Should we approve of everything done by the leading character in a novel? Should he or she be a “hero” in the traditional sense, or should such characters exhibit normal human flaws such as occasional bad judgement and indecision?
You might respond that it depends what kind of book we’re talking about. Perhaps heroic adventures do demand appropriate heroism, you might say. By contrast, arguably a book about “your average man” (whoever that might be) should portray average strengths and weaknesses.
But even pure adventures need conflict and crisis; and this, surely, means that heroes can’t always be invincible. If they were, there wouldn’t be any drama. So perhaps the only difference between “levels of perfection” in different types of book lies in the detail.
The reason I raise this is that one or two otherwise positive reviewers of my stories have complained that Mike, my leading character, can sometimes be weak and indecisive. They say that this has stopped them giving the books the highest rating.
Now it’s not up to me to tell reviewers what they should think of my books. I feel enormously indebted to every single one of them for taking the time to write about the books at all. I try to learn from any adverse criticism.
All the same, their point about Mike’s alleged failings has me slightly puzzled. It’s not as if he’s constantly bowing to pressure from others, or conceding in arguments and avoiding conflict. In many ways he’s quite tough-minded.
But I’ve deliberately given him a few flaws. He’s sometimes self-doubting, sometimes evasive, even a little naive when it comes to relationships. Basically he’s human, and that means imperfection. He wants to do the right thing, but can’t always decide what that is.
I would have thought that this sums up what most of us are like; and that’s precisely the point of my books. I’ve tried to create a character readers can identify with, and then I’ve aimed to get those readers wondering how they would deal with the challenges I pose for him.
Usually, by a combination of luck and perseverance, Mike ends up in the position where we want him to be. What’s more, he often notches up incidental successes along the way – saving a business in Alternative Outcome, for instance, or finding a buyer for publishing company in Denial of Credit. But he doesn’t pull these things off through conventional heroism; he does it by his forthright manner – his impetuousness even – and by reasoning his way through each crisis as it comes along. If anything, what redeems him is the heroism of the average man.
To me, each book is a twin story; it’s about my leading character’s battle against some kind of external adversity, and it’s also about his struggle to summon up the best in himself.
Some reviewers have kindly said they find Mike a very strong character – a surprising contrast to the views of those who are unhappy with him. This is very gratifying, even if (as I suspect) these more positive reviewers actually mean he is “a strongly-written flawed character”. That’s exactly what I intended. But as I said, I do listen to criticism, so perhaps my challenge is to ensure that Mike’s strengths and weaknesses continue to balance out to a character readers like and care about – someone whose story they want to follow.
I’m keeping that constantly in mind.