Character Arcs & Flaws

calabashIn case you’ve not already been taught this, it’s considered mandatory that your hero have a flaw, something for him/her to overcome, something to provide an inner journey while shooting up the world with an AK-47 on the outer levels, something to make the reader identify with him/her: “Hey, this character is more screwed up than I am. Go, guy/gal!”

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what’s happening, but having shown you the necessity of giving your protagonist a flaw, I’ll now show you an exception: Detective stories.

Historically, detective novels have not had pronounced character arcs:

Holmes’s cocaine habit is a minuscule feature of the stories, with no mention at all in most of the Canon. It’s questionable whether he was truly addicted.

Poirot has little of importance in his personal life except getting ze little moustaches trimmed.

Emphasis in detective novels is on the intellectual: the solution of the puzzle of who did it, why, and how, along with the methodology of the detective–how did he/she figure it out?

I suspect the fact that detective novels tend to be part of a series works against the “flawed hero” concept. You could give the hero an internal conflict in the first book, yes. He overcomes it to arrive at the successful conclusion. Then, in a series, you’d have to give him another flaw for the next book, and another for the one after that, and so on. That’s going to make him/her seem like some sort of sad sack sooner or later.

A detective with the same ongoing flaw, book after book, like Wallender, makes the reader want to give him a good, swift one. Why should a tec clever enough to catch villains be too dumb to get effective help?

I think a character flaw with a large intellectual component is incompatible with intellectual achievement, the sine qua non of detective fiction. Thus the recent tendency to introduce a permanent psychic flaw in the tec is ultimately a poor way to differentiate him/her from the jillion others out there. Let’s stick with the traditional differentiation method: multiple, bizarre character traits, e.g., making your detective a blind, Mohican, epileptic vegan with a stutter.

Can you name other famous characters that had no evident flaw?

This entry was posted in creativity, fiction, the human condition, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Character Arcs & Flaws

  1. Jack Flacco says:

    Interesting you should mention that since I just saw Spider-man and thought, wow, what a screwed up kid he is! He’s an awesome hero, but to have all that responsibility on his shoulders at such a young age must be the biggest burden anyone can have. Sure enough, that flaw makes Spider-man all the more interesting to understand because beyond the superhero facade, he’s a regular kid with regular problems–easier for the audience to understand, too!

    Great post!

    • jguenther5 says:

      Thanks, Jack. Superheroes are a special class, too. They need something to counterbalance their super-powers, or they’d get boring. Kryptonite, for example. To get any sort of character arc, the power can’t be the only thing driving the resolution.

      On Sun, Jun 29, 2014 at 6:47 PM, jguentherauthor wrote:


  2. kutukamus says:

    Holme’s cocaine? It looks like I’ve missed that or have forgotten all about it.
    Been a long long time. 🙂

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