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Damaged Protagonists

Banes at 12:00AM, March 31, 2016

A well written protagonist will generally have some flaws, starting out as an underdog of some kind, with lessons to learn and improvements to make over the course of the story.

Granted, some heroes are, well, just heroes, who are pretty much who they need to be from the beginning. Last time I mentioned Indiana Jones and James Bond. Superman is the ultimate paragon of hope, inspiration and humanity.

…er…or he was at one time, at least.

I have to admit, though, that I have a great interest in damaged protagonists. And not the regular types who are just naive, or lazy or misguided. But heroes with big problems.

Obviously I'm not alone; in the past few years damaged heroes have appeared more and more in media, and with great success. Walter White had serious, serious issues. In the comedic world, the sociopaths of Arrested Development and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia have cranked the Seinfeld-type selfishness up to eleven!

In the world of comics, of course, these sorts of characters are legion. Batman is a big one, especially starting with the classic “Dark Knight Returns” graphic novel, and the “Watchmen” series by Alan Moore, which examined the twisted psyches of costumed heroes.

It's not for everyone, but a Woody Allen movie called “Deconstructing Harry” might have been the first instance where I felt emotionally invested in a pretty scuzzy protagonist.

Harry Block is a writer who is hated by just about everyone he knows, after writing stories based on many of them. The movie contains a little road trip story, but takes many side trips into Harry's mind and dramatizes his short stories.

He's ends up quite despised by most and quite alone, but (spoiler alert!) finds a really unique kind of redemption in the end. It surprised me by how moving it was. I found myself a bit surprised to care so much about this misanthropic dude.

What do you think? Are the criminals, scumbags and sociopaths more interesting? More realistic? Or is this a trend you don't care for? Do characters need to be mostly good, or just have a little slice of relatability for you to care about them?

have a good one!




usedbooks at 3:40PM, April 2, 2016

@Paul The Mystery Men movie comes to mind.

PaulEberhardt at 7:57AM, April 2, 2016

Evidently, it's a time-honed principle. I've always held that it's the flaws that make a character interesting and sometimes funny. I don't think they have to be restricted to the "evil" ones, either. Actually nothing bores me more than characters who are just good and win because of their (self-)righteousness - think Voyager. Before I gave up watching altogether I often found myself fervently hoping Janeway'd finally be demoted to the ship's social education worker, since that job would suit her much better than that of a captain. My point is, if you just have flawless characters vs. extraordinarily flawed ones you'll end up with a fuzzy pink "Hello Kitty" plush world that automatically makes you sympathise with the worst of the latter. A good writer could make use of that, but for some reason they hardly ever seem to do.

PaulEberhardt at 7:44AM, April 2, 2016

"If we were flawless, we wouldn't delight that much in finding flaws in others." - Horace

Kou the Mad at 7:43PM, March 31, 2016

It's possible to make an enjoyable just plain evil character without comedy if your REALLY good at writing. There are few that fit within that description, but it's possible.

KimLuster at 9:19AM, March 31, 2016

I gotta add... It also depends on the mood though... If there an underlying comedic feel to a story, I can tolerate much more 'ebil' behavior from my protagonists...! Take El Cid's Death Porn: in another type of story, Angie is just a violent psychopath, but in Death Porn you find yourself rooting for her, even after she just blew a hole in some poor schmuck's head!! Hit-Girl from Kick Ass is similar... I guess it's where there's a serious undertone to the story - that when I don't like truly 'evil' characters!

Banes at 8:45AM, March 31, 2016

thanks bravo! usedbooks and KimLuster, thanks! I agree. There are lines that will usually make me lose all interest in a protagonist.

KimLuster at 5:00AM, March 31, 2016

I find myself in strong agreement with UB! I LOVE flawed protagonists, provided the flaws are mostly damaging to themselves, or if damaging to others, it's something the protagonists didn't really intend (it's just collateral damage from their flaws). But willful cruelty to the innocent and 'undeserving'... Too much of that and I start rooting against them! Suave and Seductive as Hannibal Lector is - I didn't want him to make it!!

usedbooks at 4:38AM, March 31, 2016

For me, the original "flawed protagonist" was Sherlock Holes, arrogant sociopath with a cocaine addiction. That seems mild by modern trends but that alone made him, to me, unrelatable and unlikable. There's a sliding scale for "flaws." The small things make a character relatable and more human, insecurities, physical weaknesses, a phobia, a vice. But when you start entering the realms of being mean to people, arrogant with no humility, dishonesty, etc. I stop sympathizing. You then get into the criminal or vigilante protagonists, maybe antiheroes, until you come out the other side with the villain protagonists. Mightbe interesting character studies, but I don't care for it. They usually exist in a world where the "heroes" are as dislikable as the villains. I don't like a story with no one I can relate to. A strong secondary character can save the story and make it bearable. I need my Watson.

bravo1102 at 2:07AM, March 31, 2016

Another fascinating topic Banes.

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