A flawed character is not the same thing as a damaged or negative character.  In fact, a character can be good and noble and nearly perfect and still suffer from a flaw that keeps his stories interesting.

I think of Superman as a perfect example.  Superman is a flawed character.  His flaw is his unflinching morality, his absolute desire to do good.  Too many people seem to miss the point of giving Superman this quality.  Without it, he becomes supremely uninteresting.  Without a limitation, Superman is nothing but a god-like being who can overcome any obstacle.  His desire not to abuse his power is his most laudable quality, but it is also his most important flaw.

Too often, people mistake the idea of a flaw as being a negative quality.  But flaws need not be bad things a character carries.  Story-wise, a flaw is something that gets in a character’s way in achieving their goals.  And a moral center can definitely be a flaw to contend with.

On the other side, having a negative quality that makes a character more effective is usually missing the point of why a flaw should exist.  If a maverick cop’s flaw is that he “doesn’t play by the rules”, but that’s exactly why he can catch the bad guy, he isn’t flawed.  He’s empowered.

A moral code is often the most basic flaw any protagonist must deal with.  It might make the character easier to root for, but it also places limits on what he’s willing to do.  Without limits, all protagonists become increasingly less interesting.

The problem I have with “dark” and “gritty” interpretations of characters like Batman and Superman is that the first step is usually to deprive them of their moral center in some attempt to make them flawed.  But all the writer usually ends up doing is making a hero who is invincible and unfettered.  A Superman willing to kill anyone who stands in his way, who isn’t distracted by a convenient hostage situation or a city about to be destroyed, is far less interesting than one who cares.

Yes, being a good person can be a serious character flaw.

My favorite interpretation of Batman is of a person pathologically dedicated to saving the world, to seeing that what happened to him never happens to anyone, to not just terrorizing criminals in some bizarre revenge fantasy, but instead, determined to strike at crime at its deepest levels.  His goal is to protect the world (or at least his city), and that extreme nobility is his most important flaw.  My Batman doesn’t need to be messed up or damaged.  He’s much more intriguing as a guy who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders because he sincerely wants to save everyone.  Even the bizarre criminals he faces on a regular basis.

It honestly bugs the crap out of me that Frank Miller said Batman is crazy, and most everyone decided to go with that.  Crazy, revenge-driven Batman makes no sense.  There are easier ways to get revenge.  And he certainly wouldn’t have a code against killing.  He d be more akin to the Punisher than the methods and style of Batman.  But heck, even the Punisher has a certain code he follows.  Without it, he’s just a guy who shoots people.

Being good is a flaw, and it’s a flaw I enjoy in most of my protagonists.

Most characters have flaws though not all have flaws that get in the way of their stories.  Tarzan is technically an uncivilized savage, but it never really gets in his way.  He’s still rich.  He still gets the girl.  He has all the skills he needs to triumph.  If he isn’t perfectly civilized, it’s not really an obstacle.

When Batman hangs out with The Justice League, he is a “normal” guy among superhumans.  But it never prevents him from contributing.

Scrooge McDuck is a greedy bastard, but he still goes on adventures and is rarely punished for it.

Conan might be a “barbarian” but it doesn’t get in the way of beheading evil wizards and slaying monsters.

Flaws are funny things.  They require context.  And they don’t always have to be crippling fears or psychotic rages.  They can be a touch too much arrogance, a dislike for the color yellow, being too tall or too short, or too “good”.  In the right circumstances, anything can be a flaw.

But it’s only a flaw if it gets in the character’s way.  Otherwise, it’s just another character trait.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Shawn
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Reading this, I’m surprised you didn’t like Nolan’s Dark Knight. He wasn’t driven by revenge, but the goal to overcome his own fears and protect the city and the ones he loves. I actually thought Nolan did a fair job of not playing too much into the dark nearly psychopathic batman. He could have worked more on the fight scenes, but storywise I think his batman is pretty good.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      I wasn’t bothered by Batman’s character, but by the story in general. I found the Joker uninteresting, the plot far more complicated and contrived than it needed to be, and the ending forced. My problems weren’t with Batman, but with everything else around the story. Though even Batman didn’t wow me.

  2. Posted August 18, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    While not a comic book character, Ned Stark from A Game of Thrones is another character who is *almost* flawed by his own moral compass. I love him too much to put him down, but he may very well have avoided some pretty terrible consequences if he had been a little more sneaky.

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