Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Character Flaws

It is said that a hallmark of a ‘good character’ in a book/movie/game is that he/she has flaws. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Any character who is good at everything and never makes mistakes is ultimately boring and annoying. I think a vast number of ‘Mary Sue’ characters fall into this camp. Oh, sure, they might have a ‘flaw’ but it is typically something forgivable like “They just care too damn much!” or are “so good hearted that they overlook the flaws in others”. If the flaw is yet another thing to look up to then it really isn’t a flaw. No, I’m talking about REAL flaws that actually limit a character or even cause them to (gasp) make mistakes or act irrationally.

You need look no further than the heroes of the Star Wars universe to see that they are flawed and that it is those flaws that make them all the more interesting.

He is impetuous and impatient- both of these are serious flaws when it comes to being a Jedi. Looking at the behavior of his father, you see that he comes by these flaws honestly. In The Empire Strikes Back we see these flaws very clearly on display during his training with Yoda. He is frustrated that the lessons are not coming easily to him. Frustrated that it is taking so much time. He runs off half-cocked and nearly gets himself killed. Luke also seems to have a bit of a temper- as witnessed in his final duel with Vader. He CAN be goaded into taking rash action. Thankfully, Luke is able to battle these flaws- and indeed, that is the central message of the movies. Luke succeeds in setting aside his bad emotions when it counts most, unlike his father. He doesn’t allow his flaws to master him.

She is likewise impetuous (but less so than either Luke or Han), but also haughty. She may not be a typically ‘stuck up’ noblewoman, but she has an ‘attitude’ and isn’t afraid of throwing it around. To me, it seems to be a defense mechanism of sorts. She is obviously a very caring and dedicated person, but at the same time, she seems to hold herself apart from others- this is especially apparent in The Empire Strikes back. She hides behind a mask of cool ‘professionalism’ (and insults) to keep herself from getting too close to Han Solo, whom she obviously has feelings for. I see this attitude as one of self-denial. She sees what she’s doing as too important to allow her personal feelings to ‘get in the way’. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to guess that she is (intentionally or not) martyring herself to ‘the cause’. The loss of her family and entire planet had to have had a HUGE impact on her psyche. Thus, she is dedicated to the point where her own life begins to mean less and less. And that isn’t healthy. While this flaw may seem more ‘noble’ (and less ‘flaw-like’) than those of Luke’s it is still something Leia must overcome- she must come to grips with her loss and allow herself to feel again- to care about some-ONE, not just about a cause. She must allow herself to have a life, even if she is guilty that the people of Alderaan lost theirs.

He is arrogant, overconfident and self-centered. These traits make him a very interesting character- though especially frustrating to ‘dedicated’ people like Leia. Han’s Mercenary streak is, however, a façade. This is quickly proved in the first movie and continues to be disproved in the others. Much like Leia, Han Solo has been ‘hurt’ in his past and puts forth an attitude of casual indifference in an attempt to shield himself from further hurt. His dream of becoming a fighter pilot was dashed, and so he now pretends that things ‘don't matter’, because he doesn’t want anything to matter enough to hurt him if he lost it. Again, like Leia, Han has to overcome this fear of loss and be willing to commit himself to something bigger than himself- in this case it is both ‘the cause’ of the Rebellion and his love of Leia.

So right there, you see what I’m talking about. None of these characters are perfect, and it is those imperfections that make them interesting. That having been said, I feel that a lot of characterization- particularly in recent decades, has swung much too far into the ‘flawed’ end of the spectrum. You look at comics, TV series and movies and you find characters who aren’t ‘accentuated’ by their flaws. They are defined by them. In short, I think there is a trend to ‘go too far’, in the flaws category. And this is (in my opinion) just as dangerous as a lack of flaws.

I blame a lot of this trend on comics and the seeming need of many writers to turn everything ‘gritty and dark’- likely in an effort to make comics seem more real. But I would argue that by turning every ‘hero’ into an ‘anti-hero’, you are making something just as ‘unreal’ as a world with squeaky clean characters. For an example of this, look at just about anything Frank Miller produces. There are NO good people in any of his stories. The ‘heroes’ are mostly socipathic jerks (Batman), the women are whores (take your pick), normal people are completely self-centered and moronic. NOBODY has any redeeming qualities. Or rather, not enough to outweigh the overwhelming ‘grit’ of everyone else. Yes, there are jerks galore in the real world. There are even some evil people. But it has been my experience that quite a few people are nice. And a surprising number are even reasonably well-balanced.

Is it too much to want to have a character you can actually like? Looking at most recent dramatic TV shows, the answer seems to be yes. Take the show ‘Rescue Me’ for instance. I wanted to like this show. I enjoyed the humor of the first few episodes- I even enjoyed the drama. But very quickly, every character in the show descended into the ‘gritty’ realm of being a complete jerk. Pretty soon I couldn’t like or even relate to any of them.

It was much the same for the Battlestar Galactica series. One by one, all the characters I liked ‘let me down’ for one reason or another- and then continued to do so. After a time, it just felt to me like the writers were doing so just for the sake of generating drama. But to me it felt forced. Yes, I understand characters can change, especially under dire circumstances. But is it too much to hope that some ‘core’ of a character can continue throughout a series? That the person you grew to like at the beginning can retain some element of that and not just slowly descent into a morass of (dramatic) crap? To me, a character retaining some of their ‘essence’ is much more realistic than someone who’s actions change at the whim of whatever script is being produced that week. I will say, however, that one character in BSG did NOT let me down- at least not until the final episode. Commander Adama was awesome- and a rock. In fact, he was a showcase for what I am talking about. His attitudes towards cylons changed radically throughout the show- from mortal enemies to (ultimately) allies and even friends. But that never changed WHO HE WAS. He always retained that ‘core’. Contrast that with Chief Tyrol. He began as a very solidly grounded guy- a hard-working ‘everyman’, but by the end of the series, he was a violently impulsive jerk. Yes, I realize he went through quite a bit, but there was so little left of that original person that he didn’t even LOOK the same at the end.

In any case, I’m rambling now (or ranting), so I’ll stop and summarize.

Character flaws are great. They are great in movies, books and games. Every character should have one (or more)- and probably will, even if the PLAYER doesn’t realize it. Flawless characters are dull and uninteresting. But at the same time, it is possible to go too far and turn a character into a completely unsympathetic jerk by playing him too dark and gritty. So develop those flaws, just don’t overdo them.

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