Humans are intrinsically flawed creatures. Many of us will sink a considerable amount of time and effort into curbing those less ideal portions of our personalities.
And yet, as readers, we often gravitate towards characters who exhibit those same flaws that we struggle to correct. Why is that? What is it about flawed characters that capture our attention — and sometimes even our sympathy?
There are two important elements that a flawed character adds into a piece of fiction — relatability and realism.
Let’s start with relatability. If you’re anything like me, you likely encountered your first flawed character while transitioning to young adult novels. These sorts of books become approachable around middle school age, a period of development during which many people begin experiencing insecurities. Naturally, readers of this age group yearn for characters who display similar rough edges. Enter the young adult novel.
Monument 14 was a personal favorite of mine. Here’s the five second synopsis: group of teens seek shelter in a supermarket while the apocalypse descends upon their town. Of course, I recall the edgy descriptions and more mature themes, but the protagonist of this YA novel, Dean Grieder, is what really captured my imagination.
Why? Because he was a total dork! Dean had no athletic ability and no skills at flirtation. He spent most of the novel avoiding confrontation or drama. He wasn’t the infallible protagonist or the star of the show, and perhaps that’s why I saw so much of myself in him.
And there lies the first big draw of flawed characters — relatability.
Readers gravitate towards characters with whom they can relate. They want to witness a character be flawed or vulnerable because that makes them seem more real. Readers will typically fail to form a connection with a “perfect protagonist” who always knows what to say or do. They’ll form stronger bonds with characters who conquer adversity in spite of their flaws. That’s why the underdog story is so appealing to the masses — everyone wants to believe that someone like them, regardless of their faults, can triumph.
Take Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series, for example. A far cry from the more cliché teenage heroines, she is often depicted as being withdrawn or aloof. She has a strained relationship with her mother and has difficulty expressing her emotions to characters like Peeta.
These are all very common personality flaws that many readers, myself included, can relate to.
These imperfections give her additional dimensions that she otherwise wouldn’t have. As a result, readers become more invested in her well-being since she feels like an authentic individual with realistic thoughts and feelings.
And that bring us to the second big draw of flawed characters — realism.
Now, this may seem like an unrelated question…but have you ever rolled your eyes at a Hallmark movie? Sure, I’ll admit that they can be a nice form of escapism. Perfect guy, perfect woman, little to no conflict. But they also have little to no sense of realism!
Relationships, like every aspect of life, are generally quite messy. Every person is flawed in their own way, so it stands to reason that all relationships will have their own share of issues. That’s perfectly normal, and books that portray romance in this realistic fashion tend to garner praise from readers.
Pride and Prejudice is a stellar example. Despite being written over 200 years ago, Jane Austen’s acclaimed novel still feels fresh, romantic, and relevant largely due to the realistic way that its romance is handled. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy both exhibit flaws that make their initial impressions of one another rather ambivalent. It takes a considerable amount of time, effort, and compromise before their relationship is able to work.
Their flawed personalities and imperfect yet endearing relationship make the story more realistic, and this realism allows the narrative to feel authentic.
A sense of realism is just as important for the characters we are meant to dislike. Tom Buchanan, antagonist of The Great Gatsby, comes to mind. Tom’s flaws are not hidden, nor are they few in number. He’s a rather despicable person, but his flaws flesh out his character so well because there are people like Tom out there.
In life, people are not absolutely good or evil; there are no mustache-twirling antagonists. Remember how the “perfect protagonist” generally fails to be relatable? Well, the completely evil antagonist will tend to feel unrealistic.
Tom’s flaws are never over the top; in fact, many of us have probably interacted with people who share his negative traits. He’s selfish, manipulative, and brutish, but his flaws are incorporated in such a way that they come across as natural. The novel’s other characters all have flaws of their own, making every interaction between them feel all the more realistic.
Simply put, most stories would fail to have the same impact on us without the inclusion of flawed characters. These characters often remind us of ourselves or of others that we have met, allowing the stories we read to become relatable and realistic. It allows us to immerse ourselves in these imperfect worlds with imperfect characters, witnessing their struggles and triumphs. We explore these flawed, fictional worlds while remaining tethered to our real one, gradually learning to accept our faults and accept ourselves.
About the Author: Joshua Laine is a Writing, editing, and publishing major at Emmanuel College. He studies in Boston but was raised in Hudson, New Hampshire, and he plans to one day pen enough best-sellers to put that town on the map.