Tuesday, January 10, 2012

From Flat to Fab Part II: The Flawed Tragic Hero

Some more thoughts on characters and character development from The Word Nerd

In my last post, I began with the following:

Characters are created with the following in mind:
     other characters’ perceptions of them
     appearance --but with a million caveats.  I shouldn’t have to tell you what they are, right?

Another fine example of a layered, complex character --and a flipside from Atticus Finch, who was analyzed in my previous post-- is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter books.  Snape, a contemporary of Harry’s parents, was bullied while a student at Hogwarts.  Unfortunately, one of his antagonists was James Potter, Harry’s father. Snape becomes a professor at the school and, instead of being more compassionate for having suffered abuse at the hands of classmates, becomes a bully himself and makes his students, especially Harry, his targets. He comes across as aloof and uncaring, not the ideal qualities of a teacher. As a young wizard, in an extreme teenaged lapse in judgment, he became one of Voldemort’s minions before Voldemort’s downfall. He later changed sides and spent the rest of his adult life spying on the Death Eaters, but how does one find redemption from such a dark and violent past, none of which can be undone?

As we progress through the books, peeling back layer upon layer of Snape’s story, we also find out how talented Snape was at an early age, and we are sad for his wasted potential. Having lost the love of his life, haunted by his past and the obsessive drive to atone for it, Snape leads a lonely half-existence. Some fans say that’s a natural consequence for his service to Voldemort as a young man. Others argue that it’s a little harsh to force an individual to pay their entire life for a stupid choice made while still a teen. Sarcastic, misanthropic, and bitter, struggling--and often failing--to put petty resentments aside, Snape isn’t easy to like.  Yet he was capable of deep and abiding love. He helps Harry behind the scenes in ways Harry doesn’t find out about until it’s too late to thank him.  He was loyal, unselfish, and brave, and he made the ultimate sacrifice to help defeat Voldemort.

Snape may not have been a character you’d want to hang out and have coffee with, yet he was admirable in many ways. I applaud J. K. Rowling for having the courage to create a such a difficult personage and then leaving it to her readers to draw their own conclusions about this flawed tragic hero, one of the most morally ambiguous to ever grace the pages of a story directed at a young adult audience.

How many modern American kids have lost a father in a mine explosion and have had to learn to hunt in order to keep their family from starving?  How many of them live in a society where “reality TV” is required viewing, and it consists of children killing each other? No reader can fully relate to 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, resident of a post-apocalyptic, dystopic society.  Instead, we stick by her as she confronts this society and makes her way through two Hunger Games and a revolution. What we can relate to are the things that are part of universal human experience:  love and loss, overcoming adversity, the making of difficult choices--sometimes with disastrous consequences--and questioning the world and our place in it.

It’s not about creating characters who are likable all the time. It should never be about an author’s wish fulfillment or self-insertion into a story. It’s not about creating characters whose shoes the reader can “step into.” Great characters are multifaceted, vulnerable, flawed. There may be times when your reader may want to smack one of your characters upside the head. That’s okay.  It’s even healthy.  Your readers should care enough about your characters that they invoke such strong emotions. Instead of thinking of your characters as entrants to a popularity contest, aim to create characters with whom your readers want to make the journey.

Next:  Revising to create stronger characters

Check out more of Lynne's blogs at