are necessary. The antagonist should have some weakness to prey on, no matter it be man against man, man against nature, or man against himself. Without those chinks in the proverbial armor, nothing will happen in the story that will interest anyone.


  1. One word: hubris. Every hero needs some kryptonite.
    Can you imagine how boring Superman would be if kryptonite weren't around? That would be dumb.
    I still need to see the new Superman, by the way. I think I see a squirrel, speaking of tangents.

  2. Brian Roe There seems to be a common trope in comics now to make all of your characters so incredibly flawed that they can barely exist as humans, let alone heroes. The whole "grim and Gritty" nonsense.

    Like everything I think the best characters achieve a real balance between realistic human flaws and the extraordinary traits that come from being a hero.

    I like my characters to have doubts and fears but then be able to push past them. Just like all of us regular people have to do.

  3. That last comment was sent to me by another friend (who actually works on comics) to my FB page. I posted it here as it seemed relelvant.

  4. Heroes who have no flaws are not super-human; they are Deities. Hell, even Zeus had to don a swan suit to seduce the ladies, in case the Missus was a peekin' out her kitchen window on Mt Olympus.

  5. Flaws show the viewer that the hero is still human. Its a way of connecting the audience to the hero, a way to relate if you will.

  6. The movie 'Hancock' would be a prime example here :)I liked that movie better than most 'superhero' movies because the main character was so absurdly flawed.

  7. Hi there Mike. I seem to remember that conversation. I will say this. I do not mind flaws in a hero, I too agree that without flaws there is no drama. I also believe that there is a specific purpose and need that superheroes fill. The world is full of darkness and neurosis, and there are many movies and books dealing with these issues. I enjoy a good drama about the human condition as much as the next guy, but I go to see a superhero movie or purchase a superhero book, to be taken out of this dark world for just a short time. I want to see my heroes struggle, I do not want to see them weakened. It is the human compulsion to try to weaken our gods and heroes to make them more like us so that we feel better about ourselves.