Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Even the Noblest Characters Need Flaws

Sheena blogged yesterday about the conflict she has being a parent and a YA writer.  The desire to create believable, flawed teen-aged characters, but at the same time, not making those undesirable behaviors seem acceptable. 

Her post got me thinking about characters who are great role models.  Characters with a strong sense of a moral code, who are self-sacrificing and loyal and always do the right thing even when it costs them everything.  Characters who are real heroes.  While their virtues make these characters admirable, it is their flaws and imperfections that make them lovable.  Even the most noblest of characters needs to be deeply flawed.

Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean is one of the most compelling characters ever, and Les Miserables is in my top five greatest books of all time.  It is an amazing story.   If you haven’t read it, you should.  I believe you can download it onto your e-reader for free, so there really is no excuse.  And watching the musical is not equivalent to reading the book.  The novel is so much deeper and richer.  You really really need to read it (although I do recommend the abridge version).

Warning-mild Spoilers

Jean Valjean starts out as an ex-convict, imprisoned for stealing some bread to help feed his sister and her seven starving children.  When he is finally released from prison (nineteen years later), he is bitter and angry and doesn’t believe in any sort of justice.  He is broken.  But a single act of kindness from a bishop (who shows Valjean mercy even though Valjean stole from him) transforms Valjean into a compassionate, heroic man of faith. 

Valjean makes a lot of sacrifices for others.  He turns himself in to save another man who Javert (the policeman obsessed with bringing Valjean to justice) thinks is him.   He is generous even when he is running from the law and his generosity attracts too much attention and many times brings the law down on him.  He devotes his life to care for an orphan girl named Cosette who has no one but him to take care of her.  He even is willingly buried alive at one point to help her. 

But his noble and self-sacrificing traits are not what makes him such a compelling character.  He constantly struggles to hide from the law and keep Cosette safe.  All the while, he is plagued with self-doubt and moral dilemmas.  And because he has devoted his life to Cosette, he struggles with letting her go even though it is what is best for her.  At one point, he even selfishly tries to keep her from Marius, the boy she loves although later he risks his life to save Marius for her, but still, doing the right thing is hard for him to do.

It is Valjean’s self-doubt, his moments of selfishness, and his struggle to do what is right that makes him a sympathetic and compelling.  His flaws are what makes him feel real.

Jack from Lost

I’ve been re-watching Lost on Netflix lately, so I got Lost on my mind.  Jack is one of my favorite characters.  He definitely has an interesting story-arc and grows more than any other character on the show.  In fact, he kind of does a 180˚. 

Jack is a noble character.  He is self-sacrificing to a fault.  He is always thinking of everyone else before himself and makes a compassionate and inspiring leader.  Out of everyone on the show, I think he is the most admirable character, but he as deeply flawed as the rest of them.

His desire to save everyone is as much a flaw as a virtue.  His wife leaves him because of his devotion to his job and his unrelenting need to fix everyone.  He ruins his already shaky relationship with his father because he refuses to cover for his father’s malpractice (sure this was the moral thing to do, but Jack pays a steep price for doing it).  And ultimately, Jack’s inability to save everyone on the island breaks him, and he is only whole again once he sacrifices himself to save those that are left.

In his attempts to save everyone, Jack struggles and struggles, and so many times he makes the wrong decisions that only complicates their problems.    He is quick to act and slow to think, closed minded, plagued with self-doubt, and has some serious anger issues.

And just like with Jean Valjean, it is these faults that make him interesting, and his constant struggle that makes him feel real.

The Real World

In real life no one is perfect, but a lot of times we like to appear that we are.  I feel this happens a lot in my community.  Everyone is almost afraid to admit that they struggle in life.  We all try to pretend that our marriages are ideal, our houses are always clean, our bills are always paid on time, and our children are always obedient, talented, and brilliant in every way.

I don’t know if people are like this everywhere, or just where I live, maybe it’s an issue with middle class America, but I feel like we are almost afraid to admit that we are human, that we struggle.  But I think this perfect image that we try to project holds us back and keeps us from really connecting with each other.

The people I am closest too have seen the ideal version of me stripped away.  They have seen my insecurities, my stupidity, my vulnerability, my arrogance, my doubts, my selfishness, my weirdness, and I have seen the worst in them as well.  But those parts of ourselves that we work so hard to hide, that we fear will make us unlikable actually can make us more lovable, because these are the aspects of ourselves that we struggle with, the parts of us that are damaged, that make us real, that make us human.

And this is exactly why characters need to be flawed.  They need to be sympathetic.  They need to struggle.  They need to be human.



  1. What a beautiful post, MaryAnn. I've never read Les Miserables but I will now.

    No, it is definitely not just where you live. People are like that everywhere. One of the things I think is so isolating about social media (Facebook, etc.) is not just the fact that it's not face-to-face, but the fact that we edit all the vulnerability out of ourselves, and "keeping up" with people devolves into endless boasting. (Says the grouch who refuses to write a Christmas letter and sometimes doesn't read them for the same reason.)

    1. I agree with Sarah. This, "those parts of ourselves that we work so hard to hide, that we fear will make us unlikable, actually can make us more lovable," is beautiful.

      There is nothing that bugs me more than a too perfect character. but even perfect people can be interesting when you examine them for who they really are. I think you don't have to be perfect to be good, and you don't have to be good to be a hero.

    2. What Sheena and Sarah said!

      I definitely agree that too perfect, or Mary Sue characters are really frustrating. Intersting characters struggle and grow and change... and do amazing things with the skills they have. The best characters succeed despite their flaws - or by learning how to make their flaws work in their favor.

  2. Great post!!! I totally agree with everything you said. I think what makes them compeling characters is that their conflicts make them more real. We are all flawed and imperfect. We all afraid of something, lonely and struggle to do what is right. I love Lost as well and one of my husband's friends said that he couldn't believe that Jack's character would abuse pain pills. It felt unbelievable to him. It didn't to me. I think it reflected his anger and disappointment with himself for letting everyone on the island down.

  3. This is a great post. It reminds me of the first thing I ever wrote--I was shocked (and a bit dismayed, initially) when nearly everyone's favorite character was supposed to be my villain. It ultimately changed the entire direction of the story.

    And I think that we do each other a disservice when we don't allow people to see our flaws. This was great. Thanks!


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