Hero or Superhero

Usually by this time on Tuesdays, I have an idea about what I’m going to blog about. Heck, I usually have an idea when I get up. Sometimes I even have the post written the night before. But not today. I blame yesterday for it. Between painting and taking down cabinets and an emergency plumbing repair (nothing serious, just threw off my timing on the other projects), my brain wasn’t on writing or blogging. To be honest, I needed a day like that. But, it meant this morning, I was scrambling for a topic.

So I did what I sometimes do in that situation. I went to other blogs, social media feeds, etc., and looked to see what folks were talking about. I came across a couple of different threads on different sites about what readers look for in main characters, especially in genre fiction. The phrasing was different but it all came down to one main question: do readers want heroes or superheroes for their main characters? Or, to put it a little differently, do they want flawed characters who have issues to overcome and who might grow some during the course of the book or story arc or do they want that perfect character who, like Clark Kent, swoops in to save the day and rarely has a hangnail, much less anything seriously go wrong in their life?

In one of the discussions I looked at, someone commented that they didn’t think you needed a character to have flaws or to “grow”. They pointed out characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones and asked how they “grew”. I think those two stood out to me the most and for different reasons. Ian Fleming wrote Bond, at least in my eyes, as the “perfect” man. He could get and bed any woman he wanted. He was the perfect spy. He was the man most other men wanted to be. There’s no problem with that. For the time when the books were written and for the genre involved, that’s what readers and publishers wanted. Besides, for every James Bond, you had a George Smiley. John le Carré wrote Smiley as an older man, one who had fallen from grace in the intelligence community. He was not the perfect man and he had a past to overcome. In my mind, in many ways, he was much more interesting than Bond ever could be.

As for Indiana Jones, he was far from perfect. While those imperfections didn’t cripple him, they were there. He was impulsive. He didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions, even when those actions might put others in danger. He had daddy issues. We see some growth, especially with regard to the daddy issues in the third film. (We won’t mention the fourth film. Please don’t mention the fourth film.)

But, where my mind went first when I saw the original discussion was my own reading and David Webber’s Honor Harrington. One of the things I loved about Honor from the very beginning was that she wasn’t perfect. Sure, because of her genetic background, she was taller and stronger than some. She was also a brilliant Naval officer. But she had her own ghosts and insecurities. Those could come close to crippling her. She had a temper and a streak of vengeance a mile wide. Both of which cost her as well, at least early into the series.

I loved seeing her shine as a Naval officer and then seeing the insecurities as a “normal” person. I’ve known people like that. They excel in the office or boardroom, in the surgical suite or at the front of a classroom. But put them into a social setting and they suddenly think they are unworthy, ugly, insecure, whatever. That was Honor. Over the course of the first three or four books, we get to see her grow as a person. She was already a strong officer but as a “woman”, she had a long way to go.

That did not make her any less of a leading character or human. Far from it. By seeing her able to put those insecurities or, in some cases, prejudices behind her in order to do her duty was refreshing. those flaws kept her from being a Mary Sue (something she has come very close to being in the later books in the series, imo).

What I noticed on each of the sites where I saw this discussion happening was that they rarely seemed to mention female main characters, focusing instead on male leads. Maybe their responses stem from the belief that men shouldn’t show weakness, maybe it came from something else. I don’t know. But, I think it comes down to a matter of degrees.

I don’t know about you, but when I say I want a character with flaws, I don’t mean I want a character who has been broken by life. Oh, there are places for that, but not every leading character has to be broken. They can be bent — hey! Get your minds out of the gutter! — or they can simply be human. Growth doesn’t have to mean a major change to their behaviors and attitudes. It can be as simple as learning to admit that they don’t know everything or that they might not be the best at something. It can be learning to let someone else into their lives, be it on a romantic scale or with regard to business.

Sometimes, we need characters with some flaws to make them believable. What is appropriate to one story or genre might not be for another. So, here’s my question to you; what books do you think do the perfect (or superhero-esque) character well and which ones do you think do the flawed character well? (Yes, this is also my way of adding to my TBR stack.)

68 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, characterization, WRITING: CRAFT

68 responses to “Hero or Superhero

  1. To entirely too many people these days “flawed” usually means “can barely tell hero from villain”. Miserable people doing miserable things for miserable reasons–that way lies gray goo.

    I want Heroes with a capital “H”. They may be flawed, more interesting if they are, but they still need to be “Big Time Heroes”.

    It’s always time for some thrilling heroics. 😉

    • Agreed. I like them flawed. It gives them a humanity they wouldn’t have otherwise. Now, that is if I’m reading a mystery, or romance or even fantasy and most SF. However, if I’m readying about a “SUPER”hero, they don’t have to have those faults. But you have to look at the genre.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Personally, I don’t like the term “flawed character”.

    I see “flawed character” as broken or damaged.

    I see “non-perfect characters” as realistic characters even if they have “super powers”.

    As for Superman, there was a period in the comics where they put him in situations where his powers were almost meaningless in solving the problem.

    IE He had to first think of a solution before applying his “super powers”.

    • And that was some of his best stories. When Superman is written well, he is very good indeed.

      Case in point:

      Sure, he could have grabbed her and taken her in, but that wouldn’t have solved the problem.

    • Luke

      Heck, that’s the entire point for The Defenders.
      Iron Fist might be the best martial artist in the world, but being able to punch people in the face really well doesn’t help much when trying to deal with ancient mystical conspiracies, the scourge of illegal drugs in the inner city, etc.
      Daredevil is crusading ninja lawyer–who can’t read any of the evidence he comes across. Etc.

  3. paladin3001

    I can’t think of “super” characters. I do like characters that aren’t perfect though. Can’t think of any off the top of my head to add to the discussion.

  4. The continuing popularity of comic books indicate to me that readers love super heroes. They always have. What was Beowulf if not a super hero? King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Paris and Helen of Troy, Achilles, Hercules, all super heroes.

    These are all people who conquer the evils that mortal men can’t defeat. We don’t need to see them “grow.” We need to see them WIN.

    That is as distinct from the Hero’s Journey. That story has roots in our DNA, I think. The journey from little kid to Paladin, everybody dreams that one. We all fall short of paladin, in real life, but we keep trying.

    The other thing, the “growth” thing, I think I finally get that, a little. That’s the “art is suffering” thing. The characters suffer, you suffer from reading it, everybody gets to suffer.

    http://phantomsoapbox.blogspot.ca/2017/09/shut-up-nerds.html

    That’s where a lot of this knee-jerk Puppy hatred comes from. We’re goring one of their sacred cows. The notion that capital “A” Art is supposed to be this process of destroying and then re-building the reader, as if it was boot camp for your brain, is near and dear to their little progressive hearts. They think of books as a method of control. You read the book, the story damages your world view, then with the help of the author you carefully build a new, more progressive worldview.

    I’ve got no intention of suffering when I read a story. Generally I’ve had all the suffering I can manage and need to escape to a better place for a while. I want to see Hercules dominate his 12 labors, and thereby gain redemption for his sins. I want to see Superman face the villain nobody can withstand, and beat the son of a bitch like a tether ball. I want to see Honor Harrington swallow her gorge and order the last-ditch attack, and WIN, by God. I want to see somebody rescue that maiden and kill the shit out of that monster. I want to see Goliath get his ass kicked by a skinny kid.

    Because then, maybe there’s a chance for me to win tomorrow, when I face my own personal fears and order my own hopeless attack. Maybe I can rescue my maiden. Maybe my sins can be forgiven.

    The very notion of me wanting that seems to stir some primal hatred among the Arty set. I’m not allowed to want that. I need to shut up and do what I’m told.
    I get the feeling these people aren’t very pleasant to be around, you know? They seem a bit sketchy.

    • Luke

      Conan might become a more complex character as the stories go on, but that is not why Conan is memorable.

      When it comes to short stories in particular, character growth isn’t something I care about. I’d argue that it often detracts from the piece.
      For a novel, character growth is almost necessary. (I can think of a few examples that pulled off not having it, but not many.)

      Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Is it more important that the character WIN, or that the character CHANGE? These are different types of stories. (Except maybe in the case of Sandman, who ?wins? by choosing dying over changing.)

    • Randy Wilde

      Your paragraph of what you want to see reminded me of…

    • Actually, growth doesn’t have to be suffering. Growth can be as simple as recognizing that you are a stubborn SOB and need to work on it. Growth is being human and adapting to the circumstances you find yourself in. Not being automatically being able to overcome everything life throws at you without having a doubt or stumbling a bit. That doubt or stumbling doesn’t mean navel gazing and suffering. It means analyzing, figuring out the best way to cope and pressing on.

      • Amanda said: “Actually, growth doesn’t have to be suffering.”

        I agree 100%. When you grew, when you discovered something, when you learned in the past… was it horrible? Did you suffer?

        Usually when I’ve grown as a person its been friggin’ awesome! Take on a challenge, figure it out, solve the problem, win! That’s excellent.

        When I’m suffering is when I’m stupid. I’m stuck somewhere because “that’s your place, boy!” with some mean people being mean to me, and I’m too dumb to think of a way out. When I stopped being a wuss and started using my fricking brain, that’s when life improved.

        In my writing, the characters grow and discover things about themselves. They have to, they’re like hours old at the beginning and they don’t know anything. But the drama and the excitement don’t come from wondering what amazingly stupid decision is going to land them in the crap, and it isn’t from random individuals being horrible for no reason. They have a problem. They have to solve it. That’s a pretty fun story.

  5. Luke

    I like the discussion topic, but I’ve got to argue with the terminology. Superheros that aren’t flawed are few and far between. Take Batman (way, way too much to list). Or Iron Man (alcoholic egomanic seeking an honorable death, with a delusion that he’s incapable of love). Or Spiderman (guilt complex). Or… Well, you get the picture. It’s the flaws that makes the characters, not the kewl powerz.
    The superhero genre is defined by its characters, but it’s basically a soap opera with more explosions. The relationships between characters and a large helping of melodrama are what makes the thing work. Since you’re looking for reading material, I highly recommend “In Hero Years… I’m Dead!” by Michael Stackpole. It’s a ripping good yarn, but it’s also a masterclass on the superhero genre and how the whole thing works. It starts straight, becomes a deconstruction, and then a reconstruction as he takes the tropes apart and puts them back together again.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      It’s the flaws that makes the characters

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point but to me “the character isn’t just his flaws”.

      It’s a very poor person who sees himself only in terms of his “flaws”.

      The “flaws” exist in a character to make him more realistic but there has to be more to a character than “just his flaws”.

      A Hero’s “flaws” (done right) make him a Greater Hero because the reader sees him winning against his “flaws”.

      IE The Hero’s “flaws” exist but don’t stop him from “Doing Good”.

      • Luke

        Or because of his flaws.
        Of the examples I gave..
        Bruce Wayne could probably come up with a much more cost effective way to fight crime than punching random thugs.
        Peter Parker would be less of a hero without the goading of his guilty conscience.
        It isn’t altruism relentlessly driving Tony Stark.

        Overcoming weakness is well and good, and I like seeing it. But not all flaws should be overcome, and some are intrensic to the character. The old phrase of “having the vices of his virtues” applies. The same things that make the character a hero, can also be incredibly self-destructive. Well adjusted characters tend to stay away from adventures and eat breakfast on time.

        • Some older characters were close to one sort of flawless. Since I’m an ERB fan Tarzan and John Carter come to mind. They perhaps had weak moments and needed to learn some things – Tarzan how to behave with humans before he could get Jane, John Carter the ways of the Red Barsoomians before he could win his princess – but with both the problem was adjusting to a culture foreign to them more than changing anything in themselves.

          And sometimes that kind of flawless is what I need. The fun there is waiting for the hero to get where he can kick ass, and totally destroy the villain.

          The biggest problem with the last two attempts to film those characters was, IMO, that with both films the filmmakers decided to turn them into flawed characters who’d grow during the film, John Carter starting as a reluctant hero and Tarzan as somebody who needed to relearn the ways of the jungle (and in spite of promises made in the advertising for that Tarzan movie he never fully became the beast he is in the books, they promised us the Tarzan who might scare Wolverine, gave us a Tarzan whose main strength seemed to be imitating animal calls…).

    • Oh, I agree and probably should have been a bit clearer about it. In the discussions across the different platforms I saw this morning, they were talking about the characters they wrote or read who weren’t superheroes in the mode that Superman is but who were superheroes because they could do anything and everything without breaking a sweat, no matter what the genre. They want to write characters that just walk through the scene, winning the day without there ever being any real cost to the character or any risk.

      • they could do anything and everything without breaking a sweat, no matter what the genre

        Boring! Even Batman has to struggle to achieve his goals, and Superman has learned over and over that nifty powers can’t solve everything.

        Character growth — over the course of a novel (or even fat novella), I do want to see some sort of advancement for the main characters. It can be small, but should be significant so that the characters at the end of the book are slightly different/improved from the ones I began the story with.

  6. Louis L’Amour writes some great heroes. Lance Killkenny rarely makes a mistake. But Charboneau (The Walking Drum) starts out as a young kid born to a powerful trader/raider who gets taken as a slave, leads a rebellion aboard ship, becomes a scholar, ends up in prison and escapes. He later becomes a merchant, falls to invading hordes and survives as a storyteller. Jubal Sackett breaks his leg early on and basically only survives because of a friendly Indian.

    Charlotte MacLeod writes great characters as well. Peter Shandy almost never makes a mistake. Well, at least after the beginning of the first novel where he throws a little tantrum, sets up a gaudy Christmas display and leaves town so no one can shut it off. But Sarah Kelling is so flawed it almost hurts. She comes from a family so inbred they rival the Hapsburgs, is unsure if her husband is a murder suspect or not, and is rather naive at times.

    Mike Hammer is flawed in so many ways, but is able to compensate through sheer strength alone many times. He’s a fun character to read.

    Lovejoy (by Jonathan Gash) is a cad, yet beloved of women. He’s a bit of a con artist. He’s also got a fiery temper and prone to violence. He’s certainly willing to kill anyone who hurts his friends. But he’s a fun character to read as well.

    Depending on my mood, I want someone who’s nearly perfect or someone deeply flawed but determined.

    • The first chapter of the Peter Shandy series was originally published as a short story (a few details were changed once she turned it into a book, mostly names.) I love to throw it at people, because even if they love Christmas, they understand his frustration.

      Sarah Kelling… oh, the first time I read those books, at the end of the first novel, when Max asks if there’s anything he can do for her, then says, no, I guess there isn’t, it’s so cute and sad. Glad there were more books to follow up with that.

  7. Zsuzsa

    I tend to prefer flawed heroes–though as others have pointed out, we have to make a distinction between flawed characters who are still heroic, like Honor Harrington, and barely-better-than-villains who happen to be protagonists. There is the point that flawed characters have the opportunity to grow and overcome their flaws, but even more important from my perspective, flawed characters have to lean on their friends in order to make up for their own weakness. I have a habit of loving the supporting characters more than the hero, and I always appreciate it when those characters get their moment in the sun. That, incidentally, was a big part of my problem with the Dragon-winning novel this year: Chad was so ridiculously competent at everything that the rest of his team could have been replaced with a herd of alpacas and no one would have noticed.

    Though speaking of Honor Harrington, I think she does illustrate a potential problem with that sort of hero, especially in a long-running series. In Book 1, she’s a brilliant naval officer and a genius tactician, but she’s got a temper, and she has a hard time with people and the political games that a naval officer must play to get ahead. Over the next few books, these cause her problems. She gains experience and learns to overcome them. By Book 10, she’s a confident leader, with her temper firmly leashed, and able to mingle with planetary leaders and handle politics at the highest level. It was gratifying to go with her on that journey, but once she had completed it, I kind of lost interest in her and stopped the series not long after. With someone like Bond, however, he’s already perfect, there is no journey, and thus if you liked Book 1, you’ll probably still be into him come Book 38.

    • “It was gratifying to go with her on that journey, but once she had completed it, I kind of lost interest in her and stopped the series not long after.”

      I don’t think that’s down to Honor Harrington, necessarily. Weber has been phoning it in, the last few books. I think something happened to him a couple years ago, when he wrote that one with the fricking vampires in it. Since then his writing is all massive infodumps.

      • Part of it is also, I think, a centipede dilemma – too many “lines” going at once.

        Hmm. A blog topic for one of our MGC writers, perhaps? How many different series going at once are too many? How many are too few to keep the creativity flowing?

        • I’m trying two at once, not entirely by choice. If the protagonists and settings were not so different, I’d be seriously worried about bleed-over. I’ll try not to do this again.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        The vampire book was by Tor, and that is around when the Tor Safehold books went downhill. One could speculate about the influence of the editors he was working at Tor with, and Baen tolerating the changes because Weber.

        I dunno.

      • Out of the Dark? Not a big fan of that novel either, although my problem wasn’t with the vampires per se, it was their abrupt appearance. Generally I’m rather fond of mixed genres, but that novels starts as a pure alien invasion story, no real hints or good foreshadowing that the Earth of that story universe might also include the supernatural, and then wham!

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          I saw a few hints (after the fact) in the short story that David Weber expanded.

          Of course, I was “looking” for such hints when reading the novel later. 😀

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            I think I saw the hints when reading the novel the first time. I may have even found them rather blatantly obvious.

            That said, I’m nuts, and my obvious doesn’t necessarily match up with anyone else’s.

            “It’s obvious that socialism leads to butchery the same why firebombing an inhabited hotel leads to loss of life.”

            “It’s obvious that the only reason someone might say that Obama isn’t stupid, evil or insane is fear of the consequences.”

            “It’s obvious that I need to get some more sleep, because I can’t think of any further examples.”

    • I think that’s part of the reason why Weber is shifting the “Honor Harrington” series to the “Honor Harrington in-name-only” series, now featuring the Zilwicki family, Victor Cachet, and Michelle Henke.

      • He’s failing, IMHO. I couldn’t get through the first chapter of this latest one. Immense infodump after immense infodump. Name after name to remember. Like a textbook, and there’s going to be a quiz later.

        I dunno, maybe its just me. I’ve gotten cranky in my old age. 😡

        • Draven

          Well, originally, she was going to die in the Battle of Manticore.

          • Honor Harrington was originally supposed to be Horatio Nelson, right down to taking the same wounds Nelson took, and was supposed to die on her quarterdeck the same way. Fan demand required otherwise. Weber has admitted he ran off the end of his notes and I think he’s trying to rebuild almost from scratch.

            • snelson134

              Weber (and this whole thread in general) are running into a common phenomenon summed up by the phrase “no more worlds to conquer”. You see it most literally in RPGs: the characters get to a sufficiently high level that nothing which leaves the world intact will seriously challenge them.

              The tradition is that you retire them to a well-earned rest in their old age and start fresh characters….. but Weber can’t plausibly do that because his human characters don’t GET to old age for 200 years. In fantasy, the long-lived either have racial quirks (elves just get bored with the world and withdraw; dwarves take Tolkien’s road of “concentrating on their crafts”) that encourage retirement; humans that obsessively pursue longevity either become undead, go mad, or just drink one potion too many and die. Weber’s prolong treatments make for long careers where people have time to get supremely competent and stay active with that competence. I’ll be somewhat interested to see how he solves it.

    • Flawed heroes – wrote a few myself; doesn’t make them any less competent or interesting. Carl Becker was all that and a bag-o-chips heroic, but also terribly scarred by having survived a massacre, and then from a good few years of feeling like a walking dead man. A generation later, his son Dolph is just as much a competent hero, but one inclined to do what he thinks best in any circumstance and damn if he will explain his actions to anyone – a very emotionally closed-in and stoic hero. Fredi, in The Golden Road is just a feckless teenager, and grows into a sense of responsibility. My nearest thing to a classic western hero, Jim Reade – is still assailed by doubts, and what he sees as his own failings,
      Perfect people are boring and predictable. Complicated people – complicated and in spite of that – heroic – are fun to write.

  8. I think that for well-rounded characters (flaws and all), you can hardly do better than Lois McMaster Bujold. She does especially wonderful things with Miles Vorkosigan, simply by having his virtues become flaws in different situations. One of my favorites out of that series is Memory, where he basically screws up his life in trying to hold onto what was, instead of coping with what is, and has to figure out how to move on from there. It’s very adult in the meaning that “adult” should be.

    • Of course, there is the same problem there (for the writer) as with Honor Harrington. The major protagonist, the one who has carried the series nearly all the way, is “all grown up” – at least, to the point where there is no more major growth left to write about.

      Fans are still demanding more, of course. Which presents a problem for the writer who doesn’t have anyone or anything to recenter on – or split off to. (The Harrington line has Michelle Henke, for example, or the “time switch” to Manticore Ascendant – the Vorkosigan line has Ivan, or the Koudelka sisters. Contrast with Harry Potter, if you would – the line died with the end of Harry’s struggles.)

      • Confutus

        Last I knew, Lois had expressed a lack of interest in writing “Vorkosigans: the next generation”. I don’t expect to see many more in that universe.

        • Frankly, while a fan I am not all that interested in the “next generation” either. But picking up one or some of those supporting characters I wanted to see get their HEA and fulfill their potential, yep, that sounds good. With Ivan Bujold kept up that idea that Miles thought he was somebody who might be way more than he was, but we never got to see that happen when Miles had the center stage and in some ways that was irritating. A hanging thread you wanted to see fixed.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            In Ivan’s novel, I saw a second aspect to “Idiot Ivan”.

            There was IMO always an aspect of Ivan “playing a role” to prevent people from using him against the Emperor.

            In the novel, there’s an aspect seen that while intelligent by most people’s standards, Ivan had been surrounded growing up by people much smarter than him.

            IE He’s an ordinary man who was surrounded by extra-ordinary people while growing up.

            • I also saw that he could turn a punishment assignment into a plush job. And wondered how many times when Miles was jealous of all the great jobs Ivan had, if Ivan in fact made those jobs himself.

              • Terry Sanders

                Yup. He did some pretty impressive things in the background. And he made d***ed sure to *stay* in the background. And nobody seemed to figure that out.

                Remember A CIVIL CAMPAIGN, where *he* was the one who squashed Vorrutyer politically–once said villain did something wrong enough that *Ivan* couldn’t let it slide? And the feeling of doom that came over him afterward, as he realized that the Emperor was looking at him thoughtfully?

      • I haven’t yet read the Ivan story, but in general that seems like a good way to stay in a story universe, if the writer is interested enough. Pick one of the interesting side characters, turn him into the main character and keep the former main character in as a supporting character. Ivan was a pretty interesting character in the series, in great part due to his flaws which didn’t get solved while Miles had the center stage so at least in theory he should make a good main character for a book or two. I wanted to see him forced to play the hero and outgrow those flaws.

        • “I wanted to see him forced to play the hero and outgrow those flaws.”

          Well, you’re in luck then. Oh, and this is one of the hilarious books in the series. I’ve never had the chance to use the term “comedic subsidence” in a description before.

    • Luke

      Exactly this.

  9. Randy Wilde

    do they want flawed characters who have issues to overcome and who might grow some during the course of the book or story arc or do they want that perfect character who, like Clark Kent, swoops in to save the day and rarely has a hangnail, much less anything seriously go wrong in their life?

    Embrace the power of “and”.

    I know that answer doesn’t help much, but I want both. Sometimes I want to see Han Solo starting out as a selfish mercenary, only to come back at the last minute to save his friend. Other times I want to see Indiana Jones go around punching (actual) Nazis and getting the McGuffin and the girl, and not really caring that he doesn’t grow as a character.

  10. Mike Houst

    I picked up Larry Correa’s MHI and devoured it this weekend. The protagonist, Owen, definitely has his share of flaws, enough so that between his skills, his flaws, and his view of his place in life, it becomes easy to empathize and identify with him.

    Or look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Each member of the Fellowship has their strengths and weaknesses, giving you nine possible characters to identify with; well, maybe 8 since I had a hard time thinking of Boromir as anyone I’d want to identify with, much less have empathy for.

    Randy does make a good point. Some of our favorite heroes never overcome their flaws. In fact, their very identity is defined by their flaws; such as Doc Savage’s trilling when he’s intensely focused on something. (Or his complete cluelessness when it comes to relationships with members of the opposite sex.) It’s when the character fails to display that flaw that the reader is supposed to jump on it and ask, “Oh, she didn’t do such and such! Is she an imposter? Is she under control by an outside influence?”

  11. Matthew

    Character growth helps, but it’s not strictly necessary. Individuals don’t necessarily have to grow and change in the course of the story, but *something* pretty much has to. Even if it’s just the reader’s perspective.

    (I’m imagining a short-short that starts from a close-up view of a frozen single cell, pulls back step to step to review a frozen human cell, a frozen human cell in frozen human body, then in a vast frozen ocean, then on a vast frozen planet, examining the implications of each new perspective and the increased information available… the only thing changing is the reader’s perspective, but you can still tell a story about it and keep it interesting).

    But what really prompted the comment was the idea that James Bond as a character did not have flaws. As a fan of the Ian Fleming novels, I can say that the character absolutely had flaws, but the reader rarely thinks of them as flaws because the character doesn’t think of them as flaws. His self-image is that he is exactly the man that he wants and needs to be.

    In reality? He’s a compulsive gambler, heavy drinker (and probably pretty much continuously drunk — to the point where he makes stupid, risky decisions on a regular basis), probably manic-depressive (manic on the job, depressive off), certainly sociopathic (his only noticeable loyalty is towards his government, not to any individual person, and he feels no regret for the lives he destroys while seducing his way to the villian’s lair), often quite cruel, and completely unable to function in anything resembling a normal human interaction that isn’t based around lies or deceit or a hidden goal. In short, a human wrecking ball pointed at people and things that need to be destroyed, and protected from the consequences and the aftermath of his actions.

    Those flaws are also his strengths — the things he needs to be able to do the things he can do. Do they make him happy? No, not really. Fleming passed away before he could really address that.

    I think it’s helpful to look at a few of the novels to understand this.

    “The Spy Who Loved Me” looks at Bond from another person’s (a normal person’s) perspective. It’s a very instructive view for people who buy into the idea that Bond is not a flawed character.

    “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” explains why Bond is the way he is for most of the popular post-Fleming history. He fell in love and got married once. It didn’t go well (putting it mildly), and he’s been avoiding emotional involvement since. I’d say deliberately avoiding, but it’s more compulsively avoiding.

    “You only live twice” (IIRC — been a while since I’ve read this one) features Bond recovering from events of the prior book and basically being an emotional wreck, and ends with him suffering amnesia, questioning his life, and falling into the hands of the enemy. (“Being captured regularly” is arguably a flaw in general, but this one is more significant than most).

    The Bond of the movies is a bit of a different story, but Fleming’s Bond is clearly flawed — from the right perspective — and has a noticeable character arc, even if that arc is mostly downwards prior to Fleming’s death.

    • Agreed when it comes to the books. However, the comment I was basically responding to had to deal with the movies.

      • Matthew

        I agree with regard to the movies. They are different and the movie Bond only grows when he regenerates, and then only superficially. This is both a weakness (less interesting stories) and a strength (enabling the episodic/franchise model where you can keep telling very similar stories over and over again).

        However, you did point to the written Fleming version several times in the original post. Just saying. 🙂

    • Terry Sanders

      Come to that, consider CASINO ROYALE, where he almost married the girl–and it *all* went to hell.

      Or MOONRAKER, where he’s starting to seriously fall in love with the girl (without sleeping with her *once*!)–and then realizes she’d never thought about him that way at all, because superspy. And ends up playing the debonair man of the world when she introduces her fiance–because he’s *not* going to make her feel guilty about breaking his heart without knowing it.

      He reminded me of a certain starship captain–half tomcat, half hopeless romantic; who backed the tomcat because the romances *always* ended in disaster.

  12. The closest I can think of with a character who starts nearly perfect and stays that way, unchanged (almost) is Angehard, “Harry” in _The Blue Sword_. She adapts to the frontier outpost, she adapts to the locals and absorbs their training with the help of a stimulant and her magic, she defeats the big bad and marries, but she doesn’t have any glaring flaws that I can recall. Granted, it’s been quite a while since my last re-reading of the book. And I still love the book. _The Hero and the Crown_ may be more satisfying in some ways, but it is also a lot stranger. I could root for Harry a lot more easily than the protagonist in _The Hero and the Crown_.

  13. Second Attempt:

    Tough call. The original Superman seems to have been sort of a progressive wish fulfillment. Originally he was more highly evolved that humans, and that accounted for his powers (this was in the days when he could leap a tall building in a single bound instead of flying). Batman had the origin story, but he seems another sort of wish fulfillment character. Perhaps all superheros from Gilgamesh to the present represented wish fulfillment fantasies.

    I don’t know when the deliberately flawed superhero came onstage. This was beyond the origin stories, with characters with psychological scars and such. Marvel seems to have been about superheros with a side order of angst from day one, sometimes so heavy that it would have given Barnabas Collins pause. I remember one issue of The Fantastic Four, circa 1960s, what read like a soap opera – and it was.

    Then DC tried to give their characters flaws in the 1970s, with mixed results. That was about the time I was mostly reading horror comics, so I lost track from that point. Just listening, they all seem to be some kind of soap opera now.

    Maybe that’s what fans want these days, but I doubt it. If the point of superheros is wish fulfillment, why the heavy dose of flaws? Flaws make them more realistic, but too much makes them, well, not much fun. Flaws are to be overcome, and no one wants to be a character that wallows in the same problems over and over again without making some sort of advance in overcoming them. Note to Bruce Banner: Enroll in an anger management class, already. Sheesh.

    • Draven

      I’d call for a specific cite on it being him more highly evolved. As far as i knew, its always been that Krypton had higher gravity.

      • snelson134

        The explanation I always heard is that basically he was boosted by Earth’s yellow sun as opposed to Krypton’s red one.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        The following quote is from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman

        Quote

        The source of Superman’s powers has changed subtly over the course of his history. It was originally stated that Superman’s abilities derived from his Kryptonian heritage, which made him eons more evolved than humans.[133] This was soon amended, with the source for the powers now based upon the establishment of Krypton’s gravity as having been stronger than that of the Earth.

        End Quote

        Note: According to the wiki article, as Superman’s powers “grew” the idea that all Kryptonians were “super” became a problem. After all, if they were as super as Superman, an exploding planet wouldn’t wipe them out. It was then that the idea that Superman’s powers came from Earth’s yellow sun and that he’d be powerless under a red sun (like Krypton’s red sun).

      • It’s on the first page of the first issue of Action Comics. See:
        https://www.cgccomics.com/1134755001/#features/3

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  15. Terry Sanders

    Somebody once claimed there were only three plots, and you wrote by combining them in various ways:

    1) Boy Meets Girl
    Who may be a friend, or a cause, or…

    2) The Little Tailor (or, Against All Odds)
    The original story was about a flyswatting tailor who ended up taking on giants, but most Superman stories in the first half-century would qualify.

    3) The Man Who Learned His Lesson
    “The Hero’s Journey(TM)” is an elaborate expansion of this one.

    (You generalize like heck in each case, of course…)

    I note that, of the three, only one requires the character to “grow.” And therefore only one requires a “flawed” character.

    (side note: I’ve always included a fourth: “The Man Who Made Up His Mind.” examples: HAMLET and GONE WITH THE WIND. But YMMV. )