Can Readers Love a “Flawed” Hero?

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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When I was first conjuring the characters in Wicked Company and mulling over how I would weave both fictional and historical figures into the story of an 18th c.  woman playwright fighting to get her works written and performed at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I thought about some of the men of that era whose lives clearly could be fodder for a novelist’s imagination and well as an historian’s.

Take the 18th c. poet Robert Burns, for example, who figured in my first historical novel, Island of the Swans.  He was an astonishingly good-looking man, from all accounts and surviving pictorial representations.  He also had a reputation for loving the ladies–some of whom were not his wife–and according to the research, there was much gossip surrounding his relationship with my heroine, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.

However, my reading of the facts was that the duchess supported his artistic endeavors, helping to get his first book of poems published in Edinburgh, but held him at arm’s length.  Thus, he was not the “hero” in the novel and  so I avoided the issue of whether readers can appreciate a lead character who actually lived on this planet, and yet could not be described as a “man of moral character.”

It is part of the territory when writing historical fiction that there is constant tension between creating a compelling story and balancing the historical facts as best we are able to determine them. Readers of novels tend to want their heroes “heroic”–unless they are lovable “anti-heroes,” which can sometimes work but is very tricky to pull off.  For me, I enjoy working through the flaws as the story’s arc shows the characters growing and changing while the novel unfolds.

However, sometimes a character is fascinating, but simply not “hero” material to my way of thinking.  For instance, in Wicked Company, Richard Sheridan of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame was a contemporary of my composite heroine, Sophie McGann, a female character drawn from the biographies of several working women playwrights of the day.  However, Sheridan had a character flaw that I couldn’t stomach.  Yes, he was a compelling gent, not too bad looking as you see here, and of course, a prodigious talent , but in my research I concluded that he basically “borrowed”–with no credit–the famous Mrs. Malaprop character in The Rivals from one his own mother had originally created in a play that failed to pass the censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office!  Interesting, yes.  A hero in my book, NO!

In the end, I created a fictional hero, Hunter Robertson, to go with my fictional heroine, but he, too, is noted for his lapses.  Most notable among them is a fair amount of emotional baggage carried over from his youth that prevents him, early in the novel, from seeing what is obvious to the reader:  that he and Sophie are destined for each other–a state of affairs he ultimately begins to comprehend when they both become involved in the theater in the beautiful spa city of Bath where, believe it or not, in the 18th c. there were co-ed bathing facilities! (Note the lady holding on to her hat in the upper right of the image).

But to a writer, those flaws Hunter possessed were what kept the writing interesting for me, especially when they’re rooted in conflicts and tragedies going back to a period of his childhood he wanted to forget:  a time when his mother chose which of her children to give the meager supply of food during “the starving” in the Highlands of Scotland that came in the wake of the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to claim the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales.

I love Hunter Robertson–flaws and all–and I think readers will too, knowing on some level that he will eventually come to terms with his difficult past, recognize Sophie for the valiant, gifted woman she is, and fall madly in love with her.  Until that happens, his role is to save her from herself (and her hot temper), as well as find his own path as a creative talent in the boisterous, turbulent London theater world.

For me, heroes are more interesting if they’re not perfect and totally “heroic,” straight out of the gate.  Perhaps this is what keeps readers interested in the mystery of how in the world Hunter and Sophie are  going to overcome the obstacles facing a “two-career couple” in the eighteenth century!

Truly, nothing much changes, despite our claim to modernity.

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