How screwed up can your hero be and still be a hero? The Authors Collection


This blog is not about anti-heroes, the Dexters of the world whose evil hearts motivate them to use monstrous means to achieve arguably righteous ends.

Set that group aside.

Rather the question before us is: Just how flawed can a character be and still carry the weight of a main role in a full-length novel?

I guess another way to go at it is to ask if the main character must have high standards. Can he be a sorry SOB who stumbles through a story and happens to bring about good? Can she be a high octane bitch who makes the right decision and for once in her self-absorbed life thinks of someone other than herself?

It is a all a matter of redemption and transformation.

The long and short of it is that a protagonist’s demons and flaws don’t disqualify her. Without those submerged rocks the character is one-dimensional.

And dull.

But if a character has a big flaw  in the course of the story something has to happen to change him.  She doesn’t have to conquer the flaw, but she has to evolve into a person who has learned how to cope with it.  Stories are not worth reading if all that happens is that a good guy beats the hell out of a bad guy.

Rather the good guy has to conquer something within himself, too.  It’s not just her against the world.  It’s her against herself.

The high octane bitch must show true compassion, the sorry SOB must take a hard look at himself.

If we tried to graph the arc of the story, we would find that as our hero climbs the mountain to fight the dragon who lives in the cave high above the tree line, he also climbs higher within himself, always discovering new things and grappling with them.

Denzel Washington in Flight

One of the movies I enjoyed most in the last year was Flight in which Denzel Washington played an airline pilot whose heroic action saved hundred of passengers. He managed to perform this near miracle while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, addictions he couldn’t break.

He couldn’t break them until he reached the truly heroic moment in his own story.

That he saved his passengers was great, but he still needed to find a way to save himself. To me, it was the combination of these heroic acts that brought the story home and gave it such remarkable power.

A hero can be really screwed up and still be a hero.

If he allows himself to change along the way.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I think heroes can be screwed up as much as you want to screw them up as long as deep inside their chest beat a noble heart. He or she may be as tough and as ruthless as anyone you’ve ever met, but at the right time or on the right day and in the right moment, they step up to do what’s right when they’re needed the most.

  • jack43

    I have a problem with heroes who are nothing but heroes. They simply aren’t believable. I suppose I have an advantage/disadvantage dealing with this subject. I studied heroes in Vietnam, first hand. I investigated their deeds, sat with panels of officers who judged them, and presided over their awards and decorations. I even had the honor of investigating four acts that resulted in awards of the Medal of Honor. In every case, they were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They had fears, but overcame them when called upon to be heroic. In fact, I doubt that a person can be heroic if there is an absence of fear. I dealt with this very issue in the novel I just completed. A young American Ranger is cited for heroism and awarded the Medal of Honor for acts committed while in a fugue state, unaware of what he was doing. The climatic scene involves the President attempting to convince the “hero” that he should accept the award despite his reluctance.

    • Darlene Jones

      Jack, what an interesting time that must have been for you.

      • jack43

        Interesting doesn’t begin to cover it…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between memories and scars, Jack. You’ve seen them both.

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