One of the most important requirements in writing a successful story is that we sympathise with the hero. The hero, in a typical tale, is the character through whom we chiefly experience events.
This does not mean that the hero has no flaws. Indeed, the flaw is what helps define the hero’s character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful action to swift and righteous action that helps him achieve his goal.
Yet, crafting a sympathetic hero has become increasingly difficult. A variety of scandals involving our politicians, military and religious leaders has served to soil our trust in the existence of unsullied, altruistic heroes.
The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc.
The notion of a flawed hero, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. These tragic heroes are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes, in recent times, is noteworthy.
Dexter, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe.
And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters pulled this off? Here are some suggestions:
We sympathise with a flawed hero because …
The hero finds himself in a situation of undeserved misfortune:
Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can ill afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay his bills.
The law-breaking hero is smarter than the law-breakers around him:
Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to do this and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he outsmarts both the police and his criminal victims time and again.
The hero acts for a cause other than himself:
Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.
Understanding the underlying motivation of these deeply flawed heroes helps soften our critique of them.
Understanding a character’s motivation, no matter how flawed, helps us to sympathise with his predicament.