Unheroic Heroes

Some action movie heroes bore me to tears. They are too righteous to seem real, too shallow to command my interest. They dash into danger with no fear for their safety. They will give up their life for another without a second thought. They are not characters, but brawny action figures.

Since, as a writer, I am not interested in reading about purely heroic characters, I tend to give my fictional characters flaws. For me, moral complexity creates interest and allows my characters to surprise me in a way that is in sync with their overall personality pattern.

Flaws also create sympathy with my characters and allow me to identify with them. It rounds them out.  It makes them believable. But is it possible to go too far? To make them so flawed that readers lose interest? When your fictional hero behaves un-heroically, perhaps even cowardly or cruelly, will readers jump off the ride?

This is a question I have often asked myself, and I have been obsessed with it since my mom read my recently published fantasy novel Paw. My main character is a member of an intelligent cat species, a slave who is attempting to survive and escape the unbearable living conditions of a desert mining camp. At one point in the story, she becomes completely unhinged by a devastating personal tragedy. During her meltdown, she does something horrible that she regrets terribly.

As my mom was reading the first half of my novel, she tossed heaps of praise my way. She raved over how much she was enjoying, and even loving, the book. She even said that she had not been feeling well and that my book was cheering her up.

But after she had finished it, she was strangely silent, so I asked what she thought. I soon discovered that my one sad scene had ruined the whole novel for her. She had complained that what my character did was unjust and that the scene had made her too sad.

I had known the scene was intense, but I had not expected such a sharp descent of her opinion. I reminded myself that the criticism “too sad” is one I have added to my list of criticisms to ignore. Fiction covers the entire gamut of human emotions, and the contrast of despair is what gives hope meaning.

For that reason among others, my mom is not exactly my target audience. She likes books with all-happy endings and “cute” characters. To my mom, the best books are heart-warming, funny, and adorable.

She finds most classic literature to be too depressing. Her favorite movies are by Disney. She is also a serial reader of romance mysteries whereas I have been known to enjoy Kafka-esque dystopias and the brooding Russian anti-heroes of Dostoyevsky.

I had actually been surprised that she had liked the first part of my book as much as she had, much of which was violent. However, it was impossible not to get excited about her initial enthusiasm since I have had very few reactions to my novel so far.

As a result, I was crestfallen that she had been so thrilled about my novel until my pivotal dark scene had apparently blackened out everything she had previously loved about it.

I wondered: Will all my readers react the same way? I knew of at least one exception. The scene my mom had hated was one that another reader had praised highly for is raw, uncompromising honesty. As a writer, I have to constantly remind myself that art is inherently polarizing, and that universal acclaim is impossible.

However, there had been many sad scenes preceding the one in question. I wondered if the main problem had been that my hero had behaved un-heroically

The question is worth asking: Is there a limit to how morally flawed a character can be and still maintain reader sympathy? I have read conflicting advice about this subject. One writer who wrote books for children said that characters must be flawed in order to be interesting and believable; they can in fact be horribly flawed, but they should never be evil.

This has been my guiding principle so far. However, it has problems. How do you define evil? There is an entire spectrum of misdeeds going from parking in a handicapped space to Holocaust level cruelty.

Is one misguided act enough to ruin an entire character or book for a reader? Apparently, yes. There are societal taboos and personal taboos that contribute to this phenomenon. Even I have my limits.

However, because I have been interested in this question for a while, I have consciously noticed when other writers of fiction test common assumptions about what it takes to maintain audience sympathy for a main character.

I was in awe of the writing in the television show Breaking Bad, a show about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher named Walter who begins to manufacture and sell crystal meth in order to provide for his family after he is gone.  As the story unfolds, Walter increasingly expresses his dark side. Intellectually brilliant and emboldened by his illness, he becomes a force to be reckoned with as he adapts to the violent world of drug lords and thugs.

He begins to enjoy raking in cash, and his illegal methods give him a powerful adrenaline rush. Enthralled by his thrilling new lifestyle, he ends up endangering the family he originally meant to protect.

One shocking misdeed follows another; his character drifts toward the dark side as he struggles to control his wildly unstable world. At one point he watches the girlfriend of his partner suffer from a grisly death during a heroin overdose, even though Walter has the power to save her. In one of the final episodes, we learn that he has poisoned a child. What fascinated me most about the show was the question, how far are the writers going to let him go? How far can the writers push the boundaries of morality without viewers losing all sympathy for Walter?

Incredibly, I never completely lost sympathy for the high school chemistry teacher turned drug lord. I constantly disapproved of what he did. I certainly did not always admire him, yet he remained a complex, realistic, and dynamic character that always compelled my interest. He never stopped seeming human or vulnerable. Perhaps this was a testament to the skill of the writers or maybe the boundaries between what makes a person good or evil is less clear than we like to think. I actually remember a quote by a writer I read long ago that even the most evil characters can draw sympathy if they only love someone.

Walter White did love his family above all else, however much he sometimes endangered them; maybe that is why the show worked. My character in Paw also loved someone. If my mom cannot forgive her, can I?

I can and I do. While cruelty should never be celebrated, to ignore the shadows that lurk to some extent within all of us is to write shallow fiction. I have no interest in writing a book in which everyone is happy and perfectly good. If I had could only write about saints enjoying themselves, I would not write at all.

Nor am I interested in chaperoning my characters like a stern parent, pulling them back from reckless and unwise behavior to shackle them with my own moral code. What a character does is not necessarily what I think they should do. Plausibility demands the illusion of autonomy. In my mind, my character did what she did because it was what she did, not because I told her to, or because I approved.

But here is the scary question: To what extent does the darkness of my character reflect my own darkness? Maybe more than I would like to think. Fiction wells up from the roiling, murky depths of my subconscious. My character is part of me.

Maybe that was my mom disapproved of most. Like a cruel god, I had allowed a sad injustice to take place in this fictional world where I could have made a different choice.

Nevertheless, I am not sorry for what I wrote. A book featuring slavery should be disturbing, even if the main character happens to be feline.

Slavery is not cute or heart-warming, which is why I have no intentions of pitching my story to Disney. While I hope that not everyone reacts to my character the way my mom did, my story was the story I had to write and the story that wanted to be written. I am standing by it.


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10 thoughts on “Unheroic Heroes

    • Im so happy you enjoyed my post!Thank you!! And I loved Anna Karenina too. She was flawed but memorable and compelling. 🙂

  1. Hi Lisa:

    Interesting that you should choose Breaking Bad as a demonstration case to set alongside your newest novel. I actually had to check out of BB, myself. So I think my own answer to your question is yes, there is a bridge too far beyond which some of your readers may be unwilling to go. That said, as you note in your post, there will also love your work for having the courage to “go there.”

    I think most readers of sophistication prefer characters who are flawed as well as “heroic.” It matches what most of us paying attention in life see on a daily basis. Does not the darkness call to us for different reasons than the soaring inspiration of self-sacrifice?

    I suspect as apparently you do, that your artistic vision will have it’s share of acclaim & disapprobation. Which means you’re doing something right. Authors should evoke emotion & (hopefully) teach us something about our world & ourselves. Best of success with “Paw.”

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement Dirk! Your comment is comforting. I am normally conflict averse, but in my writing I want to take a different approach. Sue Monk Kidd says “go for thd jugular” in fiction. Those are not the words of someone who is unwilling to offend, but I agree with her. If I am going to write, why write blandly or timidly? However, as you said, if I do that I have to prepare for some readers to disapprove. It is just the nature of art. Thanks again for offering your insights and kind words. 🙂

      • Again, it may not be a simple question of whether your scene is “bland” enough or “timid” enough. The action may not be properly foreshadowed, the action may be out-of-character (in the sense that you haven’t shown us any hint of the side of the character that will do that), the cause-and-effect may not be sufficiently established, so that the character’s action comes out of nowhere. Walter White didn’t stand by and watch Jane die out of the bluue — there was a lot of setup, both in Jane’s threat to expose Walter and in Walter’s succession of bad acts preceding that.

        And another question: Do successive scenes depend on this scene? Could the scene be deleted without affecting the further and later plot development? If so, it should be–not because of what’s in the scene, but because it is irrelevant.

        But you already know all that.

      • Amen to Sue’s observations. I believe our best course is always courage and authenticity. It is perhaps a challenge living up to our best selves, but when we can, we are likely to be better for it, IMO. Best of success with “Paw!”

  2. Devil in details. The scene may not be “too sad” or the character “too flawed.” There may be something else wrong with the scene. Your mother is not a pro editor or author and is naming the problem as best she can, she may not have identified the problem.

    The tone may not fit, foreshadowing may be inadequate, the events in the scene may not be part of a chain of cause and effect that leads to the climax, the contrast between that scene and the others may be too severe without any reason (ie no cause within the story world). Can the story still hold up if this scene were deleted? If so, it’s not part of the story.

    You may have two stories blended together, one that pleases your mom and one that doesn’t.

    When she’s gone, you’ll regret never having written ONE story that she likes all the way thru.

  3. Most critiquers can alert you to a problem, they can say they felt jarred or something, but they often can’t put their finger on it and you can’t rely on them to diagnose it correctly. So, now being alerted, examine the scene in context with fine-tooth comb and all of your writers’ and editors’ spidey-senses on alert.

  4. At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Toto might have jumped from the balloon at too great a height, or landed on his head, and died. Dorothy might have jumped down to take care of him and broken a leg. Then we would be having this same generalized discussion of whether the scene was “too sad,” or good and “raw,” and how we ought to “go for the jugular,” without ever coming to grips with the particulars of the scene and what part it played in the story.

    I feel like I’m speaking the truth that no one wants to hear.

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