Today I want to talk about personality flaws that authors hesitate to give their protagonists. This topic is more of an opinion piece based on my own observations of society and the writing world in general.
Here is a crazy idea: your protagonists can be racist, homophobic, sexist, or best friends with others who are. Hold on now, don’t light your torches and search out your pitchforks just yet. Hear me out on this one.
We all know that to make our characters relatable, or seem more realistic and human, we have to give them a few flaws. Some writers would rather play it safe and make them bite their nails or suffer from depression. Okay, sure, these work, but real people are far more flawed. Today’s society is more woke about how we have treated others in the past who are slightly different than us, or even how they are still being treated. We see sexism and call people out on it. We get angry about racist Facebook posts. We go on rants about how homelessness is a serious problem. Here is the thing we tend to forget while we are up on our soap boxes: the people with these harmful world views are not necessarily bad people.
Go ahead, bring the arguments. “Oh, Marie done lost her mind! Of course racist people are bad. How can they not be?” That’s just the thing though: they don’t see themselves as bad. Authors have made a point of making villains more relatable and human over the years. A serial killer who loves kittens. A school bully who lashes out because of issues at home. Just look at Thanos from the Avengers movies; he killed half the universe but honestly thought that he was helping in the end. He felt the weight of what he had done, knew the price, but in his mind it was worth it because this was the only way to save the universe that he could see. It’s all about point of view.
So, if a villain can have good points, why can’t a hero have bad ones? I know racist people in real life. I know a few in particular that are kind and giving souls. They go out of their way to help others, they work hard at their jobs, they even donate items to charity. They aren’t bad people in general. Until you bring up other races, then they are suddenly going on and on about how people they don’t know or associate with are ruining the world. They are wrong, yes. But does that discredit everything else about them,?
Children aren’t born hating anyone. You want to find a group of the most accepting members of society? Go to a pre-k class and watch kids give each other hugs, hold hands, and not be ashamed to give a kiss to someone of the same sex. Adults are the ones that tell them what they believe is right and wrong. We instill these beliefs on our kids, the helpful and the harmful. Why?
Sometimes our hate stems from fear. It is a universal fact that we as humans tend to fear things that are strange to us, things we don’t quite understand. History shows us that. Strange customs of a foreign people are not what we are used to, are beyond what we understand, so we immediately dislike them. Animal sacrifice for religion? That sounds barbaric! That religion is evil!
Sometimes we just need something to hate. I know people who hate their own lives so much that they literally hang on to their hate for others because it is all they have going for them. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning. There is no real reason for it besides their own self-loathing causing them to reach for something outside themselves to latch onto, to throw all that anger at. “I hate the blacks!” “Um, do you know any black people?” “No, of course not, I hate them!” Yeah, okay.
What makes a person pinpoint a certain group of people to hate? Was a white man once mugged by a Latino man, and now he thinks that all Latinos are evil? Did that homeless woman give you the evil eye when you didn’t offer her change as you passed by? Did the lesbian at work get the promotion you thought you deserved? In most cases, it isn’t anything that extreme. Again, most of the time, it is what we are taught by others. The media influences us strongly, more so than we might think. Are we watching a television station that constantly throws out their own opinion about certain groups of people on air?
As a writer, ask yourself what might motivate your character to be sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. Personal experiences that scarred them? Pressure from the community they live in to think and feel a certain way? Parental misguidance? Fear of the unknown and misunderstood?
I am in no way saying that these points of view are in any way right. I am not promoting these harmful ideas at all. What I am trying to say is that if you want to write that gritty, real-life story then you need to have realistic characters in there. For every person of color or person with a different sexual orientation in your story, there could be someone who hates that person. Why would they hate a certain type of person and yet still be considered the protagonist? Because they are wrong not evil. Not every racist person goes around bombing Muslim churches. Every homophobic person doesn’t shoot up a gay nightclub. Just like every Christian isn’t some extremist who goes out of their way to make people of other religions miserable or physically harm them in some way. Flat-Earthers are wrong but we don’t see them as evil, do we? Your ignorance or set of beliefs doesn’t necessarily define you as a person. They don’t define your characters so much either. Their actions do. Keep that in mind.
Here is another unpopular idea: the character doesn’t have to change their mind by the end of the story. Every story you write doesn’t have to have some kind of moral lesson. People are people and guess what: it is damn near impossible to change a person’s opinion about something. I know, shocker, right? Unless you are writing children’s books or young adult, good luck convincing your audience that an adult is suddenly going to “see the error of their ways” and change their mind about how they view the world. It would take an extreme situation for that to happen and let’s face it, most changes are not for the better. You know, that whole fear thing.