Character, Flaws and Ethics

savethecatI was catching up on my listening recently on a long drive. I was blistering through 10 episodes of the incredible Audio Drama Production Podcast. Matthew and Robert are fantastic resources in the audio theatre world, and masterful writers and producers in their own work of YAP audio. But, I had to vehemently disagree once or twice in the ten episodes I listened. This is excellent in my mind, because if you’re not posting something for people to talk about- what’s the point?

One particular episode that got my interest, was the lads’ chat on “character flaws”.

I believe it was Robert who insisted that character flaws should be something that would be empathetic for the reader- flaws that could make the character likable. Matthew illustrated the point by suggesting a character be a heavy drinker. After all, in his thinking, this was a good example because everyone at one time has imbibed too much alcohol.

As someone who has avoided alcohol and drugs all his life, I would disagree. I’ve written characters who liked to drink a lot- not because I wanted to connect with people who bend their elbow from time to time, but because a character flaw is for the character, not for the reader.

Similarly, Robert suggested that you shouldn’t have certain character flaws- such as being a racist- because that would turn off your reader. Here’s where I had to disagree again. Two of the greatest characters in television history were famous for their sexist, racist, and even homophobic ways.

Archie Bunker from All in the Family, brought the titanic struggle between generations into focus. His son in law, “Meathead” Michael worked in sharp contrast- the younger generation questioning the beliefs of the older. Despite Archie’s terrible flaws, he was very sympathetic and relatable. You either knew people who were like Archie, or you reluctantly agreed with him in some ways. Norman Lear’s television show was clever enough to really highlight ignorance, but also question the value of traditional beliefs versus new and untested ones. Despite the backdrop of “no easy answers”, Archie learned. Archie grew. Archie became a better person from the conflicts.

Similarly, Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue was also hailed at the time, as one of the most realistic portrayals of a flawed human being. Sipowicz’s racism took various turns, including using gestures to identify a “black” perpetrator, so he wouldn’t get in trouble for racial profiling. Sipowicz remained a universally popular character because the audience wanted to see him grow past his ignorance.

The problem, as I see it, is that the word “character” has many definitions in writing. I’d argue the phrases: “He is a character!” and “That man has character!” reflect two entirely different meanings.

Characters can be as reprehensible as you like with a variety of flaws. Appreciating horribly flawed characters hardly reflects back to the reader. Great characters don’t connect through their flaws. Great characters connect through their moral outlook- their ethics.

Take Mel Gibson’s protagonist in PaybackPorter is a thoroughly disgusting human being. He’s got no compunction murdering, beating up, or robbing anyone. But he does have an ethical code. We don’t connect with Porter because he’s got a smoking problem, we see ourselves in his insistence that there are lines he won’t cross. In an unethical world, Porter’s simple understandings of what is just and right is what makes us take notice.

So, don’t be shy to give your characters any assortment of flaws as might befit the story. Flaws are the character’s journey alone. As Blake Snyder points out in Save the Cat, we’re attracted or repelled by the actions of characters. It is their moral codes that we admire or detest, not their character flaws.

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