Wanted: Flawed Main Character. Super Heroes Need Not Apply

As a kid, I watched the old “Batman” series every week. Bruce Wayne was a suave, urbane philanthropist until the Batphone rang. Then he transformed into Batman, and it was off to the Batmobile to rid Gotham City of the Joker, the Riddler, or Catwoman.

As a new writer, I used to treat my main characters like super heroes. They had to be likeable, ethical, and heroic, possessed of perfection and without a single flaw. That was a sure recipe for a bad novel. If your main character is a super hero,  what’s the point? Where’s the tension? When a crisis emerges, he will simply put on his Bat suit and vanquish his adversaries.

Writers understand intuitively the need to create flawed main characters. And yet, we fall in love with our characters. We get emotionally attached and pretty soon we build a protective shield around them. We know we must place our main character in peril at some point. We know the problem might even be of the main character’s own making. And yet, we don’t want to see our precious main character get hurt. Or look stupid. Or hurt other people. After all, Batman would never get drunk and cheat on his wife (to my knowledge Bruce Wayne was not married, but you get the point). Batman would never hurt his best friend. Batman wouldn’t turn his back on his parents. We make our main characters too good, even though we know a fundamental trait of the main character is imperfection.

Look at character sketch templates and you will see a variation of these key questions:

  • What is your main character’s greatest weakness?
  • What is your main character’s greatest fear?
  • What is your main character’s darkest secret?
  • What does your main character want that she doesn’t have?
  • Who is stopping her from getting it?

I’m not suggesting you create a detestable main character, though Scarlett O’Hara was one of the most memorable main characters I’ve come across. I’m suggesting you give your main characters some flaws. Throw them into dangerous situations and see what happens. Force them to make difficult choices. Give them some complexity.

Super heroes don’t have weaknesses, but main characters must have them. Your main character must overcome obstacles, conquer weaknesses and, above all, emerge transformed in some major way. And that doesn’t mean dressing up like Batman. Excuse me, I hear the phone ringing. To the Batmobile!

Are your main characters too good? What do you do to make them flawed?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Wanted: Flawed Main Character. Super Heroes Need Not Apply

  1. So true! (I’m over here from writer unboxed!) . . . One of the reasons I liked the movie “Hancock” (even if it wasn’t the best all around movie over all), is because they turned the superhero on his head and made him super-flawed. It was fun to watch his bumbling, but he was likeable all the same and that’s the ticket!

    • Kathryn,
      Thanks. I have to fight tendency to make my main character too good. The MC must have flaws and challenges to overcome. It’s good to work those out ahead of time. I will have to check out Hancock. Thanks again.

      Chris

  2. Happy New Year Chris – I’m just catching up on your blog since the holidays. Love this post especially the superhero references. What would Gotham be like if Superman was a lying, cheating drunk…I wonder. It’s completely another tale but you make the point well for flawed characters. Hancock gets my vote as well.

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