Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Stereotyping Heroes – The Good, the Bad, and the Too Stupid To Live

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?


  1. This is so true. It's not romance, but it's the first thing that comes to mind so I'll point it out anyway. Katherine Kurtz has a series of books called The Adept (I think there's five or maybe six of them). The main character is just too painfully perfect - he's a skilled adept, he's a well-respected psychiatrist, he's minor nobility, he's right (several castles, hot and cold running servants, a fleet of expensive cars, etc.), he's handsome, he's athletic, and he's single and lonely for just the right woman. Oh, and a reincarnated Templar Knight too. I liked the story concept, so I read them anyway, but I wished dreadfully for a character more grounded in reality while I was doing it.

    More recently, Mercedes Lackey did a series of books with a similar concept - a main character who is an adept within a secret magical order dedicated to fighting evil magicians. But unlike the Kutrz character, Diane Tregarde is an ordinary middle class person, worried about paying her rent in between adventures, and possessed of a number of other flaws. They were much more satisfying books.

    1. The Mercedes Lackey books sound great. I'm going to have to pick them up.

      You're absolutely right. Flaws make characters -- and hence, books) much more satisfying reads!

  2. I just have to say a HUGE thank you for this post. And here I thought I was the ONLY person alive who hated the perfect and too stupid to live heroes! I want my heroes with flaws; I want them to be real. I don't want larger than life heroes; I want Mr. Ordinary just a little bit supersized and slightly imperfect yet lovable despite his foibles. I have not run across too many too stupid to live heroes for which I am eternally grateful. Love the new blog!

    1. First, you're welcome! Second, thanks for reading and liking the new blog! :)

      I personally don't mind my heroes hot, I just want them human, too. Or at last humanoid, meaning having the worries and flaws the rest of us have. Like Kathyrn mentioned in the post above, even if it's something as ordinary as worrying about paying bills,it helps me connect to the character. :)

  3. Great post, Kiernan. A good reminder of our challenge as writers to write characters that are interesting and relate-able, flaws and all.