When it comes to engaging readers, imperfect heroes are better.
Put another way, perfect heroes are dull. Imperfect heroes are better because they have doubt, they have conflict, they have the capacity for failure. Perfect heroes are boring. Don’t believe me?
Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes
James Bond as-written has few flaws. Even his vices – the drinking, smoking, casual sex and casual violence – are elevated to virtues. He never doubts the mission, never regrets a kill or toying with the affections of the women he beds and leaves.
Sherlock Holmes is the insular, isolated tower of inner strength. An intellect of demi-god proportions, he remains detached from humanity. He turns to opium only out of boredom and turns away from it as soon as an interesting case comes in.
Superman in the original comics is a paragon of virtue, forever espousing the mantra of truth, justice and the American way. No moral qualms; no grey areas. He’s so overloaded with powers only the most ludicrous threats and villains can possibly stop him. Who knew the universe had so much kryptonite to throw at him? How do you make Superman interesting? In the 1978 Superman movie he easily captures Lex Luthor but faces a dilemma; keep a promise to save Miss Tessmacher’s mother first, or go rescue Lois Lane. It’s the only real test the cloyingly smug Superman has to face (nothing against Christopher Reeve’s performance).
It’s a plot device so good, Christopher Nolan used it for the Dark Knight.
The flat arcs of perfect heroes have no room for change, for growth or for transformation unless it is to another level of awesomeness. They make for stories reliant on plot, on action, on twists and surprises. There’s only so many times you can repeat the formula.
The alternative? Choices. Choices are hard; choices are difficult; choices make heroes human.
Back to imperfect heroes, then…
Eeny-meeny-minie and mo…
Imperfect heroes don’t lack virtues, skills or superpowers. Imperfection isn’t in what they can physically do.
Imperfect heroes have doubts. Doubts lead to wrong choices. Wrong choices lead to failure.
The prospect of failure creates two things:
- Dramatic tension. Will they succeed in the mission, quest or goal?
- Character empathy. Readers identify with characters who can screw up. They identify even more when the characters do screw up and have to deal with the consequences. Just like everyone else does, except in fiction the stakes are higher and the consequences more severe.
We root for characters who screw up along the journey, even the privileged and multi-talented prince or princess carrying the weight of the kingdom on their shoulders. The high and mighty become much more empathetic if there’s a realistic prospect of defeat.
With imperfection, the essence of story is about the protagonist’s journey and transformation; from doubt to certainty, grasping victory from the jaws of defeat.
Will they learn what they need to learn? Realize what they need to realize? Change what they need to change? Will they transform?
With perfect heroes, there’s no doubt. Without doubt, there’s no tension. Without tension, there’s nothing to cheer when they succeed at the climax.
In The Lord of the Rings novels, Aragorn is pretty much the driven hero, following his one true course. The Paths of the Dead is a dangerous course but he goes anyway without much debate. The true heroes are Frodo and Sam, two Little Englanders setting out in ignorance of the Big Bad World. Full of increasing fears and diminishing hopes, Frodo makes consistently bad decisions and has to be rescued. He tries to ditch Sam and go it alone. Frodo takes on the treacherous Smeagol as a guide in hostile territory. He reveals the One Ring to Faramir knowing how badly wrong that went with Boromir. These decisions are huge gambles and huge risks. In trying to do the ‘right’ thing, he places himself in the hands of others.
In Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker) Lizzie’s rush to judgement drives her away from Darcy and toward the deceitful Wickham. She turns down Darcy’s initial proposal out of anger and prejudice when anyone else would have handcuffed themselves to him in a heartbeat. She turns down Mr Collins’ proposal for entirely selfish reasons. In both cases, acceptance is the ‘right’ thing to do by her family. By any measure these are ‘wrong’ decisions that stare failure in the face. But we understand them, we empathise with Lizzie. She is an imperfect heroine.
By the end she has to grow, develop and actively risk all in choosing love. You could say this is the defining characteristic of the romance genre. But it is the backbone of all imperfect heroes and heroines. They have to go through the inner struggle of transformation in order to accept the risk behind the Big Decision.
Will the character reach this point, change and decide in time for the key decision?
The Willing Suspense in Genre Fiction
The author has to convince us to join in the willing suspense of genre expectations. The majority of romance, action and crime fiction has to meet certain genre expectations: happy-ever-after, the climactic win, justice served. The reader expects certain outcomes. What the author has to do is create enough doubt and uncertainty that the reader keeps turning the pages to find out what happens next. There has to be a credible possibility that the characters will somehow screw up and loose.
That means seeding bad decisions, wrong choices and outright mistakes to the the last possible moment before the Big Decision. There have to be multiple failures and not just those caused by circumstance or antagonists. There have to be screw-ups resulting from the characters’ own flaws and mis-beliefs. Everything else is external opposition,circumstance or bad luck. That’s just stuff happening, not where story lives.
In the crime genre, the classic mistake is the experienced detective letting emotion overtake rationality, putting their life or career in jeopardy. They become emotionally involved with a suspect, or go charging in to confront the antagonist, when better judgement should hold them back. Perhaps it’s the other way around and the coldly rational response overrides the emotional connection.
You’ll see similar flaws across all genres. Perhaps arrogance or over-confidence ruins a situation demanding humility. Or the typical under-dog lacks the confidence to stand up and take action when demanded.
There’s a delicate balance to find between the Irritating Idiot and the Mary Sue protagonist. The serial failures of one can be just as annoying and unsympathetic as the unbroken successes of the other. Amidst the failures, your protagonist has to demonstrate the capacity for learning and transformation along the way. They can’t fail everything like a no-hoper and pull off a miracle at the end. The reader will abandon them long before the finale.
This is the challenge; making characters who are perfectly imperfect, who make mistakes and keep us rooting for them to the end.