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.)