Human and Flawed

Several years ago the powers that be at DC Comics realized that they had a problem. They’d actually had it for about thirty years, but that’s beside the point.

The problem was that their flagship superhero, Superman, was lagging in sales and popularity behind Marvel’s stable of tight-wearing do-gooders. They correctly assumed that part of this problem was that Superman was perfect, outside of that Kryptonite thing (which had been neatly disposed of some years ago, if I recall correctly). Outside of that former Kryptonite problem, the Man of Steel was rustproof. He never had doubts or fears. Even Batman hated him (Frank Miller’s vision of him, anyway).

Who could relate to a character like that? No wonder readers were flocking to Marvel, whose heroes were so neurotic that their line of titles took on the tone of a soap-opera at times.

So somebody at DC got the idea to bring in a wringer – a well-known comic writer who, if again memory serves correctly, was responsible for the rejuvenation of Marvel’s X-Men title in the late ’70’s. They tossed out everything that happened in every Superman title that had been published to that point and started telling Supe’s story all over again, from scratch. In the process, they made him neurotic and doubtful… basically more human.

I don’t know if the ploy worked or not. By my figuring the Superman faithful would want the Man of Steel as invincible as possible, but what do I know? It may not have done what DC wanted, because later they killed Superman off and left him dead for several issues. During that whole bit of business Kurt Busiek told me, “There’s only two ways that DC can explain how Superman comes back… coma or clone.” I don’t know how they brought him back because I don’t really follow comic books, and if I did, they’d all be Kurt’s titles, anyway.

The point here is that, when creating a character for your work of fiction, you want to create somebody that readers can relate to and/or sympathize with. I’ve mentioned here before how James Bond was given a face lift (rather, a personality lift) when Pierce Brosnan took over the role to make the character more relevant to modern audiences. Or, as Shelly Shapiro told me when I was writing The Company Man, “We know that this Andy Birch is basically a terrorist and a real son of a bitch – but if he isn’t sympathetic, the audience isn’t going to buy into him.”

So there’s a lot to be said for keeping your characters human.

And even more to be said for having characters tragically flawed.

This has been brought to my attention by a couple of recent events. First is the release of Wolves Eat Dogs, the latest chapter in the life of Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith’s crack criminal investigator from Moscow. Renko is humanly flawed – his dedication to the truth runs him afoul of his Soviet bosses in his first literary appearance, Gorky Park, and as time goes on, it takes him into the dark corners of his nation. I think his single-minded pursuit of the truth – even when his superiors don’t really want it – tells a lot about his character. The truth is valuable to him, I think, because he has lived a life in a place that was founded on lies – lies that would dog him and exact a great price throughout his life.

Another take on the tragically flawed character is Adrian Monk, of the USA series Monk. Not having cable, I recently discovered the joys of this show when I picked up some episodes at Blockbuster. It’s quirky fun to watch, but the root of Monk’s entire character is tragic. Think about it: Monk is a brilliant detective, but he’s only brilliant because of the mental state that makes his life a living hell. If he were cured, his ability to notice little out-of-place things would vanish, and he would be just another cop.

Talk about a twist.

This isn’t to say that we should all run out and jump on the tragically flawed bandwagon in regard to our protagonists. Keep in mind that stories are still successfully told with Larger-Than-Life Heroes (see Superman and Bond, above), Reluctant Heroes (Frodo Baggins), Anti-Heroes (Holden Caulfield and practically every role that Steve McQueen ever played) and yes, even Average Joes ( one reason that Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers were so successful over the years was because they involved ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances). There’s a story to fit every one of these – and vice versa.

And like these others, the Flawed Hero is one weapon in the writer’s arsenal that we can use to captivate our audience.

NP: iTunes Shuffle – Brian Protheroe, “Practicing Attitudes

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