December 17, 2012

Flawed to the Bone

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In a comment on my last post, on sappy and sentimental straw men, Writer4Christ asked if I could pull together a list of books with characters who have "good flaws."  That turn of phrase makes me laugh a little, but at any rate, I thought this would be an enjoyable exercise.

A caveat (of which I have many) before I begin: this is a list of books I've read where the protagonists have excellently glaring flaws.  However, those flaws go hand in hand with the characters themselves; they cannot be divorced from one another.  And just as we ought not try to put asunder what the author has joined together, as authors we should not try joining together what should stay asunder!  We can't throw darts at a dartboard of character flaws in order to choose which ones our protagonist should have.  These grow out of the person himself, and develop with him; they must be intrinsically a part of him.

There's my caveat.  Now we can move on to fun stuff.

north and south

In talking of flawed characters, my mind flew immediately to Mr. Thornton of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.  Not surprising, since he is one of my favorite characters ever.  But anyhow, those of you who have either seen the film or read the novel will understand immediately how he represents my point.  His flaws are obvious: pride, a sharp tongue and quick temper, and perhaps overmuch ambition.  They reveal themselves in ways that hurt a number of people, especially the workers in his cotton mill, for they make him nigh oblivious to their suffering.  He is no saint, and his flaws are no mere trifles; they have keen effects on those around him.

With flaws like those, he could easily become odious to the reader.  Gaskell pulled it off, however, by balancing these elements of his personality with other, equally critical ones.  He is a hard worker, glad to break his back in support of his family; he loves ardently; and he is not lacking in compassion, though he shows it harshly.  He is certainly a conflicted personality, but it all comes together to create someone who is very real and very much a hero in his own way.

sherlock holmes

Another obvious choice!  Who doesn't think of Holmes when flaws are mentioned?  There are few elements of his personality that don't constitute flaws.  He is arrogant, rude, selfish, oblivious, manipulative, verbally abusive (sometimes), and a drug-addict.  He's not exactly the spitting image of a hero.  And again, these things are not whitewashed - they're out in the open for all readers to see.  We really ought to hate him.  But most of us don't, and for some crazy reason he so endeared himself to readers that there were riots and protests when Conan Doyle attempted to kill him off.  For he is also brilliant, witty, at times kindhearted, and even occasionally just plain wrong.

the chronicles of narnia

Of the Pevensie children, Edmund and Lucy are by far the most thoroughly developed and the best-loved.  Edmund is a very flawed personality: he went and betrayed his siblings, after all, and was just an all-around brat who needed a good swat on the rear end.  But we love his redemption, and even the natural roughness of his personality toward a character like Eustace Clarence Scrubb is attractive.  (Because Eustace "almost deserved it.")  Lucy is not as obviously flawed, but she still has her weaknesses - her jealousy of Susan, for instance, which pops up in The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader.'  

a tale of two cities
Um, Sydney Carton.  Need I really say any more?  Even more than Thornton, even more than Holmes, Carton represents an anti-hero.  He's a drunkard and a ne'er-do-well, just the sort of Dickens character you are meant to loathe.  But instead you pity him for being, it would appear, incapable of change - for being chained to his vices - for his unrequited love.  And then you're blown away by the ending, sob over him, and love him for his nobility.  End of story.

the count of monte cristo

Here you have a main character bent on revenge, obsessed with the idea of being sent by God to bring evildoers to justice, ruining people's lives left and right.  He has so many flaws, there are very few bits of gem left in the whole lump.  If you dig around a bit, though, you find that he is capable of some form of compassion toward those he considers innocent (does that even count?), and of immense generosity - no stinginess there!  I am actually hard-pressed to think of anything else.  Please call back at a later date.

the thief

The first flaw in the hero of Megan Whalen Turner's series is self-evident: he's a bit light-fingered.  He also lies and swears, so you could call him light-tongued as well.  He is horrendously proud, often sullen, frequently bitter toward both the gods and the people around him.  Actually, he's very flawed indeed and makes the reader want to hit him upside the head.  He's also in love, and it's unrequited - both things that tend to make the reader soft-hearted.  In addition, he is incredibly loyal and at once brave and oddly fearful.  He is a well-blended mishmash of traits, and one of my favorite things about The Thief and The Queen of Attolia

howl's moving castle

I almost forgot this gem, and that would be a heinous crime.  How can you leave Wizard Howl out of a mix like this?   He is talented, but on the other hand, he's a coward and what another character calls a "slitherer-outer": he won't face any danger if he can help it.  He's also quite heartless and has a habit of making girls fall in love with him, then leaving them in tears.  But that's not his fault, now is it?  And his wit (ever a popular trait), his humor, and his character development make him loveable despite these things.

For amusement's sake, I'll do a run-through of the most glaring flaws in all these characters.  Pride; excessive ambition; arrogance; rudeness; selfishness; drug-addiction (!); manipulation; betrayal; jealousy; drunkenness; idleness; hypocrisy; hatred; thievery; lying; bitterness; swearing; cowardice; and heartlessness.  Not the marks of heroes, we would think, and yet borne by heroes.  They are the marks, or some of the marks, of fallen men and women - and that includes those who are saved and being saved, but who are not yet "confirmed in righteousness."  There are still flaws that go down to the bone.


  1. Haha! I saw this post and thought, "Eugenides" so I was very happy to see that you included him! he's one of my favorite anti-heroes of all time. Ever. In. The. World.
    Plus, I just found a whole bunch of new books I want to read...

  2. That was a really enjoyable post, Abigail; it brought to life what you've been talking about in the last post! I think this post ought to be helpful :). I know I am going to be really nasty and suggest that maybe it would be nice to have a post like that sometime for women characters with 'good' flaws?

    I am not surprised that you consider Mr. Thornton one of your favourite characters, Abigail; for though I have not watched/read 'North and South' all I've heard of his character endears himself to me as a really three-dimensional hero.

    And.. Ha! Mr. Sherlock Holmes can be so aloof and verbally abusive when he does not have a case on him and oh, so disrespectful if someone does not interest him intellectually, can't he. Do remember that scene from the 1980s Jeremy Brett adaption of 'The Copper Beeches' in which Holmes gives a long monologue deriding Watson for the 'inefficient' manner he chronicled his cases? It is one of my favourite scenes ever of the two!

  3. This is fun to read, Abigail! It's interesting and amusing that most of *our* (speaking of most people who read. :) favorite charcters are often the most flawed. Because they are the most human ,no doubt. :)

    And isn't it also interesting that we fall "in love" with them, despite all the flaws that we can clearly see. And we get 'upset' when the girls spurn the flawed men (Think Mr. Darcy and Mr. Thorten) the first time they ask.

    this post made me smile!

  4. Thanks for the list! But I don't like Sherlock Holmes as much because of his plain being mean. What about minor flaws? Everyone has got one of those like talking too much etc.

    How do you think one could find out what one's own character's weakness/es are?

  5. You forgot to mention two characters who had deep flaws and yet were borne as you said by heroes. Namely, Frodo and Samwise... both have deep-seated faults, yet both have their strengths and you love both deeply.

  6. Mad Elvish Poet - Eugenides is a very flawed character indeed! I think characters are Turner's strongest point. I was entirely caught up in the lives of both the Thief and the Queen of Attolia.

    Joy - I could do that! I already have some inklings of an idea for a list of flawed female characters. And as for Sherlock Holmes - there are so many scenes with him and Watson that I love, I don't think I could pick a favorite! Holmes' selfishness and Watson's occasional crankiness mix so perfectly.

    Becca - One of the fun things about deeply flawed characters is watching them grow through a book or a series. And if, like Holmes, they remain essentially the same, it is still enjoyable to find the sparks of light in his personality. Though of course, not all characters have to be quite this flawed!

    Writer - Holmes is one you either love or hate, really. I didn't use to like him; maybe he's something of an acquired taste, too...

    I think that in reading any good book, and falling in love with specific characters, you won't have to look far before spotting flaws. This post is more on moral flaws, since that was the topic of "Burning the Straw Men," but there are others that I would classify more as "quirks" - like talking too much, as you mentioned. They're not good, but they're not necessarily morally wrong, either.

    Your question about finding out a character's flaws is a difficult one to answer! Personally, I have to find them out through the process of jostling mental elbows with the character and of writing him or her. Sometimes I even start out with a flaw and find out it's not true to the character: I had Tip pegged as a bully, and found out he wasn't. I know that isn't terribly helpful, but I do think that the combination of observing other people (in real life and in well-written fiction) and practice in writing our own is the best guide. The only other immediate advice that springs to mind would be to place the character in a variety of good and bad circumstances and see how he acts in them.

    Joy - I thought of them, but it's been so long since I've read the trilogy that I didn't trust myself to do them justice. Thank you for bringing them up, though!

  7. This was fun! Definately like Edmond. He was very well developed - but I think I should read more of the books. Only read the first and saw the first two Narnia movies. I'm not fond of Lucy in the books, but like her in the movie a lot. It is neat to hear your thoughts on their good flaws. Makes them human!


  8. John Thornton is splendid example! I thought it was the best on your list, though I could be biased, since I haven't read all of the other books. Now you've got me wanting to re-read North and South (along with a few other heavy classics I'd already been hankering for another taste of...)

    I re-read most of the Sherlock Holmes stories recently—I still think they're classics of the mystery genre, but after reading some others (Chesterton's Father Brown, for instance), I found myself spotting the occasional pompousness and melodramatics of Doyle's writing more. I think people just love Holmes for the satisfaction of the moment when he finally explains everything after tormenting us with hints for the whole story! :)

  9. Mr. thornton, Holmes, and Sydney Carton are easily some of my favorite literary heroes. I just was re-reading The Tale of Two Cities and I fall in love with Sydney Carton all over again... He wrings my heart!* breaks into sobbing*

  10. And there's the beloved Anne Shirley with her flaws! :)


  11. Aw, dear Gen! <3 He really did steal my heart, which I was surprised at. I think all your examples were awesome, though I didn't recognize the last fellow. Mr. Thornton! Sherlock Holmes! Gen! Sydney Carton! <33333 I think the point stands: we love the flawed fellows best.

  12. First off - sorry, gang, but the word verification is back up! I've gotten quite a bit of spam the last few days, so it's back to a robot-proof blog.

    Becca - Oh, goodness, everyone should read the Chronicles of Narnia. They are for children, and only brush the surface of matters Lewis delved into in more depth later - but they are classics if ever any book was. And Lucy comes into her own through the stories! I heartily recommend them all.

    Elisabeth - I heartily agree with you on Conan Doyle: he is melodramatic, and as far as writing style goes, he's not the best out there. Of course, I don't care for Agatha Christie's style, either... I really do believe his fame rightly rests on the conception of a character like Holmes.

    Annie - I actually had to go in search of the tissue box after finishing A Tale of Two Cities, and though I frequently tear up at the end of a good story, I'm not usually that bad. I think the previous book I did that for was The Last of the Mohicans, which I finished before bed and which robbed me of my sleep.

    Becca - Anne Shirley, indeed! "Don't keep calm - he called you 'carrots!'"

    Rachel - Oh, Rachel, you must read Howl's Moving Castle. Absolutely. Positively. It is only ousted on the list-of-books-you-must-read by "The Mind of the Maker." End of story.



  14. Very interesting post, Abigail!

    A Fellow Writer,



meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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