I just finished a fascinating book. It’s a book that was published this century —in 2005— and the lead character was a perfectly normal person.
He found himself in a few difficult decisions. He made decisions; some good, some bad. He hit a couple of low points in the story and had to work hard to get out of them.
But he wasn’t recovering from a traumatic past. He wasn’t too obsessed with his work. He didn’t have a substance abuse problem, overwhelming credit card debt, or even an unresolved fear of kitchen utensils.
He was just this guy. He made a big decision, and big things happened because of it.
If you spend some time poking around the fiction-writing twitter world and blogosphere, you’d think this book would be an abject failure. Flawed characters aren’t just an option; they are a must. Normal characters are boring!
But this book is a bestseller.
Anti-heroes used to be the exception. They’ve become the rule, and in my opinion, that’s what’s boring. Take a look at television and movies. I’m not even going to bother with a list; think of a handful of characters and odds are the majority of them are a mess.
I’m not sure when this trend became predominant in television or movies, (although I would guess the 80’s for movies, maybe with the Lethal Weapon series?) but I watched it happen in comics, and while it was different for a while, it got old. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Alan Moore’s dysfunctional Watchmen and of course, the stultifyingly one-dimensional Punisher were copied and pasted over just about every comic book you could find.
Conflict drives stories, and internal conflict is an important part of character development, but that doesn’t always mean stories consisting of only, or even primarily, characters that are hard to like.
Characters can make bad decisions or even good decisions that lead to undesirable consequences (Neverwhere comes to mind) and still be good people.
In my opinion, agency is what’s important. A character that is buffeted about by events is boring. We want a hero that is actively trying to achieve a goal.
Our hero doesn’t need to be a sociopath or a drunk. She can be, but it’s not necessary.