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Why are Protagonists Always Damaged in Some Way?

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Photo Credit: American Salon

Just a picture of my favorite protagonist in the history of all history to start this post.

I wanted to write this post from the perspective of a writer, but I soon realized that my perspective as a reader would force its way into the writing of this post, so you’ll get both. Let me tell you what I’m talking about when I say “damaged.” There is always something that the protagonist of a story has to deal with that makes a case more difficult to work or makes whatever goal s/he is trying to achieve that much more unattainable. But why is this? Why can’t characters be regular people who have to deal with something extraordinary during the course of the book?

In a very non-scientific analysis, I decided that I’d think of some of the series I read to see how many of the protagonists are broken in some way or another. I won’t name any of them, but let me tell what I came up with.

One guy’s mother is murdered when he’s a child and he becomes a detective. Decades later, the mother of his daughter is murdered during the course of an investigation.

Another guy is shot while on the job as a patrolman and the bullet is left inside of him due to its proximity to his heart. This is referred to in every book.

Another guy’s wife is murdered due to his work as a detective. Killer never apprehended.

Another guy’s wife is in broadcasting and after divorcing him, she starts to do whatever it takes to move up in her line of work. All while claiming she will always love him. He secures a Chief of Police job on the other side of the country after going to the interview drunk. The city figures they’ll be able to control an idiot.

Do you see my point? Sorry these are all detectives, but there are more examples I could point out from my own reading, but I have a post to write.

I’ve even been told that my character, Andrew Banks, is too squeaky clean and that he needs some damaged history, otherwise the reader is less likely to become invested in him. Huh? I mean, when I set out to write him (he’s me, which y’all should know) I did so wanting him to be different. Real. Not the guy with all the answers and being some expert at this or that. Just a regular guy who does his best at his job. And what did some of my readers say?

He’s independently wealthy.

He’s arrogant.

He’s a bad detective.

His relationship with Sydney is a joke.

He thinks he’s better as one person than an entire police department.

First off, none of these are correct. The only one that I think even warrants any kind of response is the first on the list. Some readers have come to their conclusion that he’s some rich guy parading around the city of Houston because of a very short list of things. He doesn’t charge his first client anything for working her case. He happens to wear a Polo once during the course of the book. And he doesn’t tell the reader constantly about not having any money.

I’m not going to explain away the notion that he’s independently wealthy because those are the things right there that readers have told me that make him appear so. If you think someone is wealthy because of that list, then your definition of wealth is not the same as any other. And you probably need to check your head for irregularities.

Back to my point, what makes a character more likeable just because s/he has a bad past? Because to me, a great character is a great character. Period. I won’t change my character to fit some literary expectation or whatever you want to call it, because he is who he is, and that’s all there is to it.

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78 responses »

  1. When I write a screenplay, I always make something wrong with my protagonist. I feel they must go through something to overcome, something hard to like an addiction. I guess it’s just the way some people’s mind work.

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  2. Obviously we’re not happy unless someone else is desperately miserable because then we can go “Haha, sucked in! Your life is even crappier than mine, so na na na na na na” in that annoying fifth grader tune (but I might be letting this cut too close to home now ;)).
    Seriously, I absolutely agree – a great character is just that. C’mon people, what’s wrong with someone being content completely? I for one like to read/watch someone who isn’t going through the same old run of the mill damage, that’s why they call it escaping from reality/your troubles when you read a good book or watch a movie, even the depressing ones, coz my life returns to normal after the end of the book or a 2-3 hour movie.

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  3. I think for most people, it isn’t necessarily a bad past that makes a character interesting, but rather that they do have flaws, just like everyone else. A character who is “perfect” or “clean” is a character who feels unrealistic, because life isn’t perfect and clean. So you can’t trust a character who has their shit together so neatly; you can’t relate. I love a character with a troubled past; I also love a character who’s just an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, but those characters also experience the hum-drum aches and pains of just being human, too.

    There’s actually a fantastic book by Ha Jin entitled “A Free Life” that is basically just a story or a couple of Chinese immigrants to the United States, how they started their American dream, and that’s about it. The characters aren’t flawed in the troubled past sense. It’s just a story about their lives and how it came to be, and it’s actually kind of beautiful for that. I loved it, but, on the other side, I could see how some people might find it boring. The key, though, is even though nothing extraordinary is happening, these characters still aren’t perfect. They have their flaws, ordinary as those flaws might be, and that makes them relateable They’re realistic. And that’s important.

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  4. What happens to the protagonist to start him/her on the path of being a protagonist as a detective/crime-fighter etc. usually in stories (and occasionally in real life usually has something to do with say a death ins his/her family, or in the case of the hunger games character, protecting someone close against what is deemed wrong. I have found you don’t always need that in real life, but i stories 9 times out of 10 you need that pivotal moment to set up the character, to define them. Not sure why someone would think someone was wealthy just because they wear a polo outfit or do something without payment. I think they are jumping to conclusions just because they don’t think. Both I have done in my life and I can tell you I am not independently wealthy! Wish people would research before making comments. Love your work btw. :)

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    • Sometimes. And yes, I actually laughed when I was told that he was just some rich guy. Even though he drives an old Mitsubishi. Go figure.

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      • Yeah. I think people don’t want to admit they like something and actually say things like that to make people think they don’t… Then some just are strange and have no excuse. Have fun with this. :)

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  5. I think it’s more of the most common solution to avoiding Mary Sue syndrome. They had to have a life prior to the story, and that influences how they act. Mary Sue is basically perfect in every way; beautiful, super smart, capable, unflappable, great smile, everything.

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  6. Thank you. I guess I’m not the only one who has noticed this. (Harry Potter’s parents are killed, he has a scar, oh, and Voldomort is always after him…….) I was just thinking about this the other day reading a YA book. Why is it always the story about the unpopular girl, or the ordinary girl? Why is it about a freak, or a nerd? What about me? I’m normal, I live a normal life, well, okay, it’s not quite normal, but I’m not disfigured, I don’t have some angst inside of me trying to get out…. Why can’t the pretty, popular girl have her story told( that’s not me, but whatever)? And I knew of one detective you were talking about, Jesse Stone (love the films)
    Oh, and I read the ‘Richard Castle’ mysteries. Nikki Heat’s mom was killed and she became a detective. Granted, that’s how the show, Castle, goes, but still. What is wrong with normal?

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  7. Making a protagonist flawed makes them relatable. Reading should be an escape, yes, but people also want someone to commiserate with, even if they don’t share the same history. I don’t know a single person who is completely “together.” We all have struggles, even if we hide them. I know millionaires who are bitter, and the poorest of the poor who are happier than you’d expect. A great character is a great character, but nobody is perfect. Bringing out their internal flaws shows us the depth of the character, and not just the face they present to the world.

    For example, the characters in my books that my beta readers love the most are the flawed ones, and the ones they least like are the “vanilla white bread” ones that seem like they have everything under control.

    Maybe it’s a conspiracy, but as a reader I prefer flawed characters, even if it’s just an emotional or personality flaw. It makes me feel better that I’m not alone in my flaws.

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  8. Can you name a single compelling character in any story you like — movie, book, TV, song — that is not damaged in some way? I would be surprised if you could. Because every one of us is damaged in some way, or we feel like we are because people tell us we are. And unless one is completely self-actualized or “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the beer commercials, if we encounter anyone who DOESN’T think they are damaged in some way, we hate that person. Because they are completely unrelatable.

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    • It’s dumb to say everyone is damaged. I’m only an expert about myself, right. Let’s see.

      No problem growing up.
      Never picked on or bullied.
      Parents had financial stability.
      No bad car crash or crime committed against me or my family.
      Youngest in my university’s graduating class.
      No school debt.
      No dark secret that continues to haunt me.
      No issue with anything.
      Oh, but my grandpa died when I was in sixth grade. And I broke my wrist the same year. Guess we found it! Broken wrist and dead grandparent. Yep. Damaged goods over here.

      Dr. Cameron at the start if House.
      Eric Taylor at the start of Friday Night Lights.
      Elvis Cole.

      Just off the top of my head while watching the US Open.

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      • I don’t know any of those people, but the fact that two of them BECOME damaged in the course of their story arc sort of makes my point.
        In any event, damage (the way I define it) does not mean something bad had to have happened to them in the past. It could mean that they have low self-esteem, or that they can’t resist picking up strays. It could simply be a common weakness that gets in the way at the worst possible moment.
        Nero Wolfe was brilliant and successful and accomplished, but he was so fat he could barely leave his house. Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict. It’s easy to give a character a past that colors their personalty — and very common, because people like to understand WHY somebody is the way they are. Bruce Wayne is the way he is because his parents were killed by muggers while he watched. If that hadn’t happened he would just be another rich kid with a fat trust fund. But the flaw doesn’t have to be something from the past.
        I don’t know you (I only just discovered your blog) and I don’t know your character based on you. But your flaw could be something as simple as you’re lactose intolerant. Or the only music you listen to are the chanting monks. Or you need insulin injections on a regular basis. Or you may chew gum with your mouth open. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it feels wrong if it isn’t there. Because without some flaw — fatal or otherwise — your character becomes what is commonly called “2-dimensional.”
        Remember, readers read because they like to imagine themselves inside the head of the characters they enjoy. And if it is a perfect place, we don’t feel comfortable there. We feel resentful and unrelated. It’s human nature; we like the things that are as damaged as we find ourselves to be. It’s not rational, but it’s universal. The other thing is, readers enjoy stories where the characters they do relate to overcome their own inadequacies, because it gives us hope we can too. If your character has no personal demons to contend with, we tend not to care whether or not they succeed.
        And I can tell you this: the fact that you appear to think you are flawless makes me not particularly like you. Which is totally unfair, because I know virtually nothing about you. So it’s certainly not personal. I only say this for instructional purposes. I’m sure if you polled your friends and family, they could give you a list possible a very short list) of things about you that are flawed or broken.

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      • Good. I don’t care what you think. My blog and life will continue just fine without any further comments from you. I have people who comment on every one of my posts. One person who “doesn’t like me” means nothing. Adios!

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      • There, see? You do have flaws! You’re thin-skinned, react without thinking, and have selective hearing. Perfect for a character in a book. Just play them up, but try to keep him likable.
        Good luck!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah. You’ve found me out.

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  9. I don’t think a character needs to be damaged per se. A great character needs to be identifiable and needs to grow or change through the book.

    Even if your character is joe average, the events of the novel ought to shape him in some way, otherwise why tell us about it?

    No one has to arrive on stage, baggage in hand, but the book should provide baggage.

    Even a character who never skydives will be changed if you make him skydive.

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  10. Characters have to have flaws or be damaged in some way and they have to struggle. Struggle creates conflict. Conflict creates story. Even the most “perfect” character has to have some kind of struggle, be it internal or external. They need to make mistakes and they need to fail because these are the characters readers are going to connect with and root for. It doesn’t HAVE to be tragic, but you need to remember that the character had a life before they showed up on the page, and this life should be influencing them in some way.
    Katniss is your favorite protag? Well, she’s pretty damaged already. Dead father, depressed mother, grew up in the poorest part of District 12, almost starved. And she struggles with these issues throughout the books, growing and changing, which is what makes her such a compelling character.

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  11. I think your post about TFIOS can relate to this. You said that you were impressed with how Hazel Grace only breaks down once, and she is a character with MAJOR damage. Part of what makes her such a great character is her capacity to care about the possible damage she will do to the ones that she loves. She talks about that all the time, not to mention the issue she has with her mother. I think what makes damaged characters so great is that they exaggerate problems we can relate to, and think through different ways to cope

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  12. Just like in real life, perfect people are boring. And you can’t relate to them. No everyone has a character flaw.
    I can think of one girl who was “perfect.” Perfect grades, perfectly nice to everyone, ate perfectly, ran every day, stayed skinny- but you know what, PERFECT was her flaw! She was so perfect, that she had no friends, became depressed, and went through a great deal. So you can even turn perfection into a flaw.
    I am not a crime novelist type person, or else I would probably read your book, but I just stumbled upon your blog and very much enjoy what I’ve read so far. Best of luck!

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    • That sounds a little odd. I know someone who is exactly like that. She’s starting law school in the fall. And we don’t know any of the same people because we met in college, but I know she has plenty of friends. She’s great. So yeah.

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      • Hey you’re welcome to write whatever you want but just don’t complain when people don’t see it exactly your way and don’t want to read it you know? You’ve basically argued with every single person that commented on this post in a tone that insinuates anyone is dumb if they don’t want to read about someone who has their shit perfwctly perfectly together. If you want to write for the 5% of the population who agrees, go for it!

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      • Well then. You take this way too seriously. Bye now.

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      • No I don’t care, your life doesn’t affect mine. I’m just saying you’re not going to make any money writing but if that’s not your goal it’s not a big deal.

        I enjoyed your blog but your attitude is a complete turn off. I read the comments so I know you don’t care but it’s true your flaw, as someone mentioned before, is conceit and that you cannot take criticism. You’re still young though so I have hope you’ll realize it and become more humble, because you obviously do have a lot of talent and could be successful and well-liked.

        Again, I know you don’t care so no need to make that point again! Good luck!

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      • Oh goodness. I’m done.

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  13. That was suppose to say “no matter what, everyone has a character flaw.”

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