The Lousy Hero?

We love our protagonists, our hero/heroines.  Why else would we write about them?
Writers often create lead characters that they like, or would like to be like, a good person with problems, someone sympathetic, maybe even adorable, certainly spunky.   But I believe the writer who doggedly creates the good-as-can-be hero/ine path is short-changing his or her work and development as a writer, as well, of course, as the reader.

What about adding serious flaws to your “good” character, give him/her self-caused problems to battle instead of the problems all coming from the dastardliness of others or vagaries of fate?  Battling ourselves is at least as interesting as battling the bad guys ‘n gals.  The problems can be more difficult than bad parents or misleading friends, Martians, Corpo-types, nature-gone-wild, Vampirish Werewolves, the government, the greed of others, etc.

Too often I’ve heard in critique groups, “I just don’t like the main character; why would I want to read about him/her?”  Well, I suppose that’s a legitimate perspective and has some audience out there in reader-land.  But writing a nasty antihero, can help deepen your understanding of character and bring greater dimension to your work.  Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art:  Thoughts on writing says, “…it helps if your character is average lousy but with striking contrasts and excellent elements.”

Badness is a juicy role.  We hate these characters because we love to hate them.   They’re so interesting.  Donald E. Westlake (<i>The Ax</i>, <i>The Hook</i>, and, writing as Richard Stark for the Parker mysteries) loved to use anti-heroes with few, if any, redeeming qualities.  But a large part of Westlake’s genius was in leading us to understand these “bad” guys, even seeing how we, his readers, could become so twisted as to kill the way they did.  Although, the frequency of their killing leads us again to doubt our changing opinion of them.  We as readers are in a rocking boat on a turbulent sea.  Isn’t that a great feeling while safe at home or the beach or (?) reading a book or Kindle/Nook/iPad/smart phone?

How do you feel about bad guy/gal protagonists?  Do they turn you off or intrigue you?  Who’s your favorite?  Have you tried to write one?  I welcome comments and will reply.

Is the morality story still with us?

“All men are moral.  Only their neighbors are not.”

John Steinbeck’s works overflow with wisdom.  The quote above comes from The Winter of Our Discontent, which to my mind is a beautifully earthy, down-home rendition of a moral person (character) who is gravely tempted to stretch his morality beyond the point of breaking.  I think Steinbeck is saying that people tend to see themselves as “better” than others, noting the flaws of others while being mostly blind to their own.  Note that he uses the “all men are moral” as a set up for the punchline.

Writers, of course, can take advantage of this “truth,” to the extent that we “know” it.   Our characters often become more engaging to the extent that they are blind to their own foibles.  Of course, we writers are also human, and so are not immune in “real life” to our own, much less our characters’, short-comings.
(NOTE:  Quotation marks are used herein “merely” to mark the words and phrases that are either satiric or a matter of opinion.)

Which of your favorite, or otherwise, contemporary writers—say, 1990 to the present—offer such moral gems that lead or push us to consider and weigh their truth?  Or is that simply not the mode of contemporary fiction, as Norman Mailer says?