Friday, April 27, 2007

Comic Flaws

I have noticed a pattern in some SF novels, particularly "hard SF," of protagonists who have some rather arbitrary minor character flaw, such as morbid insecurity even when they are performing brilliantly, or something of that sort. I can't name names, because I no longer recall specific examples, but it's something I've seen more than twice. These personal flaws become grating after a while - you want to reach through the page and shake the guy. They are not endearing, and worse, they are not very convincing.

In fact these flaws seem to be stuck in as an afterthought - like the bits of domestic soap opera stuck into a 1950s Jimmy Stewart movie about the Air Force, presumably intended to humanize the hero and appeal to women (this was the 50s, after all!). Meanwhile we guys twiddled thumbs or took a bathroom break while waiting for the movie to get back to the cool stuff with the B-36 or B-47.

Why do the authors do this? My guess is because they've been told they should. Personal flaws, according to books about How To Write Good, are supposed to make the hero seem real and human, not like the jut-jawed heroes of comic books back before they whored after respectability and became graphic novels. It rarely works. The Flaw doesn't make the hero more human, merely annoying.

The problem is that the advice on How To Write Good is almost always shaped by the conventions of mainstream, Realistic [TM] fiction. Science fiction, however, is never Realistic [TM] fiction, no matter how careful the author is about space drives and laser cannons. Science fiction is a subgenre of Romance, as I noted a few days ago (and Debra Doyle a few years ago). It is as much Romance as any book with a steamy cover, even if the jut-jawed hero never so much as kisses a lady - and in hard SF, as in old-time Westerns, he probably doesn't, lest the delicate reader be exposed to girl cooties.

Romance is not about flaws. Quick, what is D'Artagnan's flaw? What is Frodo's? Don't say that at the end Frodo can't bring himself to give up the Ring, and is saved only by Gollum biting it off - that is the Ring's doing. If Frodo were of less heroic stature he'd have lost his soul, not just a finger. Heroes in Romance really are heroes, and are supposed to be, not just "protagonists." Dumas reputedly said that D'Artagnan* was the man he himself would have liked to be.

* My greatest single surprise about 17th century France was stumbling upon D'Artagnan in straight-faced history books. He and his companions were based - however loosely - on real people; there's a recent book about them, though I haven't had a chance to read it yet.
In fact, D'Artagnan does have a flaw. No sooner does he show up in Paris than he blunders into duels with three of the finest swordsmen in France, singularly bad decision-making from a life insurance perspective. Happily the Cardinal's guards show up, and the rest is history, or at any rate Romance. D'Artagnan's flaw, then, is impetuous courage. This is a common flaw among heroes in Romance (one unsurprisingly shared by Catherine de Guienne - a young lady about whom I'll have much more to say as this blog goes along).

This kind of flaw works because it is integral to the character, not an afterthought stuck in because the author thinks they should. If D'Artagnan weren't impetuous and brave he would never have gone to Paris and tried to become a musketeer in the first place. If Frodo didn't combine a high sense of duty with a taste for adventure he would never have gotten himself talked into the impossible scheme of hiking into the heart of Mordor to chuck the Ring down Mt. Doom. Without it, there'd be no story.

It's perfectly okay for heroes in Romance to be jut-jawed, or have flowing red hair down to here, or whatever; and they don't need some fake flaw. Becoming a hero - a pretty crazy line of work - is flaw enough.


Bernita said...

Oh yes. Yes, yes, YES!
Am so tired of these artificial flaws and "endearing' weaknesses.
But perhaps writers see the staples and thumb tacks more clearly than readers do?

Rick said...

Yet if writers see the staples and thumb tacks more clearly, why do so many of them keep doing it? I bet it's the other way around - readers don't want those fake flaws, but writers keep putting them in because all the How To Write Good manuals say that you should.

Which is why we badly need a critical theory of Romance in the broad sense. So much of the advice for writers is shaped by the standards of mainstream/literary fiction, but "the genres" AKA Romance have essentially different reader expectations, thus different requirements.

Canageek said...

I would like to see more SF characters with tragic flaws. That is, a flaw fundamental to their character that they may or maynot overcome. MacBeth's ambition wasn't tacked on, it was a fundamental part of his character.

A *great* science fiction TV series with lots of characters with fundamental flaws is Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Rick said...

I haven't heard of the series - which doesn't mean much; a lot of TV sneaks past me.

Flaws, and for that matter virtues, work best when they are essential to the character, not tacked on. Indeed, great flaws and great virtues tend to be very closely related.

Rick said...

Forgot to add ... you must be starting at the very beginning and reading straight through!

John Carl Penn said...

Huh! A three days old comment under a five year old posting—and I thought I was the only one crazy enough to start reading your blog right from the beginning…

I hope I'm not mistaken in my belief that I will find other discussions as interesting as those under your postings on space warfare. Those were the postings that lured me to your blog and finally made me want to find out what else you have written about.

So far, thanks for the insights! And keep on posting!


Canageek said...

Yeah, I'm going through this really slowly though, only a post every few days. I'm only in the intellectual SF mood every so often.