In Defense of Flawed Characters

Flawed characters get their fair share of criticism.  Sometimes, readers seem to expect or hope that characters will perfectly model their own values.  That they will be kind, caring, intelligent, and aware in precisely the same way the reader themselves would like to be.  When characters fail to meet these expectations, disappointment and anger can ensue.  But people in real life are varied and it makes sense that characters will be varied, too.  It makes sense that sometimes they will make poor decisions, that sometimes they will act or speak out of fear, selfishness, or ignorance.  And that, as a result, yes, we readers will sometimes disapprove of what they have done.  Even so, flawed characters are valuable–and not only because they can add drama or excitement to a story.  Flawed characters are valuable because they can give us hope that we can change.

When I speak of a “flawed” character, I do not mean the villain of the story.  Voldermort is undeniably flawed, as are Sauron and the White Witch or any number of the criminals superheroes routinely fight.  These types of characters are typically meant to be understood as evil or at least as representing a type of evil that must be overcome.  Sometimes they are made more complex and may experience character arcs that result in repentance or redemption.  But readers generally know that these characters are meant to be villains and they do not typically relate to them or expect more from their behavior.

In contrast, a “flawed” character is usually a character readers do not immediately perceive as evil and whom they may perceive as relatable.  They are “normal” people who typically mean well (or at least do not mean to cause active harm), but who make decisions that readers may perceive as wrong.  They may say something insensitive, hurt a friend, lie to someone, or believe things readers think are harmful or immoral.  For example, flawed characters might include Boromir from The Lord of the Rings, Gene from A Separate Peace, or any number of superheroes who lie to their friends and families.  They seem like kind of average people, maybe even like really good people–but they are not perfect.

Because these types of characters are not framed as the villain, readers tend to expect moral behavior from them.  This is especially true of protagonists, who are often framed as characters readers are supposed to sympathize with.  Due to this sympathy, readers may perceive the protagonists as potential role models, characters whose beliefs and actions could be emulated in the real world.  As a result, they worry when characters fail to have codes of behavior that align with their own values.  They worry that less informed readers will think lying or stealing or saying insensitive things is acceptable.  They worry that readers will see something problematic and believe it is okay.

Most readers, of course, are a little savvier than that and can distinguish fiction from reality. And they are not necessarily compelled to say or do something simply because someone else said or did it.  I do not believe we need to write fiction where people only do and say socially acceptable things, as a way to inculcate correct values in readers.  However, more than that, I believe we need flawed characters because they remind us of our own humanity.  No one is perfect.  At one time or another, we have all failed to live up to our own values, perhaps out of fear or selfishness or ignorance.  And, in those moments, we probably all hoped that we would be granted forgiveness and a second chance.  We wanted to believe we could do better, if someone would help us try.

Upstanding characters who do no wrong can be very attractive and even inspiring.  But flawed characters are perhaps a more accurate representation of what most of us are from day to day.  We are people who mean well (or at least who mean no active harm) who sometimes end up doing or saying things we regret.  Seeing that in literature reminds us we are not alone.  We are all struggling to be better, together.  And there is hope.  Forgiveness is possible.  Change is possible.  We won’t always be the person who made that mistake.  We won’t always be ostracized as the person who made a mistake.

Sometimes the world can seem very dark. Sometimes it can seem like we’re fighting a losing battle. But flawed characters remind us that people aren’t black-and-white.  And no one’s destiny is set in stone.  We can be better.  I choose to believe we will be better.

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46 thoughts on “In Defense of Flawed Characters

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I am in complete agreement with you on this subject! Flawed characters represent us, the imperfect people who are just trying to get through the day and sometimes make mistakes or bad decisions because we are just regular human beings. I don’t want to read about flawless characters. There’s no depth to them.

    I think too many people make the mistake of assuming that a character’s bad decision or lame joke or flaw is a sign that the author is condoning whatever behavior is being portrayed, but that’s not the case 99% of the time, and most readers are indeed savvy enough to figure that out. Especially teenagers, though the world often thinks they aren’t bright enough to do so.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I agree. Some readers do seem to confuse the characters with the author. I find this odd just for the simple reason that you can have an entire cast of characters. Like in Harry Potter. Which character is supposedly representing Rowlng’s true views? It can’t be both Voldemort and Dumbledore, probably.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. malvikajaswal says:

    Great post and I agree that the flawed characters add depth to the narrative. Plus to ready about someone who is too goody two shoes gets a bit boring. I love your reference to Boromir.. because he was a guy I really liked and thought I understood where he was coming from. 🙂

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  3. Laurel @ The Inky Saga says:

    Flawed characters are so much more fun and interesting to read about. Too often I’ll read a book and wish I cared more about the protagonist, but they were so bland and surrounded by more interesting characters. I think a flaw definitely help in these situations that isn’t mean to also be what makes them uniquely special to a story could be really helpful.

    But I think it takes a lot of skill to write a nuanced character with flaws that people don’t hate. I’m still on the fence with April May from An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. She has her comeuppance by the end, in a dangerous and partially hilarious situation, so I was satisfied by the end ^_^

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    • Krysta says:

      It’s always a little odd when the side characters are more compelling than the protagonist! And certainly there wouldn’t be much of a story if all the characters were perfectt.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. bookwormmuse says:

    Absolutely agreed on this point. More often than not, flawed characters are cast into negative light because of their less than ideal actions and it just seems so contradictory to the point the author might be trying to make. Flawed characters remind us that the characters are human too and can make mistakes and can’t always have the upper moral ground. Also, these characters are more relatable than any other if I am being honest. They are a bit more real than those who haven’t made a single bad decision or haven’t had conflicting thoughts in their life.

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  5. CHARIS RAE @ charisrae.com says:

    I love these thoughts so much! I’m writing a book right now about a pretty famous bad guy and his backstory. He’s definitely an anti-hero and has a corruption arc. It’s hard because on one hand people want flawed characters but on the other they don’t like them. *shrugs* I love everyone you said here!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think people like certain kinds of flawed characters? Some readers seem to have deal breakers, so to speak, where they can’t accept characters saying/doing/believing certain things that they disagree with. Part of this seems to be that they believe readers will start thinking dubious actions are okay if they see it happen in a book. Part of it seems to be that they believe the author must support dubious beliefs or actions if their character holds those beliefs or performs those actions.

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  6. Aurora Librialis says:

    Wonderful post! Flawed characters feel more real to me, and that makes them so much more interesting to read about. I don’t have to agree with everything a character says or does to enjoy their journey, nor do I need fictional characters to act as my moral compass. As you said: most readers are savvier than that.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think most readers understand that characters can do thing readers disagree with–and that’s okay. It makes them more interesting, certainly, and it’s realistic. And a character doing something wrong doesn’t mean the author supports that thing!

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  7. Jordyn says:

    Love this post, totally agree! I’m not reading to find characters to be my idols, I’m reading to find characters that I connect to, and a lot of times it’s the flaws that are relatable! And a lot of times makes the message of the book even better when the MC makes mistakes and learns from them.

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  8. Anne Marie Gazzolo says:

    Great post! I agree with a lot of the other commenters that flawed characters are much more interesting. Darth Ani as I like to call him is much more interesting than Darth Vader, Smeagol is a lot more interesting than Sauron. Just white and just black characters don’t have as much depth as those who have a combo.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

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  9. Miri ♪ Book Dragoness ♪ says:

    Yes flawed characters are super realistic in my opinion (I mean, which one of us is perfect…;) ) It’s honestly easier to relate to characters who make huge mistakes and learn from them, though it’s also harder to read. As for morality, I think that having characters who like I said LEARN from their experiences have a more morality-building effect than characters who handle everything perfectly (is morality building-effect a real phrase? Hah)

    I see a rise in morally grey characters here like antiheroes. The type you can admire for their cunning and tenacity…but not as a role model. I still don’t know what to think about them, though they *are* definitely interesting to read about.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the grey characters are largely a response to Six of Crows, at least in YA. YA seems to follow trends. Something becomes popular and everyone else does it for awhile. But I’m not sure anyone will write a book I like as much as Six of Crows. 😉

      Like

  10. Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

    Great post! One of the ‘issues’ I have is when I come across people who don’t apply critical thinking to the books they read. I say ‘issues’ but it’s not really an issue I have, just a bit of a bug bear.

    It may just be me but I seem to be noticing a trend where people will say a character or plot line or theme is problematic and then those people slate the book and/or author as presenting something damaging as a good thing.

    While there are instances of this I tend to find that problematic or flawed elements are not often presented as positive. If there is something ‘problematic’ or ‘flawed’ but the narrative is saying ‘this is NOT a good trait/ action/ etc.’ then the narrative is not condoning the trait/ action/ etc. But it does seem that some readers are not always able to accept that, which I can find frustrating.

    Saying that, I agree with you – most readers are savvy enough to understand that problematic elements are not shown as good things but even so, I don’t understand who gets to appoint themselves as moral gatekeepers to books but then I guess that’s a discussion for another time.

    I personally enjoy the flawed characters more than those who are wholesome and good. The simple reason as to why is because flawed characters are infinitely more interesting to read about!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve seen that, too. There’s a villain in the story who is, obviously, well, villainous and not meant to be anyone’s role model. But people say the book and author are supporting and promoting the villain’s views. It’s an odd stance to take, just for the simple reason that most stories need a villain of some sort to create conflict and make the story interesting. It would be a poor story full of characters standing around giving lectures on the proper beliefs people are supposed to have.

      I also find this stance interesting because most people will say they don’t like “preachy” stories. But if stories can only present one narrative, isn’t that sort of preachy? We’re kind of going back to the Victorian habit of using stories to form proper social behavior. Just with different ideals.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

        I agree – it’s an odd stance to take because conflict = plot and quite often (I know not always) conflict comes from external forces. A large number of books are good vs. evil so they can’t all be saying evil (or morally ambiguous) is the way to go!

        It makes no sense to me at all and wonder how/ why this trend has started. I’d rather have dubious characters and evil action in a story so that we could discuss them and why they are bad/ evil then try and remove them completely.

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        • Krysta says:

          Sometimes I’m not even sure it’s a real trend or if there is just a really vocal small group of people controlling the discourse. I think most people understand that authors can write what they want and characters do not equal the author. But sometimes social media can amplify a few voices and drown out everyone else.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

            You are very right on that front of social media. Those who shout loudest get heard. I’m not a massive fan of twitter and am gearing up to using it but it’s because of things like this I think, but it’s good to hear that its small and vocal rather than mass groups of people!

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  11. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    I like flawed characters, but only if I can understand the decisions they make that I don’t agree with. I find it very frustrating when a character makes what I think is a bad decision and it doesn’t feel like something the character would do either!

    Like

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