Articles about how to write flawed or antiheroic characters usually focus on how to make them acceptable to readers: pit them against worse antagonists, show them transgressing arbitrary rules or challenging an oppressive status quo (I have some added suggestions). But I think it’s also sometimes difficult for us as writers to find them acceptable.
The classic example of this is Star Wars (or Episode IV: A New Hope if you insist). Early in the film (as you probably all know), a bounty hunter named Greedo confronts Han Solo with an eye to collecting the bounty on him. Han draws a gun under the table and shoots Greedo, killing him. It’s not a gunfight; Greedo wasn’t attempting to kill him (though it’s obvious he was ready to) so Han shooting first isn’t self-defense as we usually define it. It shows he’s not a classic hero like Flash Gordon, who’d never have stooped to a dirty trick like that.
Later, though, George Lucas decided that he just couldn’t have one of his heroes do that, and edited the later editions so Greedo shot first. And claimed, falsely, that he’d always planned it that way. Apparently he got retroactive cold feet.
Steve Ditko was similarly uncomfortable with Spider-Man being a fallible regular guy. It was fine to have Spider-Man screw-up and struggle with doing the right thing when he was a high-schooler, but after that? Ditko wanted someone who’d fight for the right without question or pause, and wouldn’t get the wrong end of the lollipop time after time. Ditko was a devout objectivist; while apparently his concept of objectivism stretched to allow for Peter acting unselfishly, but (I gather) he wanted him to be more like the confident super-achievers of Rand’s novels.
Me, I think Greedo shot first. And Stan Lee’s take on Spidey was the right one. Even so, I suspect lots of writers, myself included, grapple with the same kind of questions as Ditko and Lucas. It’s not just about what will sell but what we’re comfortable writing. There’s a whole bunch of slurs I’m not comfortable using, even if it’s appropriate for the character speaking and for the era and situation (I have used them sometimes, but it’s an effort). When I reprinted The Sword of Darcy in Atlas Shagged I rewrote it to have Robert E. Howard Darcy a little less aggressive in the scenes with Elizabeth Bennett. Yeah, he’s Conan with the serial numbers filed off, but him grabbing her in one scene left me feeling like things were a little too non-consensual (I think rewriting got the balance right). I did the same for some of the sex scenes in Dark Satanic Mills.
What Ditko and Lucas was grappling with was more a sense of what a hero should be. Is it okay to fight dirty if you’re on the right side? To put your family first? To take a day off? To enjoy the adulation as much as the good you do? And what are the acceptable flaws? Overconfidence or arrogance work better than, say, writing a repentant racist.
This one of those questions where the right answer depends on who’s writing the story.
#SFWA. Spider-Man cover by Ditko. All rights to images remain with current holder.