I watched part of a movie today, Appaloosa, released in 2008 and based on the 2005 novel by Robert B. Parker. It’s the story of the Old West, about a couple of guns-for-hire, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch and how they come to the town of Appaloosa to help the townsfolk deal with the town bully Randall Bragg. Bragg is played by Jeremy Irons. I have to mention this because I love Jeremy Irons but I did not love him in this role. Though, when my novels are inevitably made into a major blockbusting motion pictures, I want him to play my bad guy, Omur. Maybe he and Tim Curry (because I also adore Tim Curry) can share or something. Or, even better, I’ll write a new character, Omur’s brother, who shows up on the scene with a big chip on his shoulder because Omur was always evil’s favorite or something. It’ll be fantastic!
Anyway, I digress.
So Virgil is set up in the beginning to be this bigger than life character, quick on the draw (literally and figuratively) and so freaking cool and calm about everything that he’s this man of which one should be in awe. He’s supposed to be like Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia or some other literary hero who is supposed to be above reproach, seemingly perfect in every way. But here’s the thing: Virgil Cole isn’t that guy.
He screws up. He makes mistakes. He’s a flawed hero. And I love him for it.
I spent a lot of the movie (and the book when I read that) wanting to slap Virgil in the face because he was, at times, being a big idiot. But people are like that sometimes. People are like that a lot of the time which is why I really prefer the flawed hero.
Flawed heroes are interesting. Flawed heroes are real.
This is why, and I’ve said this a lot, I adored what J.K. Rowling did in the Harry Potter series. She took the character, Albus Dumbledore, and made him fallible. There’s a scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry and Dumbledore are talking- well, Dumbledore’s talking, Harry’s mostly breaking things in Dumbledore’s office- and Dumbledore says (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I screwed up.”
It’s perfect. It’s fantastic. She could’ve easily made him into this untouchable paradigm of perfection but by making his halo slightly tarnished, she made him into something so much more. Instead of being some guy you just want to kick in the balls because he is just this walking, talking reminder of your own inadequacies, he’s a guy with whom you can sympathize.
That’s why I like to write flawed characters. I write characters who sometimes do stupid things because that’s what they think is the right thing to do at that time. Then afterward, they might be called out for their stupidity, or have to face the consequences of their stupidity, but isn’t that what happens to all of us?
Another reason why I’ve been pondering the whole flawed character thing is that I received some feedback on my book from my brand new fan, E (that makes like four whole fans now…woo hoo!). Well, I’m hoping she stays a fan. I have to say that because she’s about half way through Effigy and told me how much she’s enjoying it but (and again, I’m paraphrasing) she’s irritated with my male lead (Dana) for being a jerk. I responded with, “yeah, he does that” because there are parts where Dana is a big jerk but I was left thinking, “Well, if she think he’s being a jerk now, then she really won’t be happy with him by the end” as my male lead’s judgment goes from bad to worse (thus the whole hoping she’s still a fan by the end of the book thing).
It’s like what Virgil says to Everett, “Feelings get you killed.”
They, at the very least, make you stupid.
Or, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said, “Love makes you do the wacky.”
It’s not the first time someone’s commented on the stupidity of my characters (Hmmm…when I write it like that, it really doesn’t sound good, does it?). Someone else targeted James, one of the secondary male leads. I like James. He’s moody and sarcastic, marriage phobic (Holy crap…he’s the male version of me!) and in over his head. He gets recruited into this rebellion, dragged into it really more out of a sense of obligation to his buddy, Dana, than anything else. And because Effigy is a swords and sorcery novel, there are battles and because James is a twenty year old farmer whose battle experience to this point has been limited to the occasional bar fight, there’s a learning curve. He makes some questionable choices in his first battle which led to the question (paraphrased, mais oui?) “Wasn’t x,y and z a stupid thing to do?”
Sure, there were smarter choices available to my characters (the heroines, by the way, have their share of stupid moments. I don’t discriminate…I’m an equal opportunity flaw giver). There are generally smarter choices available. Think about any of the Bond villians. Goldfinger would’ve been a much different movie had our title villain just put a bullet through a captured Bond’s head instead of tying our favorite British secret agent to a table with a slow moving phallic laser heading right for his crotch and then leaving him (alone) with the classic parting line “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” The whole bullet to the brain thing would’ve been much smarter and a hell of a lot more effective but what has become a top grossing film franchise would’ve been over pretty damn quick.
The point is, just because it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, it doesn’t mean that’s not what they did. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone who isn’t me. When I was writing James’s battle scene, I saw very clearly what he did and wrote it that way. Maybe something else would’ve been smarter, but that’s not what he did. Simple as that.
This mindset has been carried over to Effigy's sequel, Second Nature. Dana (the character whose scenes have been on and off the cutting room floor for the last week or so) is on a walkabout of sorts. He's miserable, he's wretched and he's forsaken everything. James is now the primary lead and finds himself struggling to fulfill the leadership role that's been untimely vacated by Dana. He's still moody, he's still sarcastic but now he's scared to death that he's going to make the wrong decision (Gee, I wonder where that last part came from...) and bring everything to ruin.
They're not two men who are making perfect decisions. They're just trying to keep their heads above water and it means they're just going to do some stupid shit along the way. And I like them all the more for it.
Anyway, that’s the idea. We all have our “It seemed like a good idea at the time” moments and characters (at least the very best ones) are no exception. They are, after all, human. I hear to err is human, to forgive divine. Plus, the more they screw up, the better their road to redemption will be and those, I find, always make for one hell of a story.