The Good Guy Hero

It’s not easy creating a straight up good hero. We like our heroes that bit more flawed and broken, a reminder of what it is to be truly human. A straight-up good hero usually comes across as unconvincing, cheesy and old-fashioned.

But on the rare occasions when they’re done right, these are some of the most likable characters out there. Think of Captain America. Think of Carrot in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch novels. They aren’t perfect, but their imperfections have an innocence about them. We don’t love them because they have a dark streak. We love them because even their faults are endearing.

The rarity with which this is done right shows just how hard such characters are to write. But they’re something worth looking for as a reader and worth striving towards as a writer. They lighten up even the darkest corners of our lives. They show that we can be flawed, as all humans are, without having to let the darkness in.

Flaws and faults – a character lesson from Victoria Grefer

Adding flaws is a big part of what makes characters interesting. Han Solo would be a lot less fun if he weren’t a criminal. Bilbo Baggins is appealing because he battles his own cowardice. Loki’s arrogance and scheming are half the reason he’s a highlight of the Marvel films.

Of course being played by the charming Tom Hiddleston also helps.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yqc0UMwNKmg&w=560&h=315]

 

But not all character flaws are equal. Picking the wrong one can put readers off your hero or make your villain so sympathetic that they switch sides. I recently found an interesting distinction in Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You that illuminates the distinction and helps in character building.

Flaws

Grefer draws a distinction between flaws and faults.

Flaws are aspects of a character that aren’t inherently morally wrong but that get them into trouble or make them less impressive. Take the example of Bilbo. His desire for self preservation and the quiet life are understandable, but this holds him back from achieving everything he could.

Or look at Sophronia in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books. Her curiosity and lack of respect for authority make her capable of great things, but also get her in a lot tight scrapes and dangerous situations.

These are character traits that make us like the character even as we shake our heads at them.

Faults

Faults are the character traits that are always wrong. Cruelty. Greed. The desire to dominate others. They might seem at first glance like extreme version of flaws, but there is a distinction, one that will affect the reactions of readers.

Loki’s pride is arguably a flaw. It gives him the confidence to construct grand schemes and be a charming conversationalist, but it also tips over into over-confidence and looking down on others. His desire to dominate, to bend everyone else to his will, is clearly a fault. It’s a terrible attitude to take, one that leads to darkness and destruction. It makes him a real villain.

Using the distinction

So how do you use this to your advantage?

Basically, focus on the flaws, not the faults. Flaws make your heroes interesting without alienating readers, so stick with them for the good guys. For the villains you may want to mix in some faults, but when deciding on the balance between flaws and faults think about how you want your readers to react. Do you want them to bay for the villain’s blood and cheer when he gets his head chopped off, or sympathise and long to see him redeemed? Make the villain more flawed than the hero, but think carefully before you fill them full of faults.

For more of this sort of stuff check out Victoria Grefer’s blog, Writing With The Crimson League. And if you’ve got any thoughts on writing interesting, flawed characters please share them below.

Heroes and Villains

There’s a tendency when writing stories to put characters into the role of hero or villain, so that they objectively fill that role within the story world’s logic. Even in an era of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains we often put central characters into one of these roles. But there is a more satisfying option.

I’ll illustrate with a real life example. I had a teacher in primary school who had a huge impact on both me and my sister’s lives. For me, he was the hero. He recognised both my potential and the difficulties I was having with learning. This led to a referral to an educational psychologist that helped turn my life around. From day to day, this teacher encouraged my academic interests and nurtured me at a difficult point in my life.

For my sister, this teacher was the villain. He didn’t like pupils who were very lively or chatty. He struggled to relate to girls. And so his treatment of this bubbly, vivacious young lady drove her to tears and made every day at school a struggle. This teacher’s role in the narrative of our lives depended upon which angle you looked at him from. Years later, he’s one of the few teachers I think about and discuss, and there’s a reason why.

A good example of a writer tapping into this is Brian Azzarello in he and Lee Bermejo’s ‘Lex Luthor: Man of Steel‘. Azzarello adds depth to Lex Luthor, the classic Superman villain, by showing why Luthor sees Superman as a villain. This perspective also makes the all-American good boy a more interesting hero. It not only shows that other characters view him in different ways but gives the reader another way to think about him.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, to just see the character from one perspective. I do it myself, sometimes unthinkingly, sometimes due to the constraints of a short story. But breaking from that model, showing characters who are both heroes and villains, can make a far deeper character, and a far more interesting story.