Character Flaws and Flawed Characters

I’d say most, if not all of us have fictional characters we can’t stand in the pop culture we love. Some characters just have personalities that grate on us, their flaws, or what we see as their flaws, too grating for us to take.

I say “what we see as their flaws” because, no matter how hard an author or creator tries to demonstrate a character as objectively flawed or no matter how strongly culture objects to and hates a character, it seems there will always be those out there who understand and defend that character’s actions. What may be seen as a horrific violation of societal norms by some, might be seen by others as the result of victimization by the same society.

Take, for example, the love many of us have for the villains.

Usually, popular villains are by design. Disney’s villains, for example, are often celebrated as the highlights of their movies. And, it seems, the more they break from pre-established social norms, the more they are beloved, or, at least, remembered.

And they had the best songs, too!

And they had the best songs, too!

Part of what makes Frollo from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame so memorable is that his motivation is sexuality mixed with Christian religious zealotry. That’s pretty deviant in the US where we’re more willing to show our children extreme violence than a nipple.

Other characters such as Ursula who is not only sexualized but celebrates her large, not-traditionally-feminine body, and Scar who defies his brother’s traditional masculinity are also memorable.

Characters that are only motivated by greed like Clayton from Tarzan, however, don’t really stick in the consciousness aside from his death. (Disney wasn’t satisfied with the sound of him hanging himself and Tarzan’s and Jane’s reactions to it. They had to show you the shadow of his swinging corpse.)

Similarly, villains who break stereotypes and norms by being, in the end, somewhat pathetic are often well loved.  Loki from Thor and The Avengers  gets a lot of love, in large part because it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy.

Personally, I thought Pitch Black in DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians was particularly hard to dislike because he spent so much of the movie just trying to become friends with Jack Frost. I mean, he was giving kids nightmares and making them not believe in Santa, but he was so lonely, and I felt pretty bad when he was taken out.

This is what’s known as woobie. For those who haven’t heard this term, here’s what tv tropes has to say:

A “woobie” is a name for any type of character who makes you feel extremely sorry for them. Basically, the first thing you think to say when you see the woobie is: “Aw, poor boy!” Woobification of a character is a curious, audience-driven phenomenon, sometimes divorced from the character’s canonical morality.

Yet, no matter how popular or consciously likable a villain is made, villains, by their design, are meant to be flawed. Writers may make those villains sympathetic, but you’re always supposed to feel its justified when those characters get their eventual comeuppance. Not happy, perhaps, but justified. Still, some of those villains are just damn hard to hate.

This is nothing new. Indeed, there’s an adjective often thrown about when people describe these eloquent, likable villains: “Shakespearean.”

Sir Ian McKellen as Nazi-inspired Richard III

Sir Ian McKellen as Nazi-inspired Richard III

Many a quality villain has been bequeathed with this honored title, and the connections between well speaking, psychologically developed, and/or beyond clever villains of popular culture and Shakespeare’s own memorable set are easy to make (not least of all because they all have British accents, and in America British=Evil).

Shakespeare has a long list of memorable characters who, throughout their individual plays, commit murder, treason, adultery, or just plain mess with everyone else. Indeed, several of these characters are their plays’ main protagonists or title characters.

I designed this a few years ago to make some quick bucks. Stare in awe at the stock font and hand-made word cloud!

I designed this on Cafe Press a few years ago. Stare in awe at the stock font and hand-made word cloud!

I remember taking a Shakespeare course as an undergrad where the professor described how the audience was supposed to root for Richard III in his play, and they were only to turn on him when he murdered his nephews (Spoilers, I guess? The play’s been out for a few…centuries…). Now, I’m sure there are others who would debate that, but the play is the Tragedy of Richard III, so, in order to fulfill the role of tragic character, as I understand it, you have to be rooting for the guy at some point. (Many have noted Richard III was likely not only not a villain [or a hunchback], but was actually a good king.)

Yet, for most of these villains, punishment must come in some form, and the audience is usually meant to accept it. You may have loved Scar, but he can’t get away with killing the coolest,nicest dad ever. Shakespeare may have written fully-formed, sometimes sympathetic murderers and traitors, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be punished. The punishment’s not always on stage, as in the cases of Iago from Othello and Don John from Much Ado About Nothing, but there is at least a passing remark that punishment awaits stage right.

Now, Shakespeare, in the context of this article, demonstrates more than just that there are, and have been, likable villains for a pretty long time. It is also through Shakespeare’s tragedies that many young high school students are introduced to some Aristotelean theories and tropes from the Greeks such as hubris. Along with hubris, students often find the world “hamartia” on their vocabulary lists.

Major examples of hamartia in literature

Hamartia was often described as a tragic flaw, especially in discussing Greek tragedy. Isabel Hyde discusses the type of hamartia Aristotle meant to define in the Modern Language Review, “Thus it may be said by some writers to be the ‘tragic flaw’ of Oedipus that he was hasty in temper; of Samson that he was sensually uxorious; of Macbeth that he was excessively ambitious; of Othello that he was proud and jealous – and so on… but these things do not constitute the ‘hamartia of those characters in Aristotle’s sense” (Hyde 321). This explains that Aristotle did not describe hamartia as an error of character, but as a moral mistake or ignorant error. Even J. L. Moles comments on the idea that hamartia is considered an error and states, “the modern view (at least until recently) that it means ‘error’, ‘mistake of fact’, that is, an act done in ignorance of some salient circumstances” (Moles 49).


Now, as Wikipedia states, there are more than one definition of Aristotle’s concept of the “tragic flaw.” Argued above is the concept that the “tragic flaw” constitutes one mistake or error. However, many have latched onto the idea of a “tragic flaw” as a tragic “character flaw” such as the above examples of Oedipus’s hastiness or Macbeth’s ambition.

One would note that there is usually a cause-and-effect relationship between the two definitions. An error committed by a character is often the effect of a particular character flaw.  It should also be noticed that hubris could fall under the umbrella of the second definition.

Whether you define them as “hamartia” or not, however, character flaws have long been proven an essential element of drama.

Reading a book, watching a TV show, or seeing a movie where every character is absolutely perfect is boring and leads to the dreaded adjective “Two-dimensional” when reviewers take to their keyboards.  Real people have flaws, which means we like characters who have flaws we can relate to.


For a variety of reasons, certain character flaws drive us up the wall.

One character flaw that seems to grate on many people’s nerves is over-eagerness. Fanboys and fangirls throughout media often seem set up for hatred, as their unceasing admiration often annoys protagonists, which, in turn, annoys us. When this is coupled with stupidity, the result can be…less than desirable.

And, to many, a bit racist.

And, to many, a bit racist.

Such a character that irritated me was Dobby from Harry Potter.

I may kill you trying to save you, Harry Potter, but love hurts sometimes.

I may kill you trying to save you, Harry Potter, but love hurts sometimes.

Now, I’ve heard Dobby has many fans. Since I didn’t read the books as they were being released, I don’t know how much of the Dobby love I saw was consistent throughout the series or how much of it was based on people feeling bad that he died. [Edit: I’ve been told he was indeed popular from the get go.]

Personally, I was frustrated almost every time he showed up because the book always ground to a halt. Additionally, character’s that are pretty much defined by loving another character don’t always work out for me.

Yet, there is something appealing about such characters. Again, I’d say woobie is playing a factor for most of these fanboy/girl characters who are constantly rejected but the objects of their affection. Many see these characters deal with disappointment while usually maintaining something of an upbeat attitude, and this makes certain audiences want to hug and coddle them all the more.

Helga G. Pataki, for one.

Though, as much as I liked her, the gum sculpture was a little hard swallow. GET IT?

Though, as much as I liked her, the gum sculpture was a little hard swallow. GET IT?

In many ways, Helga’s stalking and obsession with Arnold could have been way more annoying than Dobby’s. She was certainly more persistent. So, why don’t I dislike her character? Well, I think a large part is the exposure level. Having read all of HP in a month, I was pretty saturated in those books, so little annoyances became exponentially more frustrating. There’s also the fact that Dobby had the misfortune of being in Chamber of Secrets the movie that, according to Honest Trailers, “everybody hates.”

Additionally, I thought Helga’s obsession was slightly better presented. It was in a cartoon that already had exaggerated characters and scenarios, so it fit in. Helga’s pain was also more relatable. Dobby, as a slave, was clearly pitiable, but in a way that’s much harder for audiences to empathize with him. (Note, I say empathize not sympathize.)

Interestingly, though, many have commented (and it often seems so in practice), that we tend to be much harder on female characters than we are male characters. Their character flaws tend to annoy us more than male characters’ flaws, while female characters without flaws are judged more harshly than male characters without flaws. (See “Mary Sue“)

One person who’s analyzed this created this post on tumblr. The post is a slide show by tumblr user feministtv titled Female Characters, Trauma, and You: A guide to understanding the motivations of female characters you hate, and it uses Skyler White (Breaking Bad), Debra Morgan (Dexter), Sansa Stark (Game of Thrones), Tara Thornton (True Blood), and Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as examples. Of interest is the first slide (after the title), “Why Does it Matter?” which lays out several points:

When female characters experience trauma on television, they often act like, well, people who have experienced trauma

This can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways (just like in real life)

However, female characters who react to their various tramatic experiences are usually the characters most hated by fandom

The shows themselves often set their female leads up to be stigmatized and ridiculed for reacting to disturbing events, which feeds fan reactions

This is because many reactions to inherently traumatic events include traits that are stereotypically seen as “feminine” or “weak”

In contrast, white male reactions to tram are often valorized or romanticized; for example the reactions of Mad Men’s Don Draper to his traumatic childhood (including his treatment of women) are glamorized

Would it surprise you to know that this is whats [sic] known as a gendered expectation and is actually rooted in sexist double standards?

And the last slide, “In conclusion” which includes additional, summarizing statements:

-Perceptions of character reactions to trauma are gendered and often racialized

-Female characters are also more likely to be underwritten (because the vast majority of tv writers are white men who would rather write about white men)

-Underwritten female characters are often reduced solely to the trauma they experience and are not given character attributes or agency outside of it

-This fuels fan perception of female characters who experience trauma as weak, whiny, self-centered, bitchy shrews, which is apparently easier to do than sympathize or attempt to understand the character

-Think about why you are inclined to hate certain female characters, and question what gendered expectations you may ascribe to them

Now, as with the “I hate Strong Female Characters” article I referenced in my last post, I think there are some overarching assumptions here. For example, I, personally, feel gendered expectations can and do affect our respect for certain male characters that we believe should “man up” or stop “being a pussy.” That being said, as the above tumblr user states, these male characters are often better, or more completely written than female characters who respond in similar ways, and I rarely see the hatred of these male characters at quite the vitriol it can be for many female characters. The same can be said for expectations of poc characters, as was briefly mentioned above. People see black characters or latino or asian characters acting in certain ways in media, and assume those characters represent more than just individual characters, but rather their entire races.

The hatred of female characters extends beyond characters whose gendered reactions to trauma we find grating. Many female characters who mostly fall outside feminine stereotypes get the same hatred.

For example, a while back there was someone commenting on various articles about Legend of Korra who took pleasure in making the same argument (seriously, I think he copy-and-pasted the thing from article to article) about how Korra’s character flaws were a sign of what’s wrong with modern feminism.

Yet, so many didn't "deal with it" little Korra.

Yet, so many didn’t “deal with it,” little Korra.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Korra is a very flawed character. She’s brash, impatient, talks back to her elders, and tends to believe the best way to solve any problem is by hitting it. She also, after being given advice to do so, professes her love to a character who already has a girlfriend (you may remember my discussion of the love square here).

There are people out there who loath this character. They hate that she’s not as peaceful or wise as the previous avatar. The hate that she talks back and doesn’t follow orders. They hate that she kissed (yes she kisses him) a guy who had a girlfriend.

These are all flaws the aforementioned commenter ascribed to the problems with modern feminism, which implies that these flaws have something to do with the character being female.

But, here’s the thing, at least to me. Don’t we have many, many male characters who engage in similar behavior? I mean, disrespecting superiors, acting without thinking, heck, even pursuing women already in relationships, all these actions are not exactly beyond the realm of our imaginations. Now, if the argument was that this was poorly executed as it is for many fans (and I agree, some aspects could have been done better), I  understand. But arguing that feminism is to blame demonstrates this added layer of expectations people have when they are presented with female characters. Then, when Korra does act in some stereotypically female ways such as crying when she’s stressed or upset, those who dislike her non-feminine traits hate her even more.

Korra isn’t alone. Many people had similar reactions to Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica (the series from the early 2000s) who acted in very similar ways (though, BSG being a show for older audiences, there were the added elements of drinking, smoking, and having sex).

Oh, Starbuck. You can never be happy.

Oh, Starbuck. You can never be happy.

It should be noted, however, that, as much hate as these female characters get, they are far more liked than characters exhibiting the traits described by feministtv’s post. Starbuck was, as far as I can tell coming to the series late, a fan favorite character, and it seems like there are always one or two Korra cosplayers at cons these days.

Yet, even those characters in feministtv’s slide show have fans, or, at least, sympathizers. And this comes back to one of my original points.

No character is universally loved or hated. Even Jar Jar Binks has his fans. We all have different reasons for liking/hating characters based on our own personal tastes, moralities, and cultural identities, and we should examine what those are.

Yes, just as I said we should think critically about why we love certain things in my guilty pleasures post, I also think we should think critically about why we hate (and love) certain characters as feministtv suggests.

Do we hate a character because they deviate from social norms? Do we love them for that?

Do we hate a character for their representation of a race/gender? If so, is it because they’re perpetuating stereotypes?

Do we hate a character because they’re stupid, overzealous, or in some other way annoying? Do we feel bad for them because of that?

Do we hate a character based on the context in which we were introduced to that character? Would we have liked them if introduced in a different way?

Or, do we hate a character simply because they’re just badly written? Why do we think they were badly written, if that’s the case?

For many of us, I’d wager, disliking a character seems very instinctual. Certain characters just rub us the wrong way, and we can never get over our initial negative reaction to the character.

The thing is, many of our “instincts” when it comes to liking or hating people, fictional or otherwise, come from sources that have little to do with that particular person and are, instead, often the result of deeply engrained biases both personal and cultural.

Now, I’m not saying we have to stop hating all those characters we didn’t like before, but maybe, just maybe, we should give them another look just like most of us do after the sometimes initial negative first impressions we have of other real people.

And, if you still hate the character after giving them another chance, that’s ok. Just remember that you will, at some point, talk to someone sympathetic toward that character, so try not to let your dislike of a fictional character spill over into your dislike of other real people.

After all, unless you’re a complete slave to other’s opinions, there’s a good chance you love a character that someone else hates.

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