new-1If Quintessential Editor could use a few of those greens he consumes so readily to help apply better terms, that would be amazing, but when discussing the contrast between the traditional hero and the flawed hero, I felt inspired (thanks Rough and Ready Fiction!) to offer a few case studies and offer my thoughts and opinions.

There are a lot of sources that describe a lot of hero archetypes.  The reason I didn’t narrow down to one source is more because I don’t feel there’s a TON of consistency out there, so I’ll use the terms that make the most sense to me and you can decide on what terms you like best.  I’m more interested in discussing my thoughts than I am determining the best terms in this regard.

The Traditional Hero:  He’s the nice guy’s nice guy.  He’s the white knight.  The man of principle.  He’s the example to follow.  If you had a daughter, he’s the man you’d want to date her.

coverrevealCase Study:  Odd Thomas.  I won’t lie.  Odd Thomas was a very influential part of my writing The Journals of Bob Drifter.  He’s such a great character.  He’s honest, doesn’t cuss a lot. Heck, he even uses “sir” or “ma’am” when addressing people.  He’s forced to act by circumstances, and sometimes he must do things he doesn’t want to do, but he’s a good guy, and no one can deny that.  Bob is a traditional hero.  He’s honest.  He’s soft spoken.  He’s even a little shy around women.

I’m more drawn to these heroes because a part of me honestly believes that fiction should strive to show humanity what it CAN be.  This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate flawed heroes, enjoy books about flawed heroes, or write stories about them.  When stretching to find new levels of skill, one must try new things, but my favorite books all have more traditional heroes.

The Flawed Hero:  He’s the rebel.  He’s the hero who’s a drunkard or killer.  He’s the man who’s seen stuff in life and is just trying to get by.  He’s the man you’d shoot if he showed up to ask your daughter out.

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Cover for Perfect Shadow used for review and educational purposes under Fair Use doctrine.

Case Study:  Durzo Blint from The Night Angel Trilogy.  I love him.  He’s a great character, but he’s a jerk.  He’s a whore-mongering, drinking killer.   His motives are selfish, and his moral code is just about as messed up as it can be.

These characters (to a degree) feel more real to readers.  They’re more relatable.  So I don’t know how often I’ll try to psychoanalyze humanity as a whole, but I’m going to step out on that limb in this case.  Most people, myself included, feel flawed.  Everyone has “hot buttons” because those issues spark in people that which they most dislike in themselves.  Where a traditional hero provides an example to follow, flawed heroes show readers it’s okay to not be “perfect” because you can still, and always, do something worthy of the term hero.

Let’s look at this in practice (an point out my hypocrisy at the same time):  Superman vs Wolverine.

5377147-supermanYep…I’m going the comic book route.  Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American way.  Wolverine is a killer.  Now, based on my above comments, you’d think I like Superman, right?  Wrong.  I hate Superman.  But in this we find the complexity of art.  I don’t hate superman because he helps old ladies cross the street or reminds people that “flying is still statistically the safest way to travel.”  I hate Superman because he’s TOO perfect.  He’s (arguably) the most powerful character in comics.  I don’t mind a person who has all these morals.   What I mind about Superman is the fact that I just don’t ever feel he’s in danger.  He’s not one for whom I worry because I don’t think he’ll ever be taken down.  I don’t read the comics too much, but I hear he’s been “flawed” in some regard.  I like Wolverine because (immortal thought he may be), I’ve seen him lose fights.  I’ve seen him fail.  And failure is a key part of gaining sympathy.

It’s the setbacks characters face that create the tension readers feel when they try anything.  These setbacks don’t have to mean failure, but they are important.

12509430_10205913257685707_8906529411258551482_nSo my problem with what I feel is the overabundance of flawed heroes isn’t people genuinely have flaws.  It’s that some readers argue there aren’t nice guys out there.  I served for 10 years in the Navy.  Some of the kindest, most “Superman” type people I’ve ever met (Quintessential Editor among them) are Sailors.  Corey will give you the shirt off his back while asking if you need a pair of pants.  He’ll give everything he can for people in general.  He’s capable of right and wrong like any human, but if I have a son one day, I’d be pretty proud if he grows up to be like Corey.

I have other friends.  I have friends that my other friends ask why they’re still my friends.  I obviously won’t name one.  But if I were to judge people and withhold my friendship because they’ve done things I don’t like, I’d be pretty short on friends.

So what’s my point?

The most times I hear arguments regarding these two types of heroes, they’re arguing principles when what I think they’re really discussing is the unreal reaction to events.  This was a major point of discussion with my editor about Sal in Caught.  He goes through some seriously bad stuff, and just keeps plugging along heroically.  At least, he did in the last draft of the book.  In this draft, the issues he faces causes him to doubt himself.

I don’t actually care what type of hero anyone writes, but MOST readers want realism.  They want character who reacts to situations.  Let’s do another case study.

(SPOILER ALERT FOR DOCTOR WHO..YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)

doctor_who_2005_s04e06_1080p_bluray_x264-shortbrehd_1809Doctor Who:  In the episode entitled “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the doctor meets, grows to care for and loses a genetic clone of himself that seems like a “daughter.”  The fanboy in me chuckles a bit because I actually remember the doctor’s initial reaction to Jenny (I believe the word “abomination” was used, but I could be wrong).  Tennant is (from my informal, passive observation) commonly regarded as the “best” modern doctor.   He still does the “good guy” thing in the end.  He shows mercy.   He’s still the better man, but the viewers see his temptation.  They see his desire to do wrong, and he chooses to do right.  THIS is what makes characters compelling.  It’s seeing characters tested that make them sympathetic.  But test a character too much, and the reader will become annoyed.   The writers’ skill in having the doctor do “good” and “bad” is what makes him feel real in a lot of cases.  Tennant’s doctor is the greatest example of this.  He’ll be the better man when Jenny dies, but then kill a bunch of people if they don’t heed his warning.

(SPOILER OVER)

front-coverI shifted Sal’s timeline not because he was “too good” a guy, but because he receives a lot of negative stimulation without any of those events affecting his personality.  I still feel strongly it’s okay to have characters who “don’t break.”  Those characters who never shift their morals because those morals define them are important.  Ultimately, Sal’s the same “person” he was in every draft of Caught.  But his responses to what he goes through shifted to account for those events.

I think some people like “flawed” heroes because it’s easier to believe a flawed man can do right on occasion than it is to believe a man can swear never to kill, no matter how many sidekicks, women, friends and associates die because you refuse to kill a man.  (I’m looking at YOU Batman!)

So let’s talk about the caped crusader while we’re at it.  Am I mad at Batman for never killing Joker (at least he didn’t when I last glanced at the DC universe. Again, I’m not a fan of that industry)?  If you want REALISM, how does a mass murderer commit any crime and not inevitably be put to death by the legal system?

(NOTE)  Look, I’m not here to start political debates.  I won’t share my opinion on the death penalty any more than I’ll approve comments which do the same.  This is a writing blog.  The above comment was made because the death penalty exists regardless of the existence or absence of my approval.

What we should strive for as authors are AUTHENTIC characters.  If you want a white hat, help old ladies cross the road, shining smile, never lies character, go for it.  If you want a drinking, abusive, thieving character, go for it!  But when SOMETHING happens to SOMEONE, that person reacts.  I think readers have more problems with authenticity than moral values of characters.

What do you all think?  Which do you all prefer?  Feel free to throw your comments below.  (For the record, Doctor Who is a FLAWED character.  Come on people, even if you know the events of “The Day of the Doctor” he still knowingly killed an entire species.)

Thanks for reading,

Matt

 

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28 thoughts on “The Line in the Sand: Discussing the “traditional” hero in comparison to the “flawed” hero

  1. Great blog! I agree totally with your assumptions. I always liked Batman better than Superman because he was a real person-to the degree a Psychotic billionaire can be a real person 🙂 I’m starting a major revision on a draft I just completed and will be focusing on muddying up my main character a little bit. He, like superman, is just too perfect. He’s every woman’s dream but isn’t real. He’s too predictable and down right boring 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. For me, I hold on to realistic reactions. Superman never changes in my opinion (though fans of that comic can feel free to educate me if I’m wrong). My problem is something awful happens, and Superman (as I’ve seen him) doesn’t even get frustrated. Just keeps on smiling and working. He’d be much more compelling to me if I at least saw the temptation to just use that power of his to force people. I hope the revisions go well. I’m drafting myself at the moment. Glad to be producing new content after revising Caught some six times.

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  2. A great write up, Matt. Loved the case study! I think there’s plenty of room for both types of characters, but you raise a good point that fiction should perhaps show us examples of what we can strive to be. I suppose, a counter argument would be that showing us these flawed, often immoral, heroes provides us some escapism without resorting to anything of the sort ourselves? We identify that these characters purely are fiction and don’t attempt to replicate them in any way. It’s interesting to think about and I think it says a lot about us as people too! I’m definitely in the camp where flaws help to give a character authenticity, realism, and I find I prefer characters of the sort.

    Side note: I’m quite a comic book fan, so I was able to identify a bit better with the examples given. I used to have a problem with Superman for the same reason, I never liked him because he had no flaws and people just pulled ‘kyptonite’ out of the bag whenever it was needed; this completely ties in with what you were saying about a character feeling authentic. However, I came to realise that Superman’s struggles are not one of power; his challenges are personal. He can do pretty much anything the writers need him to do… in combat. But his challenges come from personal identity, being an outsider, trying to BE that perfect example, etc etc… Just a thought  I know you admitted to not being a big comic-reader, but I just wanted to try and expand a little! Not preaching!

    Great post, Matt. Loved reading this!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m totally a comic fan! Just more a Marvel dude. I understand what Superman’s conflict is, and maybe I just need to give him a fair shot, but in the comics I’ve read, the focus is on the fight. The routine, unchanging action that Megamind put to FANTASTIC satirical use. Man of Steel was a movie I enjoyed up until a certain point because that movie was, in fact, about that struggle. Someone who just wants to be a part of the whole, but can’t. That part of that movie I felt was done well. I will admit though, I’ve perhaps read 20 Superman comics out of the numerous comics I’ve read. I’d be interested to hear about any story arcs you think might better represent him. I’m glad you liked the post. I like just talking shop some times. Character studies are my favorite.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well I’d be certainly interested if you did more Character Studies! I find them a fascinating read.

        I used to be a pure Marvel man, I vehemently loathed DC (I was young, I was all about picking sides, haha) but it was a now-Ex-Girlfriend that openned my eyes to DC too. Now I love them both, but I’ll always have Marvel in my heart.

        I actually really didn’t enjoy Man of Steel, or BvS because I think they really failed to capture Superman. Sure, he was struggling, but he was also a bit of a wingy egotist, only caring about himself!

        Anyhoo, sorry for the late reply! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice run down! I can take my heroes either way, as long as they are actively trying to do the right thing now.

    Sam, Dean and Cas all probably count as flawed, and sometimes they even regress. (Dean has possibly given up his anti-torture stance, for example, though in many other ways he’s grown more positively.) All of them have sorted pasts. (Demon blood junkie, anyone? Or Godstiel? Or Deanmon?)

    On the other hand, one of my favorite non-SPN characters is Poe Dameron from The Force Awakens. No sorted past has come out yet, and I doubt it will. He’s just a really good guy: loyal, focused, fun and almost fanatically dedicated to the right side of the current war. (Plus he’s a fanboy of Princess Leia. Really, the only thing that could make him even more appealing is if by some miracle StormPilot becomes canon.)

    So bring on either type of hero. I’m game!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First off Jenn, you’re a different level of awesome. I think I need to take some time eventually to do a character study on each of those characters. Supernatural is BRILLIANT in terms of character progression and regression. The series is good. I have secret plans for that sort of stuff though. In an older post, I talked about good characters going bad. I think what I find compelling about the Supernatural bunch is how their decent is always based on rational motivations. But there’s a TON of content to go over in that I think other storytellers could learn from. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting article. I appreciate it when a thesis statement is supported by evidence. Nicely done. As for heroes, whether perfect or flawed, what makes a person a hero? Is it because they do heroic things? If so, what are those things? For me, it is primarily displayed in acts requiring courage. And courage demands two things: choice and cost. (As C. S. Lewis pointed out, even Pontius Pilate was courageous up to a point–until the price got too high.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sharon. For me, a hero is one who does what should be done despite the cost. To clarify, “what must be done,” isn’t necessarily the “easy” thing. It’s the “right” thing. I put that last word in quotes because right is often a point of view. When one resists the urge to do what is easy and convenient because his morals, faith, family, mission matters more, I consider that a heroic act. I’ll do another character study on that sometime down the road. Thanks again.

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  5. It is interesting to consider why we like characters. I’ve even seen a few cases where the fact that a character was, for lack of a better phrase, perfectly good, was deemed their flaw. One story actually turned it into a bit of comical relief, as other characters repeatedly try to tempt the do-good-er, and get incredibly frustrated when the virtuous knight fails to seize opportunities the others would kill for.

    In the case of Superman I think part of the problem is how he’s used. I can’t recall where I read it, but there was an article that talked about how the key to a good villain is that they make the hero uncomfortable. They negate the strengths of the hero, and turn them into weaknesses.

    For example, I’ve been told that in some renditions, Superman’s primary villain, Lex Luthor, defeats Superman through legal sophistry. Knowing that Superman is a law abiding superhero, Luthor carefully manages all of his evil deeds to stay within the letter of the law, forcing Superman to confront that age old question, should he cross the line for the sake of preventing evil?

    In some ways it’s similar to the Joker, who’s primary role has often been to try and provoke Batman into killing him, and thus crossing his one line.

    I feel like good heroes are a combination of the strength to do what’s right, and the weakness to show it’s not easy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Those are fantastic points. A Superman arc where he’s tempted to break the law to stop Lex would be interesting to me. Joker has always interested me as a villain too. Maybe one day I’ll talk about hero villain relationships. Thanks for the comment and the interesting idea.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m also thinking of developing another hero/villain post, the lines we draw between them. I think it’s interesting how some say the spectrum is good vs evil, while others say it’s good & evil vs amoral chaos. In many ways we use villains to establish what heroic means. In many cases the extreme darkness of the villain helps us understand that we should accept the hero’s flaws as “still better than that”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Well done, sir. I really like your explanations. I like the idea of a flawless hero, but feel they would be an uncomfortable companion. White Knights are pretty to look at; but give me a knight with a little rust or a dent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a fascinating point. Think about the fact that Clark Kent has friends, but Superman has never had a side kick? Batman does. Uncompromising people are hard to be around. Sure, they’re ideal in the broad sense, but it’s hard to feel “good” when you only have this exaggerated example of morality next to you all the time. Great point.

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  7. Great post, Matt. You hit a number of nails on the head with this discussion (and managed to make me blush a little…honestly, you’re too kind).

    I think characters like Durzo are appealing because they relate to the part of us we repress. In my own work, Drake is a character who, in some ways, is a part of me. I have to wonder what I would be like if my entire family was dead, and I was left to survive on my own in a post-apocalyptic backdrop. How long could I be a “good guy?” How long could any of us — until we were killed? At what point do a few good actions justify greater horrible ones? These what-ifs are the fodder for our fiction.

    The power of uncompromising environments forces characters to do just that. That, for me, is what is appealing to me about comic books and stories in general. The blending of a character into an uncompromising environment/situation. If the writer is willing to take the character on this ride, and deal with the consequences, the results are often amazing.

    If studying archetypes has taught me anything, it’s that all archetypes have the ability to shift and morph. The perfect creation can become the fallen angel in the turn of a few pages. As writers, we just have to be able to accept those paradigm shifts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree completely. What we authors have to be is unafraid. Sometimes we want to shelter our characters or make them impervious to change. We should avoid this. Like parents, we can’t shelter them from the world. Some of us are down right mean to our characters. Brent Weeks encourages authors to be vicious. He said something to the effect of, if you have a character’s wife leave him, have her take the dog too. It amps up the sympathy slider when characters face these situations. But if they face those challenges and never change, they won’t feel real for a long time. Though the character from House might be a point of argument. I’ll probably bring him up again later. Thanks for stopping by. You’re a fine man, Corey, and I’m proud to know you.

      Liked by 1 person

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