Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Relatable flawed characters throughout literature

As a young and keen reader, I tended to find adult works of fiction more compelling than those for children. However, as a 12-year-old (and somewhat nerdy) child reading J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I had two primary concerns. One was whether or not my efforts would in fact impress my English teachers, the other was to not be anything like Holden Caulfield in my approaching adolescent years.

Recently, I have found the differences between child and adult fiction immensely fascinating. While some differences are so obvious they perhaps aren’t worth dwelling on – such as narrative complexity, stylistic and vocabulary choices – others present a much more interesting take on what we wish to teach our children. For example, the relationship between characterisation and lessons in morality. In children’s fiction the dichotomy of good and evil is often clear, with protagonists embodying good qualities, such as courage and loyalty. Antagonists are of course in opposition to this, possessing traits more related to greed and acrimony.

Any flaws that protagonists in children’s novels present are often used as a moral lesson. They are usually something the character can inherently grow and learn from, and do not often become an ongoing character flaw. So, maybe a more accurate term would be that these characters make mistakes and develop. Or, perhaps ingrained character flaws in children’s novels are more minor, and are an act of teaching acceptance.

Of course, we want to teach our children good morals, so this structure does seem quite logical

An example would be Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise. While within the first few novels she is perhaps bossy and unpleasant – this ‘flaw’ slowly fades over the course of the series as Hermione gains friendships and proves herself. She is intrinsically still a ‘good’ character in spite of such flaws, and is never seen as a character of moral ambiguity. This structure is repeated without much variation in children’s fiction, and is suggestive as to why so many keen readers, such as myself, took to reading works for beyond our age range as kids.

Of course, we want to teach our children good morals, so this structure does seem quite logical. And this is not to say that adult works of fiction cannot present lessons or ideas on morality – they are just perhaps more complex lessons. Examples would be Mary Shelley warning on the dangers of playing god in Frankenstein, or Oscar Wilde demonstrating the ugly nature of narcissism and egomania in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both of these novels present moral lessons in the flaws of their protagonists, which in turn lead to devastating consequences. However, these novels still take a step up from children’s fiction, as the arguably subvert the trend of novels having ‘good’ protagonists, in presenting ‘bad’ central characters.

However, it always strikes me how, in the progression to teen and adult fiction, the dichotomy of good and evil become increasingly blurred in some protagonists. Holden Caulfield, as my primary example, is perhaps the epitome of the flawed protagonist of inherent moral ambiguity. He presents no obvious moral lesson and is arguably neither a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ person – he is more of a statement on the detrimental effects that various shortcomings of life can have on a person.

Flawed characters present a sense of relief in reminding ourselves that complex thoughts, feelings, and desires are not as uncommon as we might think

His cantankerous personality and overwhelming fears of entering the ‘phony’ adult world are perhaps alienating at times, but I believe they probably resonate within us all at points. While as a naïve and hopeful twelve-year-old I looked on Caulfield with a degree of contempt, it is difficult in growing up to not at least feel empathy with Caulfield on some level.

It is surely not surprising then that as adults we are far more drawn to characters such as this and indeed find them relatable. It raises the question of whether this to be feared, or whether it purely correlative as our understanding of the human condition develops, and our realisation the lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not so clear.

Flawed characters present a sense of relief in reminding ourselves that complex thoughts, feelings, and desires are not as uncommon as we might think. They are attractive and perhaps comforting in their approach of taboo subjects and representations that, if one should express similar feelings beyond the safe world of the novel, would face judgement.

Another key example that resonated particularly with me, is the thoughts and opinions of Lionel Shriver’s protagonist Eva Katchodourian, in the controversial novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Shriver is known for being quite an outspoken author, and is particularly frank about her opinions on motherhood, as are reflected within We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The novel provides not so much a moral lesson to the individual, but rather that on society as a whole

As Eva feels increasingly forced into the convention of motherhood her resentment for her child grows, and, as is apparent, leads to devastating consequences. As Eva states herself in the beginning of the novel, it is her apathy that is her flaw. As a reader, at times her apathy is disturbing – at times it is comforting. However, particularly resonant, and what the book has been most commonly praised for, is its discussion of the fear and pressure from society that is associated with motherhood. Again, Eva is a protagonist of overt moral ambiguity. The novel provides not so much a moral lesson to the individual, but rather that on society as a whole.

To relate this back to children’s fiction, of course we cannot expect children to appreciate the complex debates of gender, sex, and society that are presented in We Need to Talk About Kevin or indeed The Catcher in The Rye. But in actively seeking flawed characters as we enter adulthood, as can be seen by the popularity of novels containing such characters, we remind ourselves that the protagonists of children’s novels are perhaps out of reach.

Flawed characters serve to remind us that, as humans we do not simply make mistakes and learn from them, but we all possess both negative and positive traits. The world of adult fiction presents the at times comforting (and at times depressing), notion that we are all incredibly complex individuals. To find our own thoughts and fears on the page of a novel is always helpful in serving as a reminder that everyone is human, and flaws can indeed transcend reality onto the pages of novels.

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