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Angels, Saints, and Justifiable Homicide: The Art of Flawed Characters

No one likes a goody two shoes. I think most anyone who’s a fan of stories – movies, TV, books or video games – would probably agree with that statement; the characters we like best are the ones with warts, the ones that feel real. Batman has more fans than Superman because of stuff like  this; people like Han Solo more than Luke Skywalker because Han is a scoundrel. I know this trope – and adhere to it in my own character preferences – as much as the next guy. But as I’ve started trying to craft my own complex characters, I’ve found myself wondering about the “rules” of complex characters: how do you make a character that’s human, that your readers or viewers won’t find terminally annoying, without making them fundamentally unlikable?

I’ve thought a lot about this in the last few days, and it seems to me like there are three main strategies you can employ. As always, I’ll try to speak in generalities, but if you’re super-concerned about spoilers (for A Song of Ice and Fire, Farscape, and Babylon 5, in this case), consider proceeding with caution.

Approach #1): Show Us The Why.

“The things I do for love.” – Jaime Lannister

I think this approach is probably the most common strategy for authors wanting readers to like a hero even as they might not approve of some of the stuff that they do. George RR Martin might be the master of this. Most of his most popular viewpoint characters in A Song of Ice and Fire do stuff that’s considered pretty abysmal by most people (killing one’s close relatives, maiming children, scheming to overthrow our other favorite characters); but because we’re with them when they do it – or at least get the justification after-the-fact – it seems a little less horrific.

I think this is also the reason writing teachers urge us beginning storytellers to think about our villains’ motivations, even if readers are never going to see their perspective; because people very rarely see themselves as the villain. Everyone is the hero of their own story, and heroes don’t take actions they see as fundamentally unjustifiable. Farscape does a good job of this with one of its major antagonists; sure, he’s ambitious, and maybe a little egomaniacal, and probably more than a little psychologically damaged, but when we finally hear his reasons for why he’s chasing after our heroes, they’re kind of hard to argue with.

Approach #2): Make Them Realize the Error of Their Ways (or Ways of Thinking).

This is the classic redemptive “villain” arc, right? Farscape’s got a character who fits this archetype pretty clearly, too, who starts out as a “bad guy” and becomes a “good guy” (dear readers, please be warned that I haven’t finished this series yet, so be kind in your comments…). Babylon 5 also uses this one with a few of its characters (including my personal favorite), people who start out as pretty unlikable and then “come to their senses” through the series.

Really, I think this is an extension of the previous approach; if a character realizes that the world isn’t quite what they thought it was, then their actions and attitudes are going to change accordingly, but not all at once. Realistic characters sometimes have cognitive dissonance; they sometimes doubt their new worldviews; they sometimes end up like the poor Shepherd in the first episode of Firefly, left shaking their heads:

I’ve been out of the abbey two days. I’ve beaten a lawman senseless. Fallen in with criminals. I watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect. And I’m not even sure if I think he was wrong.

This approach works really well for me if it’s done right (the Farscape character who’s going through it is fast becoming one of my favorites); but if it’s done wrong, I find it annoying. I’m thinking here of another Babylon 5 character, who commits a pretty serious error of judgment before the series begins, is appalled by the consequences of it, and vows never to let such a thing happen again. And basically becomes rather saintly and boring as a result of that (come to think of it, Farscape kind of has one of those, too…).

Approach #3): Make Them Pay.

Sometimes, even the best of us makes a bad decision. The reasons for it might be innocent, acting on conclusions drawn from incorrect or incomplete information (my protagonist’s got one of those coming up in a few chapters, a biggie); or it might be impulsive, saying or doing something in the spur of the moment without really thinking through the repercussions, or it might be willful blindness, choosing not to worry about some of the ramifications of our actions. If a character acts in innocence, I think many readers are willing to forgive them pretty easily – as long as they feel bad when they realize what they’ve done. If their motives are less pure, though… well, that’s where things get a little more complicated.

Again, I have to turn back to Babylon 5 on this one for an example of a well-done fall and rise. There’s a character in this series who starts out almost as a joke; makes some spur-of-the-moment decisions that wreak a whole lot of havoc; and then is left to pick up the pieces afterward, and rises to the challenge. When Husband and I were breaking down the roles of this cast, we called this one simultaneously the hero and the villain of a lot of the story.

Of course, authors can heap too much suffering on a sinful character’s head, too – especially if the character accepts their fate and doesn’t look to be doing anything to save themselves or improve the situation (GRRM has one of those, I’m afraid).

Like in other lists I’ve put together on this blog, I think that the most reliable option for good complex-character-hood might be to combine a bit of all of these approaches; can’t speak for Farscape yet, but both ASOIAF and Babylon 5 do this with their best characters.

What do you all think? How do you (or your favorite authors?) strike a balance between making your characters too angelic and too unsympathetic? Are there actions that a beloved character could take that would put them beyond the pale of likeability?

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2 Comments

  1. Great post Hannah! I sure do love those flawed characters. I am a big fan of the gray area with those types…the kind of moral ambiguity which makes them more human. I tend to attempt to make my characters flawed because I feel it makes them more likable and relatable. A character would have to voluntarily commit horrendous deeds for me to really dislike them…like rape or sacrificing animals or babies.
    I’m going to go ahead and give you a bunch of Farscape spoilers now…just kidding. 😉

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  2. Addendum to this post — here’s something about Batman on io9 that seems related to this argument: http://io9.com/5973627/6-reasons-why-batman-is-both-perfect-and-boring

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