Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Flawed Heroes

By Janine Ashbless

Back in May Gwen Masters did a wonderful post, Who Needs Perfection, about the flawed heroines we love in fiction. Women who aren’t perfectly beautiful or competent or emotionally intelligent: women with flaws that make them human and interesting instead of mere Barbie dolls. We had everything from beards to mental breakdowns and it was inspiring.

But the deep-down cynic in me said, "Sure we like flawed women – because we’re women. Barbie makes us feel inadequate and jealous. Bet we don’t like flawed Men so much. Bet our heroes are just perfect."

So I started asking around for flawed heroes. And just to make it more difficult (because I’m a meany) I stipulated three completely arbitrary rules.

1) No out-and-out Villains. We had, for example, an early suggestion of Hannibal Lecter and I really don’t think he counts. His habit of killing and eating people isn’t so much a flaw as the entire point of his character: if he didn’t crash the boundaries by being a cannibal, what would there be left of him to make him such a modern icon? Nah: if you only fancy a character because he’s evil then his evil isn’t a character flaw; it’s a fetish-object.

2) No Darcy-alikes. I don’t count being initially cold, brooding and emotionally distant – even rude – to the heroine. This one pops up in trad romantic fiction a lot: it’s just Romance shorthand for "I’m an Alpha. In fact I’m so dominant nobody can be my equal or a close friend. Boy, am I a good catch! But my life is an empty shell without the Love of a Good Woman and the moment you break down my emotional barriers you will find that underneath it all I am passionate and loving."

3) No Fake Heartbreakers. You know; the guy who’s introduced by reputation as a total philanderer who leaves a string of conquests behind him, just so the heroine can get uptight and self-righteous while secretly she’s gagging for it. That’s Trad Romance shorthand for, "I am highly sexed. I will never slump in front of the TV with a tin of beer while you seethe and reach for the Rabbit. I will give you as much sex as you could ever want. Plus, the fact that women keep falling in love with me makes it clear that I am inherently desirable. But the moment I make an emotional commitment to the heroine I will miraculously become the model of lifelong devotion and faithfulness."

Tall order, eh? Let’s see…

Mathilde Madden has written about "David in Equal Opportunities. He's a player. A faithless man-slut. Or he was before the wheelchair. Which I'd feel weird counting as a flaw. But there you go. He can't walk."

Portia da Costa has not just writen about "Robert Stone: he's far from a young Adonis, with his greying hair and stocky build," but also "Gian Valentino Guidetti - his physical shortcoming is a tendency to suffer from migraines, which he makes into a huge drama."

And when it comes to other writers’ work, Madelynne Ellis likes "Sherlock Holmes – a melodramatic depressive cocaine addict!"

Deanna Ashford has a very understandable soft spot for "Richard Sharpe. He comes from a poor criminal background and initially entered the army to escape from being imprisoned as a murderer. He's not well educated and he is gritty and basic. Yet he is also very sexy."

And Nikki Magennis nominates "Philip Marlowe - I love how he fucks things up and often ends up getting beaten by the crooks. Oooh, and Sawyer in Lost. Oh yes."

Teresa Roberts suggests "Emerson from the Amelia Peabody Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. He's hopelessly rude, has the social graces of an enraged bull elephant, and, although gifted, keeps screwing up his career because he's so tactless. It's the combination of high intelligence and complete lack of social sense I find charming in him."

Alana Noel Voth votes for "Randle McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) a mentally ill narcissist rebel rouser who defies the dictatorship of Big Nurse. He feigns insanity, which makes him even more scandalous and sly, and seriously he plays with fire."

Gwen Masters thinks a lot of "Dominick Birdsey in I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. He's the "normal" twin of a schizophrenic brother. All his life he has struggled to find his own identity, with the fear of having his brother's illness, the guilt, the anger...and he deals with all of it in a myriad of self-destructive ways. Flaws? This man is created of flaws. He describes himself perfectly in the beginning chapter: 'I never said I wasn't a son of a bitch.' Priceless!"

Well, it seems some Lust Biters just can’t stay away from the Bad Boys…

Alison Tyler says: "Sam Spade, the detective in The Maltese Falcon. He's slept with his partner's wife. He's not all that unhappy when his partner is shot dead, but he doesn't want the wife any more. He flirts with his attractive secretary, just stringing her along. Then falls in love with the woman whose case he takes, but sends her up the river anyway. (Of course, she deserves it.) He's pretty much a cold-hearted bastard. God, I love him."

Kristina Lloyd says: "I love Heathcliff. He scares and repulses me too but I find that hot. He is sex. He is the id let loose. Heck, he's borderline feral. People (and puppies) die because his love for Cathy is so vast and impossible to contain within orderly society. Wow, if that ain't devastatingly romantic, I don't know what is."

So gentle reader, do we like flawed, realistic, human men? Or can we only fall for fictional guys who epitomise either sexual perfection or dangerous villainy? Have our romantic heroes got to be bigger than real life? Where are the uglies, the fools, the klutzes, the failures? The people, in other words, like us?

Janine Ashbless

Illustrations (Or, "Hands off – these are mine!"):
1) The Earl of Rochester: Colossally self-destructive. Dies of syphilis. A bit of a potty-mouth.
2) Nikolai Dante: A good man manipulated and bullied into working for brutal political tyrants.
3) The Phantom of the Opera: Disfigured homicidal control-freak – and that hair is a wig


Janine Ashbless said...

And straight off I will point out -before anyone else does! - that my flawed heroes are all larger-than-life characters with very dramatic flaws. That's how I like them.

On the other hand that's how I like my female characters too, so at least I'm fair.

Portia Da Costa said...

Excellent post, Janine!

Hey, Deanna... I love Sharpe too! Have been watching a lot of him on UK History in the last weeks, and agree, he's a splendid example of a flawed hero... and fit as butcher's dog!

Yes, have to agree about Sherlock, too, Madelynne... and latterly, of course, the Sherlock Holmes of Manhattan too, although he doesn't take cocaine. In fact, I should have suggested him as my chief flawed hero... but it was just too bleedin' obvious! LOL

Oh, and there are no books about him... apart from mine.

H.L. Berry said...

Horatio Hornblower. He even wears a uniform, for goodness sake.

Nikki Magennis said...

I've got a late addition.

Glasgow's latest hero.

If anyone has trouble understanding what he says, I'll translate! ; )

Nikki Magennis said...

Arse. I can't link. *Sigh*

Try again...

Nikki Magennis said...

Sod it. My flawed hero is unlinkable.

Anyway, lovely post, Janine! I love a man with some flaws. Otherwise, he just doesn't seem real enough.

Olivia Knight said...

Try this and this, Nikki...

(They only keep me around because I can do html.)

I have a perpetual thing for womanisers, but I'll manise them right back rather than try to strike up a profound, longlasting and monogamous relationship. Otherwise I'll sneak off with the shy boys (cue Katie Melhua) and live quietly in Eden forever. I do rather love a klutz - a man who can throw red wine and coffee at me on the first meeting is always a winner. This is because I've probably already thrown both at him and it makes me feel better if he does it too.

My flawed heroes - Byron, the cat in Shrek (yep, there's a pattern there...) - umm... I'm manfully trying not to mention an emotionally distant, happy-go-lucky fictional traveller-through-space-and-time but I'm not managing.

Nikki Magennis said...

Olivia! How did you do that?

Thanks doll. ; )

Janine Ashbless said...

Yeah - John Smeaton was cool. And cute. Kudos.

Is Hornblower flawed? I didn't watch the series.

Janine Ashbless said...

I watched the last episode of Dr Who last night Olivia. Am I the only saddo on the planet who felt really stricken when The Master died?


Nikki Magennis said...

Dr Who is dead??? My word. I am out of touch. Someday I'll have TV installed in my cave.

Erastes said...

Janine - don't watch the series - read the books! Hornblower is very flawed and it comes out in the books, whereas I don't feel it ever does in the series. He's crippingly shy, wracked with self doubt, is only kept on an even keel because of a chip on each shoulder, has mal-de-mer so badly he can hardly stand up, has an obsessiveness with cleanliness (making him oh so easy to slash), and feels he's the biggest coward on god's green earth because he shakes so hard when he goes into battle. For this reason alone, he's usually first into the fray so no-one can notice!

*loves him*

Other nominations of mine: Commander Vimes from Discworld
Edward Rochester
Rafe Goshawk - yes, he's mine - and yes, on the surface you'd take him to be a Darcy alike, but I don't think he is - he's been through a lot - the French Revolution where he saw his father sacrifice his mother for a swift getaway - a sadistic tutor who left him icy and physically scarred, the loss of the the first love of his life and the conviction that money can buy him anything.

Janine Ashbless said...

I might give Hornblower a go after that description, Erastes! Mr Ashbless has the entire set of course.

Nikki - The Doctor isn't dead: the Master is! He's like, the Anti-Doctor. Evil Timelord. Has been popping up in the series for decades. John Sim (?) played the latest incarnation. Blimey, I feel like a piece of my childhood has died.

Anonymous said...

Great post Janine and dry your eyes.

RTD knows everything. Especially the NERD* theory of sci fi.

*No one Ever Really Dies

Alison Tyler said...

Love the post, Janine, and especially your end line:

Where are the uglies, the fools, the klutzes, the failures? The people, in other words, like us?

But, god, I could never be with a klutz. We'd kill each other. I am always knocking into things, wreaking havoc in my surroundings all by myself!

Now, off to read Wuthering Heights again, at KL's suggestion....


Deanna Ashford said...

I agree Erastes, Hornblower isn't really flawed as such in the TV series, except for being a tad too noble on occasions. However, I watched it just because I think Ioan Gruffedd is kinda cute.
On TV Sawyer is so much more interesting in Lost than the goody goody guy Jack. Sawyer is sex on legs and I fancy him like crazy, what woman wouldn't? Although I must say that by the end of last series Jack was becoming a litle more flawed himself.
I love Dr Who and this incarnation is the first doctor I've actually fancied. Not sure if I'm looking forward to Catherine Tate as his new sidekick though! I found her a little irritating in the Christmas special.
As to the Master being dead, I'm not so sure. I'm certain that I didn't imagine some female with pink painted nails picking up something from the ashes of his funeral pyre, close to the end of the episode.
Russell does slip small things in like that for a reason - remember all the Torchwood references before the Torchwood series became a reality, and the Bad Wolf references in the previous series.

Olivia Knight said...

The master might just fit into the "out-and-out villain" category rather than being a flawed hero - him singing "I can't decide if you should live or die", recreationally killing people, trying to murder the human race in a giant paradox - I can't shake the feeling all this is TV-shorthand for "bad guy".

Nikki - breathe. Dr Who isn't dead. The doctor is alive and well. The master has, we suspect, morphed into something with pink fingernails, but we'll have to wait until the next series to corroborate that.

I'm finding it hard to think of "flawed" heroes, though, because somehow we don't count them as flawed purely on account of bad dress sense, chipped nails, etc, which is a lot of what constituted "flaws" for heroines in our last discussion. Our expectations of heroes seem to be rather more forgiving and stretchy... or at least, less grooming-based.

Janine Ashbless said...

Oh yeah, the Master is a villain, no doubt. I wasn't trying to say he wasn't.

Olivia - the different standards we have for men and women when it comes to flaws is something I kept bumping up against. I didn't really go into it in the article because I didn't want it to be a feminist rant but ... yes, yes yes, men get away with stuff that would count as flaws in women. Even (especially?) killing people is way easier for most to forgive in a male character than a female.

I mean, could any female character be held up as a universal sex symbol if one of the things she'd done was pick up a noisy little frog and deliberately squish it to death in her bare hand? And yet Sawyer ...

Madeline Moore said...

Great post Janine. Thought provoking...although I couldn't come up with flawed heroes then and I can't now. All I can do is nod at most of the flawed heroes everyone else comes up with. Does that mean something? Or am I just lazy? I'm reading "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" and the main character, a 22 year old boy/man trying to raise his little brother after both parents die of cancer, is flawed, yet appealing. Still, he's really only appealing to girls...I think a girl becomes a woman when she decides "Hey, he's a jerk, I think I WON'T fall in love with him." I'm still waiting for that to happen...
anyway this main character isn't really a prick, just manic/depressive.

Madeline Moore said...

ps - not to suggest Felix is a jerk, because he's not. Actually, he's my real life flawed hero, and I think after his guest post here you know what his flaws are...
is it possible to love women too much?

Gwen Masters said...

Though he takes a lot of hits from critics across the board, Stephen King seems to be a master at creating flawed heroes. He does it best with writers...Paul in Misery, and Scott in Lisey's Story.

Tom Perrotta's "Prom King" in Little Children is kinda in on the fringes...I don't know if he's a flawed hero worth liking or simply a selfish boy who never grew into a real man.

And of course, that ambiguity is probably the whole point...

Kate Pearce said...

I'm a waste of space about flawed heroes, just can't think of any but then find myself nodding in agreement of everyone else's choices.

Oh-how about Russell Crowe in Gladiator?

Ally said...

Flawed hero’s.

“Where are the uglies, the fools, the klutzes, the failures? The people, in other words, like us?”

I am so very happy to see this topic. I was terrified when I began writing the main characters in my novel.

I am bipolar and always being the advocate, I’m constantly taking on the masses to try and help to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness. I also do standup comedy focusing on mental illness. So I decided that my hero and heroine would both be sufferers as well.

The hero Cassidy begins as an artist with a coke habit, he is schizophrenic, has a tendency to isolate himself and is terrified of loving someone. He has plenty of grey hair locked in his curls, but otherwise is so very, very hot.

The heroine Caprice is an artist with bipolar, who becomes obsessed with Cassidy to the point that she nearly has a psychotic break. She cries at the drop of a hat and can experience a handful of different emotions in one day. Although she is beautiful she has some weight issues.

As an added twist they are both Empaths which helps them along the road of understanding each others emotions. Although personally I think my empathic abilities hurt me more than serve me.

They both suffer greatly, there are several tragedies for them to overcome and as you all know love conquers all in the end.

Seeing that this is my first book, I wanted Caprice to be much like me, flaws and all. But I also needed Cassidy to be flawed enough that they could both compliment each other and be heros for one another.

I hope this works for which ever publisher who takes me on.

PS. Being bipolar I have a sex drive that’s always in over drive, so there is a ton of smut to pull you through each and every chapter. Thanks to a previous topic I now took on the word "Cunt" with much liberation. Wish me luck!

Gwen Masters said...

We can do flawed heroes in movies too, right?

Danny Ocean of Ocean's 13! He's a thief and a liar and a flat-out scoundrel, but he has a twisted sense of honor that makes you like him anyway. I love bad boys who make you root for them.

Of course, we would be talking about the George Clooney version. -ahem- One can never have enough Mr. Clooney.

In fact, I should find a picture to link, perhaps? This gives me plenty of excuses to go look at more pictures of Mr. Clooney...

Excuse me. I must go now.

Gwen Masters said...

I'm back.

With Clooney

Ally said...

Oh god Clooney... he's so edible. Yum.

Alison Tyler said...

Oh, Kate... Gladiator.

I don't care if he is flawed or not. I love that movie. Exquisite hero. Exquisite villain. Best line ever:

"They say no."

Hmmmm. Is there time to watch it before the Fireworks? Do you think our guests would mind if I just disappeared for a few hours?

Kate Pearce said...

No, go ahead Alison, no one will notice what with all the smoke and the barbecue...
its one of my favorite movies ever

Anne Tourney said...

I share Kristina's weakness for Heathcliffe -- I love tormented, angsty, suffering wild men.

And I love it when those men take a comic/tragic form, like Holden character (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) in the movie The Good Girl. Holden is the brooding, Camus-reading supermarket clerk who blows into Jennifer Aniston's dull life like a stormcloud, leaving a rubble of misguided passion and small-town marital infidelity in his wake.

Awww, hell, I might as well admit that it's not Holden's flaws that really get to me; I just can't resist the combination of black hair and blue eyes.

Janine Ashbless said...

I'm just amazed nobody has commented on Johnny Depp and the strategically-placed bottle!

Mina Murray said...


What an excellent idea for a post!

I'll definitely cast my vote for Heathcliff (and Edward Fairfax Rochester, to continue the Brontean theme), but am also partial to those Byronic heroes with their fatal flaws and a hint of barely-restrained brutality -"mad, bad and dangerous to know" indeed.

The ennui-ridden aristocrat hell-bent on wreaking havoc, a la Vicomte de Valmont (especially in the incarnation of John Malkovich, who does menace so well), is always engaging!

I love it though when the mostly good guy is desperately struggling against temptation, but of course submits to it - the resulting guilt/pleasure paradox is so powerful. many (anti)heroes, so little time... I am now officially distracted.

Madeline Moore said...

The beauty of a fictional flawed hero is that he truly is unattainable. I suspect that Clooney (swooney) and Crowe (I'd eat him any time) are like that - they play scoundrels and bad boys but we know, from avid reading of fan mags, that they really are scoundrels and bad boys, ie. Clooney admits to being a great new boyfriend but a lousy boyfriend, and Crowe can't stop throwing stuff at people, wife and kid or no.

Even Johnny Depp, and I hesitate to say a word of criticism but...he is a past drug abuser...and a little weird...

Dunno where I'm going with this. ANd I've only talked about movie stars. I guess the fictional characters in books are even that much more unattainable, because they don't really even exist.

If it's not too late I'll throw one more onto the pile, and yes he's too young for most (all) of us, but not for much longer...

Madeline Moore said...

I wonder if Harry would consider me a MILF. (Muggle I'd like to fuck.) ??

Eloise said...

My take on the whole Master thing, especially given the laugh at the end, was rather "Ming the Merciless" or "Lord of All Evil" in Time Bandits he'd done something and his 'essence' for want of a better word was in the ring.

Other's think the Master's wife was the Rani...

Maybe he set it all up, so he'd cloned his personality into the missus and that's why she shot him - it's a Master-worthy escape plan. He'd had 2.5 years with all that telepathic energy to do the weird and wonderful (shades of The Prestige a little too closely though?)

Face it, Dr. Who has, in this latest incarnation killed all the Daleks before the Chris Eccleston season started, and had 3 episodes with them, then killed them all again. Then had 2 episodes with them in David Tennant's first season, and killed them all again, then had 1 episode with them in this season (although conspicuously failed to kill them all this time). Russell T has no issues with lying to us and bringing things back from the apparently dead.

All that aside, my first reaction was OMG NOOOO! combined with a little bit of "OMG, he really did beat the Doctor, good for him!"