Everyone loves a hero (or heroine). For the purpose of this post, let's stick with the masculine form of the word, only because heroes are what I happen to deal in.
Whether they wear tights and a cape, or a policeman's badge, wear a fireman's helmet or dog tags, heroes never fail to thrill us, warm our hearts, and just plain turn us on. The heroes I'm addressing in this post come in all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life. They are the stars of the story, the man of the hour, the protagonist.
You'd think it would be easy to write a shining star of a hero, wouldn't you? I mean, just put in everything you ever wanted in a man -- good looks, great body, and a fantastic personality, right? Throw in loyalty, honesty, and a sense of humor; add in kindness, empathy, a love of all creatures great and small, and a healthy bank account, and you've got yourself a hero!
Wrong. What you've got is a stereotype. A bad one.
I hate to be the one to break the news, but the perfect man does not exist. Humans are built with flaws, every last damn one of us. Some of us tell white lies, or cheat on our income taxes or significant others, or harbor resentment of those in better social or financial situations. Others are overly concerned with their physical appearance, or overly critical of someone else's. Some folks eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, fill-in-the-blank too much.
In short, we are a species riddled with flaws.
Does that mean our heroes should be written as self-serving, self-indulging assholes? Of course not. But they shouldn't be perfect, either.
In fanfiction, there's a term called "Mary Sue," or "Marty Sue." It's applied to stories that are obviously self-inserts (which sounds a whole lot dirtier than it actually is), those in which authors have created characters that are reflections of the author's ideal sense of self. In other words, the hero in the story is you, the writer, were you all shiny and perfect. These heroes are caricatures, bigger than life, with perfect hair, nails, skin, bodies, and personalities. They have no chinks in their armor. They may not be wearing their capes, boots, and tights, but you just know they have them hanging in their closet, all wrapped in plastic from the dry cleaner, ready to go.
Perfect Heroes don't ring true with readers. They're annoying, boring, predictable, and after a while, readers may begin to resent them. This is never a good thing for the story. It's the cause of many drywall dings from readers pitching a book across the room in frustration (or deleting an ebook, as the case may be).
Another failing in protagonists is at the exact opposite of the spectrum – the Too Stupid To Live Hero. This hero is rife with flaws, ranging from laziness to pure stupidity. He's the one who runs up into the attic to avoid the zombie horde, and gets trapped there. The one who doesn't turn on the light when entering the spooky dark room where the machete-wielding maniac is waiting. The one who bats his eyes and gives nothing but adoring obedience to his lover. In writing, he fares no better than the Perfect Hero. Readers will hate him, and want to see the zombie antagonist eat his face off. They will be rooting for the bad guy to win by the end of the book, and be sorely disappointed if the Too Stupid to Live Hero...well, lives.
We need to write characters with flaws, because we need to write human characters (or at least, humanoid), heroes who are neither too perfect nor too stupid, but just the right combination of both, with enough failings to be interesting, to engage the reader; enough for the hero to learn and grow throughout the course of the story and become a better person.
Got a favorite character? What were his (or her) flaws? Would you like them without the flaws? With more flaws?