Good Flaws, Bad Flaws
So you're working on a book, and you like your hero character so far, but he's just too... clean. How can you dirty him up a bit? You need to add some character flaws. Careful, though. The right flaws will make your character more accessible to your audience and bring him to life, but the wrong flaws will make your audience despise him no matter what heroic acts he accomplishes. There are good flaws, and there are bad flaws.
A list of currently acceptable "good" flaws includes:
While a list of flaws that are currently "bad" includes:
- Alcoholism (except when it leads to violence)
- Drug addiction (except when it leads to violence)
- Tobacco use (cigars, cigarettes, and especially pipes)
- Sexual promiscuity (Generally restricted to males though. As long as it doesn't involve children, animals or the unwilling, like rape, zoophilia or necrophilia).
- Reverse snobbery
- Being too cool to socialize.
- Being a klutz.
- "Sticking to your guns" even when the odds seem stacked against you (Which some may argue isn't even a flaw at all, except when it results in Idiot Ball)
- Stupidity (as long as it stems from genuine ignorance, and not apathy or bigotry)
- Misanthropy or cynicism
- Emotional aloofness, especially with Cute Love Interests
- Lack of self-confidence
- Holding ridiculously high personal standardsnote , especially with snarky comments.
- Being a Noble, Innocent or Tragic Bigot (Assuming they're a good guy of course), especially for people who grew up a long time ago or those with Police or Military backgrounds.
- A hot temper (except when it leads to violence)
- Cussing (except in the presence of the clergy, monarchs, aristocrats, the elderly, children, and sometimes women)
- Cowardice (except when failure to act causes someone else's harm)
- Weirdness and a lack of social norms, particularly in love interests
- Clumsiness can be so endearing that it's often the single flaw given in an otherwise perfect character
A character who's addicted to alcohol is a helpless victim of a substance to which he is addicted. A character who chain-smokes is a rube who doesn't understand the dangers of smoking and ought to die of lung cancer for his foolishness (although, occasionally there are sympathetic smokers
). The difference between drinking and smoking in this regard is that drinking is not addictive for the majority of people and provides a significant high, while smoking is addictive for everyone and its high, if any, is very weak. Drinking is therefore seen as the more rational action, although of course off limits for those who get addicted.
A character who has sex freely isn't always seen as flawed at all (and provides interesting plot opportunities...
) while a genuinely racist or homophobic character portrayed in any kind of positive light whatsoever is a rarity these days. (A number of comedians will pretend racist/homophobic viewpoints for laughs, but also insist that they're only kidding. See Politically Incorrect Hero
Even the words people use will fall under these categories. Most obviously, shit
are "good" bad words while nigger
are "bad" bad words (whereas the opposite used to be the case). Bitch
is a special case, being unacceptable when used by men to refer to women, but acceptable when used by women themselves
or by people of either sex to refer to men
, or to describe something nonhuman or abstract in an informal way.
Sixty years ago some of the entries on these lists might have been inverted because this is a cyclical trope. It is constantly changing as artists try to push the envelope and skirt the fine line of transgressive but not reprehensible. Who knows what will be seen as acceptable or not acceptable in another 60 years
Bad Flaws can be Easily Forgiven if
the character casts them off and becomes a better person. The Atoner
atones for them. The Big Bad
may just have worse flaws. Sometimes they can be given the sympathetic point of view - there's good reasons why they have this flaw. Laser-Guided Karma
also assists in forgiveness, as long as they learn from their punishment. If your prejudiced hero learns about other ethnic groups over the course of his journey and, at the end of the book, decides that he can now accept people of different ethnic groups as equal to himself; well, he was an egalitarian all along, just waiting for the right experience to let him grow, wasn't he? (Less idealistic works might have the hero retain his bad habits, but still strive to do the right thing in spite of himself
Related to Once Acceptable Targets
. A Jerk with a Heart of Jerk
will be marked by both
types of flaw, and might use the "good" ones to deliberately mask the "bad" ones. See also: Good Smoking, Evil Smoking
for an in-depth discussion of tobacco as a signifier of morality.
Feel free to add more examples to the current list, but try to keep it general and widely applicable. Also, feel free to add lists of examples pertaining to other cultures and time periods. Also feel free to add to the list of examples below, but keep in mind that this sort of thing is often played with and changes over time, so there are going to be very few straight examples.
Please try to keep Fantastic Racism
to a minimum unless it is very clearly supposed to be a direct analogue to real-life bigotry
. The hatred of Orcs and the hatred of human ethnic minorities carry very different connotations in media (for some reason
- Donald Duck in the comics suffers from a bad temper, arrogance and vanity, but has his heart in the right place. The same can be said about Uncle Scrooge, who is thrifty and heartless at times, but shows compassion towards others when necessary.
- Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino is one of the most sympathetically portrayed racists in modern media, although even he learns his lesson about racism by the end of the film.
- On the "reverse snobbery" thread, you also see this a lot in high school movies. If the popular or cool kids play a prank on the unpopular/uncool kids, it's wrong and malicious. If unpopular/uncool kids play a prank on the popular/cool kids, it's a funny comeuppance.
- Though set in a college Accepted is a prime example of this: at their first meeting, before he has any personal reason to dislike them, Bartleby goes out of his way to insult Ambrose and his fraternity. It's portrayed as an underdog sticking it to some rich jerks.
- Of course, the cool kids are often portrayed as doing it out of spontaneous malice, while the uncool kids are often seeking Revenge for either another prank or some other malicious act, which does introduce a moral difference beside whodunit.
- James Bond has given up smoking (and even claims it was a "filthy habit" in Tomorrow Never Dies* ) over time but has always been a connoisseur of alcohol and other vices.
- As Good as It Gets: Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) manages to spout all kinds of rude remarks throughout the course of the film and still not drift into Villain Protagonist territory. Of course, the filmmakers do an excellent job of tempering his character. For starters, his character is an older man, even though he occasionally is nastier than the average Racist Grandpa. Second, Udall is a New Yorker, and people from New York are stereotypically expected to be rude anyway. Third, the film is to a large extent a comedy, and a Cringe Comedy at that. Fourth, Udall does fairly often get called out and even publicly humiliated for his politically incorrect behavior. Fifth, his behavior does improve as the film goes along. And sixth, and most importantly, Udall is a misanthropic romance novelist with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for the most part peevish toward everyone in the world (with specific bigoted remarks toward each of them according to their categories-i.e antisemitic toward Jews, racist toward blacks/Latinos, homophobic toward gays, etc.) and really well-meaning deep down if not for being a Jerkass Woobie.
- Ray Levoi, the FBI-agent protagonist of Thunderheart (1992) manages to be a consistently sympathetic character despite having more than a casual contempt for Native American culture from the outset - something that was rare even in The Golden Age of Hollywood. Being young and good-looking helps (Levoi is being played by Val Kilmer in his early thirties, after all), as does his Punch Clock Villain status when the FBI sends him to a Sioux reservation to investigate a murder and basically requires him to harass and interrogate suspected political radicals (at one point even pulling a Sioux out of his tepee during a religious ceremony, prompting the arrestee to demand if he'd ever arrest a Christian while that Christian was praying in church). Most crucially, however, Levoi is part Sioux himself. While this doesn't grant him N-Word Privileges (though the full-blooded Sioux characters seem to have this, derisively calling Levoi the "Washington Redskin"), it does make him supremely confused about his identity and ambivalent toward the memory of his ne'er-do-well half-Sioux father. He's also naturally resentful that he's been assigned to this case specifically because of his heritage, and doesn't want to be on the reservation in the first place. Finally, Levoi does fall in love with a full-blooded Sioux woman, manages to get over his prejudices and reclaim his roots, and ultimately solves what proves to be a Chinatown-level mystery marked by corruption Inherent in the System.
- X-Men Film Series:
- Wolverine's fondness for cigars is part of his macho image.
- X-Men: First Class:
- Although the writers wanted to present Xavier as a very different person when he was young man, they can't give him too many negative traits because the character is still the Big Good of the franchise, so one of his "good" flaws includes being a womanizer.
- Hank McCoy, who we learn in X-Men: The Last Stand is one of Charles' closest friends (and therefore his personality can't be changed too drastically), gets lack of self-confidence as one of his primary faults.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past: Past Xavier is no longer a cad like we saw in First Class, but he has developed additional "good" flaws such as alcoholism, drug addiction, cynicism, and cussing. The guy is utterly messed up, but the writer was careful not to make the character too "bad" (Charles has to eventually become an All-Loving Hero, after all).
- Some of the comedians interviewed in The Aristocrats (which is basically a feature-length analysis of the so-called "filthiest joke in the world") argue the inverse of this trope, contending that good flaws are bad and bad flaws are good if you're actually trying to be offensive; being "good-bad" just won't get the desired level of outrage. Since many iterations of the "aristocrats" joke involve defecating, for instance, they point out that if you defecated in public nowadays most people wouldn't really care and react with only an eyeroll; but if you took the fecal matter into your hands, smeared it all over your face, and did a Blackface gag, people would be very angry.
- Selma: MLK's adultery plays a part in the film, contrasting with his civil rights activities.
- Sam Vimes from the Discworld books claims to be a racist and a speciesist, but aside from the fact that he would risk his life for any of his citizens, he is a raging misanthrope so any racism/speciesism is just an extension of thinking everyone is a bastard. Even his outwardly promoted reverse snobbery doesn't prevent him from marrying Lady Sybil, heiress to one of the richest estates in Ankh-Morporkh, and having the title of Duke being bestowed (albeit unhappily) upon him. He's also a very heavy drinker who used to drink to forget, but has since forgotten what he was trying to forget, so he keeps drinking so he won't remember .Interestingly enough he's been moved off Alcohol and onto cigars by his wife.
- William Laurence from the Temeraire books, is a Napoleonic Era Naval Officer, with the ridiculously high standards expected within that service. He moves to the Aerial Corps, which is a much more laid back affair and allows this to be an excellent hook. In some ways it's possible to consider the Aerial Corps as a pocket 'modern' society within the early 19th Century setting.
- Haymitch from The Hunger Games is an alcoholic. At the beginning, this is presented as just further proof of his incompetency- until it is revealed that he drinks in order to mask the pain of losing everyone he loves, and failing to protect children in the arena, year after year.
- Horatio Hornblower is terrified of heights and prone to sea-sickness, a pair of traits one might consider unusual for The Captain in a series about Wooden Ships and Iron Men. The sea-sickness is eventually revealed to be something the crew accepts without comment note , and Hornblower deals with the acrophobia by making a point of climbing the masts to see for himself whenever a sailor in the crow's nest announces that they've spotted something.
- Also, he is very emotionally detached and calculating. Played positively, these traits make him a tactical genius and very good at cards, played negatively, and he ends up having a terrible time dealing with other people short of being very manipulative.
- Anthony Burgess was inspired to write A Clockwork Orange because he found it fascinating that Nazis during World War II would relax from a day of killing people by enjoying the beauty of Ludwig van Beethoven 's music. The very idea that vicious criminals could appreciate beautiful innocent art was the reason Alex De Large became a Beethoven admirer.
- For sympathetic characters with regular snobbery, you have Frasier and Niles, chiefly via Character Development. Frasier was originally written as a Romantic False Lead and eventual Ensemble Dark Horse on Cheers, where the whole Slobs vs. Snobs angle was very much Played Straight.
- Similarly, Charles Emerson Winchester of Mash. Though he started off as mostly an antagonist, he gradually became an Anti-Hero and never completely overcame his snobbery. He even had his biggest Pet the Dog moment through his snobbery during the Grand Finale when a North Korean military band is taken prisoner and he finds their playing to be horrid. So he teaches them to play classical music well.
- Johnathan Quayle Higgins on Magnum, P.I. is very snobby.
- House gets away with all kinds of offensive remarks because it's clear he actually hates everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., and just says whatever he thinks will offend his target the most. As Cameron says in one episode to defend him after he says something sexist, "[He's] a misanthrope, not a misogynist."
- Jonathan Ingram in Policenauts makes homophobic, transphobic (using the phrase 'so-called women' to describe transwomen who'd undergone a sex change at the genetic level) and sexist (oh, let's not even start) comments throughout the game, as well as exhibiting Fantastic Racism towards the Frozeners. It's used to draw attention to how his attitudes are bigoted and old-fashioned by the standards of the era, but he never really gets over them and is yet portrayed consistently sympathetically.
- Eric Cartman from South Park is a horrible bigot, and is portrayed absolutely unsympathetically. He still has his fans, though.
- The entire list in the article description is practically a laundry list for Bender B. Rodriguez's entire personality. He gets away with it through Refuge in Audacity and Rule of Funny, with a good dose of Karma Houdini to dodge plot-related consequences.
- The Simpsons: Bart Simpson constantly gets into trouble for playing pranks on teachers, family members and random people in the street. Though some of his behavior ranks from just being an annoying kid to juvenile delinquency, he is generally shown to have guilt or remorse kick in at times.
- Even more intractable is the tendency to attempt to psychologically scan a historical subject to see if he (and it usually is indeed a "he") harbors any sensibilities that are currently abhorrent. This can be tricky for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that individuals who weren't particularly political or weren't social critics probably didn't put forth that many substantial opinions. Also, said person may merely be speaking or writing to others who do harbor those views, and pandering to them. Finally, despite what many seem to believe, irony and sarcasm were not twentieth-century inventions.
- Most criminals and other people with an "evil" reputation will have a good side to them. For instance, some psychopaths who absolutely feel no remorse towards torturing, raping and killing human beings will feel appalled whenever someone hurts an animal.