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.