ymmv .18 – Character Flaws
A narrative that glides on rails, containing perfect characters that are faultless, is boring on every possible level.
A story full of people doing dumb things– to move the plot forward because the writer is lazy or making poor choices because the writer isn’t smart enough to see the obvious– is insanely rage inducing.
There are certain superheroes people find boring because of their spotless sheen. Hell, some people steer clear of the whole cape genre because it’s just too sanitary and safe– or at least they surmise it to always be based on the data of a few. Superman might seem squeaky clean AND omniscient with power, and the whole Golden Age was just this concept washed, rinsed, repeated, but modern comics have shown capes to adorn terrible people, and those who lose. And even the good guys can only try sometimes and end out outgunned. But that’s another debate for another time.
There are also some stories people can’t abide because of just one thing a character does that makes no sense. Anyone who screamed for Charlize Theron to just run sideways will understand this pain.
However, there is a middle ground and it’s one I love. The flawed character is amazing because they become unpredictable and then you don’t know to what depths they’ll sink to be ingenious, and you also don’t know when they’ll be too worn down or preoccupied to miss the obvious.
The narrative becomes a chemistry experiment once a character, especially the lead, shows themselves to be flawed. But it’s a fine line to tread.
When Vincent Vega shoots Martin in the head, that’s flawed. But had he done it many other ways it would have come across as forced, or spoiled the narrative. When Dr Manhattan blips Rorschach out of existence at the end of Watchmen, that’s not a heel turn from the omniscient blue one, it’s a progression of his flawed state.
Whereas, when the action hero lead is firing a million rounds trying to kill the bad guy and when they get into close quarters they pause to allow for verbal jousting and narrative exposition and/or denouement in eloquent ways, that’s lazy writing with the character acting dumb in a contradictory way. Why would they want their enemy dead if possible a moment ago but suddenly change that tune when said death is much more attainable?
Wanna know what the truth of this situation feels like? Consider Indiana Jones shooting that guy with the swords instead of facing him in hand-to-hand combat. It makes sense and totally matches the character.
This break in logic is what hurts the brains of many readers. Why would Batman keep putting them in Arkham if they’re never going to rehabilitate and he’s just going to have to ride that wheel around again later? To me, this is why the violence of Affleck’s Batman works for me. He’s been in Gotham’s longest Groundhog Day and he’s over it. And that makes character sense completely, to me. It’s about growth, where your character, their motivations, and their decision-making processes change.
When Yorick Brown does dumb shit in Y: The Last Man, it makes sense because he’s an idiot. And he’s consistently an idiot. But he slowly grows, and we get to see this, so it’s all for something in service of the story. The world’s last boy becomes the world’s last man and we are shown this, not only told it.
Whereas rewatching Iron Man 2 the other day I realised my biggest problem with it. Much of the narrative turn comes from Tony being drunk at a party and acting recklessly with his technology. So much so that not only does his best friend, Rhodey, kick his ass for it, but he then steals the technology from Tony and places it into the industrial machine. It’s a big moment, when you think about it, and it’s attempting to draw from Tony’s drinking problem which has been legendarily covered in the comics, but there it was earned. Here, we get Tony drunk at a party and then afterwards he just moves on without it really being a consideration. There are narrative consequences but not personal ones. It’s contradictory writing, it’s lazy, and it’s there to move the plot not be real to the character.
Against it, take Tony’s PTSD from Iron Man 3 caused by the Battle of New York in The Avengers and it’s coming from a real place and it has character consequences throughout the whole story. It’s real and it is earned.
You can’t be flippant with character motivations or responses. They have to stem from some place of truth. If you can logically explain why something happens and it makes sense and doesn’t contradict anything else then it works. But it’s gotta be airtight. If you can poke holes in your character movements too easily then the audience will start to bail on you.
One way to break a story is to sit down with someone, or call someone up, and explain the story to them in conversation. The moment you hem and haw to explain away a moment or the other person asks incredulously why something happened then there’s a problem.
Think of a story like crossing a river on a series of stepping stones. And if the audience ends up randomly leaping from Stone 3 to Stone 9 then they are going to be disoriented. They’ll know it and they’ll feel it. Unless the genre allows such movement [such as the insertion of biogenetic brain modifications to suddenly change a character, or a robot gets reprogrammed– and even these obviously hold explanations], the leap stinks and no one will buy it.
Though, to throw another spanner in the works, because planning a story can be as arduous and unwieldy as trying to plan real life, there are always exceptions to rules. People can be completely unpredictable, but even those unpredictabilities have reasons.
I read a piece recently about the contradictory nature of Matt Murdock’s ways of dealing with the fatal stylings of Frank Castle and Elektra. And Matt does deal with them in different ways. He abhors Castle and his lethal justice and yet while he hates that Elektra is a killer, he somewhat shrugs his shoulders to it. It’s completely contradictory, but in this instance isn’t a product of lazy writing or anything else subpar.
In this instance, and this is important, Matt Murdock is actually acting in a contradictory manner. Why? Well, at his core he doesn’t believe death is the solution– despite how many heads he busts open and people he surely has to be killing during his fights. And so it makes sense that he would oppose Castle’s very one-eyed way of dealing with any enemy in bullet’s reach.
While Elektra’s methods are slightly more toned down, and Matt still doesn’t agree with them, he’s not as aggressive in his opposition for one simple reason– he still loves Elektra. And if you can’t understand why love would play a part in a person’s actions then you are being aggressively obtuse. Of course he treats these two people differently because they mean different things to him.
I think Matt’s difference in his handling shows a complete hypocrisy within him. Not lazy hypocrisy, nuanced character hypocrisy. He’s a broken man, he’s easily led by his emotions. And he has a lot of them. It’s why I cite Matt Murdock as my favourite character in modern literature. He’s a tragedy writ large in red spandex– or whatever Melvin Potter makes his stuff out of in the show. He’s a guy who falls hard in love and can be completely blinded by the emotions love, and lust, releases.
The complex contradictions of a layered character can enrich a narrative tenfold. But only when you can explain those contradictions. Unfortunately, for me, they made me believe Matt still felt for Elektra but the episode where we get the flashback of Matt initially falling in love with her didn’t ring true to me. It went too fast, it didn’t feel like it lasted long, so the leaps across the pond made it feel more like a skimming stone.
Whereas if you go back to the comics, Matt Murdock is a deeply flawed character and you never know which way he is going to turn, but once he does you can usually trace his decision back to something. When he cheats on Karen Page with Typhoid Mary, you understand what he’s feeling in that whirlwind of pretending it’s not as serious as it is. When he accepts Karen Page back after she sells out his identity, you get how deep his feelings run. When he keeps letting Wilson Fisk go you understand that some deep part of him honestly believes that Fisk will make an honest go of it and become the great man he could so easily become. And when he cheats on Milla Donovan with Dakota North, you can also see the pattern of who he is and how he gets caught up in singular moments. It all makes sense across a grand narrative.
Yet when the Affleck movie had him allow a criminal to die in the opening sequence it rang horribly untrue. This is why your character moments have to work, they have to be explained by the character as much as they in turn explain the character.
Look at your latest story that you are working on. Look at all of the decisions your character makes. Do they make sense for that person, do they add up with the holistic picture of who they are?
I know when I write Bucky, the deer journalist lead in Deer Editor, he’s a flawed guy. In the first issue he’s brash so he makes the wrong moves in cocky ways. He blinds himself through arrogance, and a little laziness. That’s him, not me. And in the second issue, he’s more forceful, more sure, and he’s driven by the fact the stakes have gotten so high. He’s changed and he doesn’t miss the things he would have in the first issue. As I wrap the third issue now, he’s acting in slightly different ways as new shit comes to light. The guy from the first issue wouldn’t be doing what he does in the 3rd because he’s changed, he’s informed, but most of it is all shades of the one guy, the one flawed guy.
Whereas when I wrote Rainbow Dash, I couldn’t play those cards. She’s flawed through arrogance, and she tries a little too hard, so I can steer into those skids, but I couldn’t have her consciously make a bad decision that might affect others. No, she’d only ever sacrifice herself.
If you’re writing Nick Fury then he’s allowed to act in very different ways compared to Steve Rogers. That’s just how it works. But those characters have decades of history to inform this. Your creator owned creation has little to no history, so you have to build those character folds. You have to show them quickly, in small ways, so you can use them in large ways later.
If you cheat, if you skip, then it’s going to come across as lazy and it will be spotted.
You can write insanity, you can write the wildest coincidences, and you can write the completely unlikely, or even impossible, but you have to be able to explain it. It’s gotta come from somewhere because no one likes a deus ex machina, and no one wants to suddenly feel like they don’t even know the character they’ve been enjoying on the page for the last issue, or more.
Chekhov’s Gun isn’t always a prop, sometimes it’s someone’s soul, and you have to lead with it in exactly the same way. Done right, you’ll kill just as many people with it.