The Flawed Protagonist

By Tess Collins

First published in Byline Magazine, Feb. 2001.

Tess Collins is the author of Law of Revenge, The Law of the Dead, two plays: TOSSING MONTE and BARBARIANS, and has published articles on writing for Byline Magazine and The Writer. Miss Collins is a member of Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America and received a B.A. from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from The Union Institute.

Ancient Greek stories are full of characters whose fatal flaw brings about their downfall-the arrogance of Oedipus, the ambition of Jason, and don't forget Achilles and his heel. Modern fiction offers the anti-hero. In Billy Wilder's 1950 classic film Sunset Boulevard, we can't help but hope that Joe Gillis escapes the decaying mansion of aging movie star Norma Desmond even though we know in the first scene he's been shot and killed. Despite his cynical attitude Joe is likable because we see him trying so hard to reclaim his life from Desmond's manipulative games. He attempts to redeem himself as a screenwriter and a human being. Yet he will not succeed. Joe is inherently flawed. He has been beaten up by the studio system. He is tired, doubtful of his own talent and has lost his passion. Hollywood has scarred him and now affects every decision he makes.

Joe Gillis's actions are not always admirable. When he is dared to change, he rebukes his love interest; when called on to act, he refuses. Gillis doesn't rise to the heroic challenge, but his flaws are what makes the movie's plot play out as it does. A less vulnerable hero would have made different decisions and there would have been no story. It is the hero's flaw that bonds the character to certain actions.

Every flawed hero needn't be an anti-hero but they are related. While all heroes live by their own rules, the anti-hero is more likely to cross moral lines. The flawed protagonist may try to live by society's rules, yet simply can't because of some hidden secret or because of something that happened which changed their outlook on life. Typically, this event occurred in the past, prior to the story's beginning. Robert Rodate's screenplay The Patriot begins with the words of his protagonist Benjamin Martin: "I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me and the cost is more than I can bear." On the eve of the American Revolution Martin declines to take part in the fight even though he's a hero of the French and Indian War. Other men think he's a coward. When his son is killed by the British he revenges himself on the soldiers, killing them in frenzy of bloodshed. His other sons are witnesses to a fury they've never seen in their father. His eldest finally learns the story of his father's past: coming upon slaughtered settlers, including depraved acts on the bodies of woman and children, Benjamin and his compatriots take their revenge on the enemy by slowly torturing them to death and sending their body parts to the French and Cherokee camps. For the rest of his life Benjamin hears their screams and sees their faces. He tells his son "Not a day goes by when I don't ask for forgiveness for what I did."

Dramatic heroes are drawn with more dimension when the writer gives them a flaw which deepens their character. In James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential Bud White is known as a thug on the Los Angeles Police Department. He beats up perpetrators, intimidates criminals who evade their charges and sends threatening postcards to those he's helped incarcerate. But White has his standards. The men he pulverizes are wife beaters. It is his attempt to shut out the nightmares of being a sixteen-year old boy handcuffed for a week in a room with the rotting corpse of his murdered mother. After White's father is paroled for the killing, this detective can't help but exorcise his demons every time he encounters a man who's hit a woman.

Even a one-dimensional character such as Superman shows his physical weakness in the face of Kryptonite. Dramatically speaking, this weaken state widens the Man of Steel's choices. He is no longer invulnerable and must act with more cunning if he is to overcome obstacles. A flaw makes a character more interesting because it demands more of him or her.

Creating The Flaw

Before an author creates a detailed plot, it is a good idea to work out a character's background. By creating a flaw at this point, the author can more easily determine how the hero will act in the yet-to-be determined plot. James N. Frey, in his book The Key, How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (St. Martins), breaks down a character's background as physical, sociological and psychological. The flaw can be in any one or all of these dimensions. Wherever the author chooses to create the flaw, it will by necessity affect the other facets of the character's personality.

Let's create a heroine named Abby. Abby has an obvious physical defect. She was born without ears. As Abby grows up, her schoolmates make fun of her-so to prove her attractiveness, she becomes promiscuous (psychology). Abby's mother tries to help her child and sends her away to a boarding school to give her a fresh start. In this all-girl environment, Abby realizes her worth is based on who she is, not what she looks like (sociology). Abby goes on to become a world-class fashion designer. At what point the author wants to tell a story which involves Abby will determine how the flaw affects her decisions.

If the story is told as an adult, the author might have Abby involved in the life of a beautiful model. If Abby loses a boyfriend to the model, she might fall into despair, but because she is a dramatic heroine, she'll prevail and her experience of having dealt with her physical flaw has toughened her enough to vent her pain into her work. The model gains weight, loses the boyfriend and commits suicide. The boyfriend, now impressed with Abby's growing fame as a designer, wants her back. In conflict, Abby will have to decide between her career and the man she once loved. There are many factors that will affect her decision, but they will all be rooted in her understanding of the nature of beauty.

Flaws Not Faults

The flaw is not a fault, but rather a scar. A character who is raped is not flawed in the sense of being damaged goods, but suffers from the event in a way which will affect her future choices. The flawed protagonist can be victimized but can never be a victim.

The flaw can be developed from a family trait, failure or blindspot which renders the character in denial. The stubbornness of Scarlett O'Hara can be traced to her temperamental father who mounts a horse, chases after the Yankees, tries to jump a fence and is killed. In Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts Mrs. Alving must live with the sins of her husband-a son going insane from syphilis, and an illegitimate daughter. Jason in Greek myth marries a woman who killed her own brother-why is he surprised when she kills his children? In modern dramatic fiction it is nearly always the case that the hero overcomes the drawback and learns a lesson. When the hero doesn't transcend the failure, the story becomes a tragedy.

Authors can use the specter of failure to infuse their plots with more conflict for the hero. A protagonist whose father is a serial murderer brings baggage that is not his or her fault, but this character's actions will be judged in light of the father. Ghosts of the past affect the present or threaten the future. Haunted people and haunted events give a history to the setting and allow the reader to grasp the hero's internal and external struggles. Heathcliff would be an amoral sociopath without our understanding of his abusive childhood. Dr. Frankenstein is a run-on-the-mill mad genius without his passion to 'banish disease from the human frame." Gatsby could be another spoilt millionaire except that we know his past poverty and discipline which earned him his fortune and gives the reader insight into his present actions. Regardless of what story the author may choose to tell, this kind of flawed protagonist adds depth to the plot.

Why Have A Flaw

No, it is not strictly necessary that a protagonist have a flaw. Santa Claus has no overweening flaws. Teen detective Nancy Drew is near perfect as are most child protagonists and classical romantic heroines-Harper Lee's Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird and Shakesphere's Juliette for example. Even James Bond never seems to ponder his upbringing (though some might make a case for his womanizing being a latent flaw). While the average person might fantasize about being Juliette or Bond, not many of us have sincere empathy for them.

The perfect person is too untouchable to create a character who readers identify with, except as escapism in the case of James Bond. In fact, the perfect character, who is most often seen on television, frequently becomes an object of ridicule. Consider Cordelia, the perfect cheerleader type on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, or Billy Thomas on Ally McBeal. They are so perfect that we find ourselves delighting in their mistakes and hoping that they fail. Both characters were invigorated once viewers were shown their flaws and Cordelia even flourished on another series.

The flaw can bond the reader to the character. Lajos Egri points out in The Art of Creative Writing (Carol Pub.) that "Identification can be established easily if the characters create emotions which we recognize at once," and notes that emotions are the "invisible chain, linking man to man all over the globe." We needn't know what it is to be without ears to know how humiliation feels. Unless we've lived sheltered lives, most of us were taunted for one reason or another as children. Our humiliation probably led to anger, so we understand when the hero fights back. It's even expected, though we, ourselves, might have cowered and given up during our humiliating experience. Identifying with a triumphant hero might often be the only way readers can vicariously live the victory of overcoming their own personal flaws.

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]