Broken, Awkward, Incompetent, Mismatched Heroes: Why We Need Them in Stories

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I’m not sure what the umbrella term for these types of characters should be. Atypical heroes? Messy heroes?

Well, whatever the term, I adore them. And my love grows stronger every time I come across a protagonist who’s graduated from the academy of perfect heroes. You know–the shiny put-together ones. The ones whose mistakes are just tiny blips in their character designed to further the plot.

My first issue with those characters is that I’m kind of bored of them. Selfish, I know. But I think I’ve seen and read enough of them to last me a lifetime.

My second issue (and probably the more pertinent of the two because it goes beyond “Well, I think it’s boring, so YOU should think it’s boring too!”) is that they spearhead the idea that the only way to be a hero in your story–to win the battles, collect the friendships, score the romance, change the world for the better–is to be confident, bold, determined, to always know what to say at the right times, and have an emergency stash of witty quips in your pockets.

And if you occasionally say the wrong things or step out in the wrong direction? Well, hey, no worries! They’re nothing permanent! Your weaknesses only exist as temporary obstacles to overcome so you can scratch another notch on your Badass Post.

But what about the rest of us?

Because there are many faces to heroism and not all of them involve being extroverted or confident or even necessarily good. Maybe they’re a hero who has crippling shyness and social anxiety. Maybe they’re just not super into the idea of quests and adventures. Maybe they’re trying so hard to be perfect and unflappable that it’s breaking them from the inside out.

So some quick bullet points on why I love these characters and why I want to see more of them:

  • They’re relatable. I mean, that’s kind of the biggest reason, right? As humans we’re all messy and imperfect, and we like seeing that reflected in media.
  • They can force you to look at a well-worn genre from a new angle.Take The Adventure Zone podcast, for example. Thanks to a cast of lovable idiots who could have been pulled out of a sitcom, your typical D&D fantasy story turns into a feel-good, slice-of-life, goofball comedy of hilarious mistakes and equally hilarious successes.And Bright Sessions, which is another (incredible) fiction podcast and one that runs with the idea of superpowered people going to therapy. It’s most definitely scifi, but the characters aren’t your usual X-Men variety, in that they’re messy in every sense of the word and everyone’s dealing with something. It’s almost like a self-help guide disguised as a scifi story and I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.

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  • They show us that no matter who you are–how successful and powerful and magical–being a hero doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Having powers doesn’t preclude you from having doubts. Being strong doesn’t shield you from being broken. And there’s comfort to be found there. We can look at that and feel less alone in our struggles.

 

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Now let’s look at some of the specific character types and examples of them in media!

The Incompetent Hero

A story starring an incompetent hero doesn’t have to be a comedy of errors. Nor does it mean they should stay incompetent from beginning to end.

For me, it means being thrust into a position the character is wholly unprepared for and every step from there on is a hard, awkward learning process riddled with stumbling blocks and many steps backwards. And maybe it takes them a little longer to pick up on certain skills–things like politicking and swordplay don’t come overnight (or overweek or overmonth). Side characters may even have to help prop them up until they can stand on their own. And just as in real life, there’s nothing shameful about that.

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Sansa Stark from ASoIAF/GoT is the biggest example that comes to mind: a sheltered girl who likes pretty boys and the lure of the city and is very good at embroidery. A girl who’s thrown into a pit of vipers and tries her best to learn and survive.

Sansa has also unwittingly become the biggest example of the issue surrounding people’s response to these fish-out-of-water characters, usually the female ones–that they’re annoying and useless and whiny and “Why doesn’t she do x and y and z?” and “Arya is SO much better.” (On the flip side, if they’re “too competent” they’re called Mary Sues. Female characters just can’t catch a fucking break, can they?)

A character who’s bad at something doesn’t make them a bad character. It makes them normal. Relatable. Human. And while a quiet story about learning and survival may not be as a exciting for people as one with swordfights, it’s nonetheless a journey of courage and strength.

I find it interesting (read: frustrating) that WW2 fiction nowadays are often filled with fish-out-of-water heroes and readers gobble them up, and yet when it comes to speculative fiction–fantasy and scifi, especially–people have so little patience for them. Which kind of makes sense–different readership, different expectations–but also not at all, because shouldn’t we expect more incompetent characters in a world that demands that they win wars, fight/befriend dragons, and juggle fire balls all at the same time?

 

“I’m Fine (But Really, I’m Breaking Inside)” Hero

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I see the “I’m FINE” trait more often with side characters than main ones which is kind of a shame. The fun thing about these characters is that from the outside they resemble your typical heroes: proactive, capable, and confident. But peel back some layers and you start to see cracks, which then resolve into chasms.

These are characters who try so damn hard to project an aura of okayness, both to themselves and to others, that they can’t tell where the pretense ends and where their real feelings begin.

Karin Lowachee does this beautifully with Jos Musey in Warchild, as does Seth Dickinson with the indelible Baru Fisher in Baru Cormorant. And if you want non-speculative stories (because heroes can exist outside of SFF settings), Neil Josten in All for the Games series is another great example.

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“Baby, I’m a Fuck-Up” Hero

This part got LONG so I cut some of it out and will probably make a separate post on it at some point. But here’s the gist: we need more fictional characters who fuck up. It’s especially important nowadays when social media has us privy to every morsel of success your friends and family and random strangers have achieved. The amount of pressure that’s placed on young people to get the perfect grades, get accepted into this and that college, get ‘x’ number of degrees by the age ‘y’ is ridiculous and makes you feel like there’s zero room for mistakes. Either you walk that tightrope from end to end or you crash and burn. There’s no in-between. And seeing more of these kinds of heroes in media might have saved me an ambulance bill.

And people can say that’s giving fiction too much credit, but here’s the thing: art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a product of our world and it, in turn, feeds back into the world as a reflection of the things we want to see more of. And if we see more characters in books and movies and games who genuinely mess up and are made stronger for it, then that’s kind of an invitation to ourselves to be less fearful and more forgiving of our failures.

And I honestly believe that can save lives.

Some wonderful examples of these characters include Millie Roper from The Arcadia Project series, who I would give my left arm for, and Mae Borowski from the gameΒ  Night in the Woods. She’s a pansexual college-dropout with depression, and I would happily give my other arm for her.

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Awkward, Antisocial, and Shy Hero

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Eliot of In Other Lands is unlike any other protagonist I’ve come across in YA fantasy. To be blunt, he starts out as a kind of a little shithead: he’s prickly and awkward, says the wrong things at the wrong times, makes the worst first impressions and consistently gets on people’s nerves. But it works because it doesn’t come from a place of “I’m doing this because I’m an asshole and want to fuck with people,” but rather, “I’m terrible with social interactions and I feel out of place in this world.”

And how beautiful and necessary is it to see a teenage hero who’s not all that nice?

These characters tell you that it’s okay that you don’t know what to say or how to act in certain situations. You’ll step on the wrong feet and piss people off and that’s fine because that’s life and you’ll learn from it (hopefully).

And seeing that kind of sentiment in media is such a weight off your back, you know? Especially when you’re young and still trying to figure yourself out.

 

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Murderbot from The Murderbot Diaries

People adore this series and for good reason. Personally it doesn’t do much new in terms of plot and worldbuilding (from what I’ve read so far anyway. I still have two books to go), but character-wise it’s everything. Because the story is all about murderbot, and murderbot would much rather spend its time alone watching dramas than interacting with a group of people. I mean, come on–an awkward, introverted protagonist in scifi? And an A.I. at that??

Why isn’t that more of a thing in fiction?

 

 

 

“Save the World? Sorry, I Can’t. I Have to Wash My Hair” Hero

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AKA reluctant heroes.

So, I have this weird attraction to the scenario of characters being offered the role of aΒ  hero or Chosen One or whatever, and them responding with, “Thanks but no thanks” because they feel that there are more important things to worry about. Like, take some penniless college student trying to juggle six classes per semester along with a part-time job, and then one day a Chosen One Messenger bursts through their door yelling, “Guess what, Harry? Yer a–”

“Chosen One. Yeah, I know. And what’s the monthly salary on that?”

“Er, well. You’ll earn satisfaction in the knowledge that your actions will herald the salvation of– “

“Wow, tempting! But I think I’ll pass.”

“This isn’t an optional–“

“Plus, I’m not really Chosen One material, you know? I mean, the other day I dropped my Starbucks cup on the way to chem class and didn’t even bother to pick it up. I don’t think you want a litterer as the poster child for your quest, do you?”

“Well, it’s not–“

“Try the guy next door. He volunteers at the animal shelter or something so he’s, like, literally saving puppies and kittens in his spare time. There’s your Chosen One.”

“But–“

“Also, my name’s not Harry.”

…Ahem. Sorry, I got carried away.

But yes, reluctant heroes! Heroes who, for whatever reason–maybe because they’re afraid of fighting, maybe they’re super busy and this whole quest business is incredibly disruptive to their livelihood, maybe they just really like sleeping in during the weekends–aren’t all that enthused about their new role.

It’s not that they have a disdain for the continued survival of humanity. It’s just that, in their world, “continued survival of humanity” ranks a few entries below things like “Pass the ochem exam” and “Don’t mess up that date on Friday” and “Do something about the gnomes that are eating all the vegetables in the garden.”

I love them because they’re relatable and cathartic and exude Tired Millennial energy. And sometimes I feel like there’s an unspoken rule that SFF heroes need to be eager adrenaline junkies and glory hounds. And those are great! They’re fun! But not everyone wants to risk their lives to save the world. Not everyone wants to be kings and queens and politicians and insert themselves into every major event that shakes up a nation. Some people just want to live their lives peacefully in relative comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Jalan from the
Red Queen’s War series is a great example of how such a character can be done well. At the start of the story, his life basically boils down to gorgeous women, good food, comfortable bed, and …that’s…about it. That’s the height of his aspiration. Well, until he gets dragged into a war against his will. Then he adds “Don’t die” to the list.

While Jalan grows as a person over the course of the series, he still remains true to who he is, in that he’s not going to be leading nations and giving inspirational speeches anytime soon. Yet he’s still, against all odds, a hero.

And I find that super endearing.

 

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And there you go! What are your thoughts on these characters? Send me all your juicy, juicy thoughts!

 

55 thoughts on “Broken, Awkward, Incompetent, Mismatched Heroes: Why We Need Them in Stories

  1. jeanleesworld says:

    Great article! I’m just getting ready to write about another kind of flawed hero, m’self. Can’t wait to reread one of my fav serieseseses! (Seriously, how does one say the plural of “series”? Is it like “moose,” or “fish”? So confused…)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Justine says:

    I definitely agree that these characters are needed. I think the incompetent hero and the awkward/shy/anti-social hero are the characters I tend to fall for the most. I’ve been obsessed with Sansa for the longest time because she isn’t the typical badass. I actually liked that she was a whiny brat before because I think a lot of people are like that when they were younger (or at least I was). And I’ve loved murderbot ever since they felt awkward and out of place while sitting with the humans they just rescued lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Totally! And I think people forgot how young Sansa (and everyone else) was at the beginning of the series. Like, no one should expect a 13/14 year old to be super poised and make all the right decisions. Same with Dany. They’re teenage girls trying to navigate politics and war–I think they’re entitled to some whining every now and then. Or everyday because BOY, they go through some stressful stuff.

      And omg murderbot. There was a line in book 1 about how everyone was being so nice and it was such a painful experience, and that was when I was like “MARRY ME”

      Like

  3. 24hr.YaBookBlog says:

    What a wonderful discussion!! As an aspiring writer I’ve been thinking about this a lot too and incorporating it into my own stories actually!! + I love that you brought up The Bright Sessions–they are all battling something in their own way, but its so inspiring to follow them on their journeys…I love the TBS crew a lot!! πŸ˜­πŸ’ž

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A Storm Of Pages says:

    Yes, given me reluctant, incompetent heroes any day! I’m so tired of Chosen Ones who are immediately extremely skilled and capable, despite having no time or background to actually get the abilities they suddenly use to win the day against much more advanced adversaries!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. acquadimore says:

    I agree with everything you said, but especially with the point you made about female characters not being able to catch a breath. I am so annoyed by the amount of reviews of YA books that complain about the heroine being weak or inexperienced. What do they expect teenagers to be like? (I also read a review of a middle grade that called the 13-year-old main character “impulsive and stupid”, so I guess it can get worse.)

    I think over-competent main characters can be fun, but they really shouldn’t be the only option. I know that characters who mess up are “unlikable” for many, but I don’t get the likable/not likable divide to begin with. I don’t have to be their roommate, I want to read a story that feels real, and unless they’re an extreme cases of terribleness in a narrative that considers them good/normal and lets them get away with everything, I don’t see the problem – making mistakes is human.

    Also, same about Millie. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      I’m sorry, my brain is stuck on “13 year old” and “impulsive and stupid.” That is……wow. Do people not remember what they were like when *they* were in their tweens/teens??

      “I don’t have to be their roommate.” Exactly! I guess I kind of get where people are coming from with the likeable/unlikable divide. When you’re reading to escape from the real world it helps to have a main character that you actually like. But I don’t understand why mistakes have to equate to unlikable. Like, *I* mess up constantly and I like to think that I’m…well, if not likeable then at least bearable. πŸ˜›

      But yeah, humans are super complex and we react to the world in an infinite number of ways–some of them good, some bad and many of them defying clear-cut labels–which I think is incredible and I just want to see more of that reflected in stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. maddalena@spaceandsorcery says:

    Yes, perfect heroes are boring – and predictable. For me the best kind of heroes are represented by average people who have to face exceptional circumstances and do so to the best of their abilities, being aware of their shortcomings but soldiering on anyway. And their stories are the ones I find most intriguing… πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sophie @ Me and Ink says:

    Ahh… I love this post. I think messy heroes are the best– so relatable and endearing!! I will pick them over the perfect ones any day!! I agree with all your reasons to why I love them and I love that is shows you that struggling is part of being a hero. Also I just started listening to the bright sessions podcast– I’m on season 2 and loving it!! 😊
    Incompetent characters are great as it shows that not everyone is an expert on these things and can’t pick them up quickly– also their learning curve is great!!
    The I’m fine ones are good too– I think it captures so many emotions and is definitely relatable as people say they are fine all the time when they really aren’t. Neil Josten is a perfect example– the king of ‘I am fine’ πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚
    Yes– we need characters that make mistakes as the pressure to be perfect is real so it would be nice to see characters in books that mess up. I will have to check out those books!!
    And I like characters who are reluctant heroes as well– they are relatable and great to read about!!
    I loved this post– it was so good! πŸ’›

    Like

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Thank you so much Sophie!!!! And ahhhh I’m so happy to hear you’re loving The Bright Sessions! The characters are all just so lovable, aren’t they? 😊 And I’m sure you know, but there’s a novelization of Caleb and Adam’s storyline that’s coming out soon and I’m SO excited. And haha Neil Josten is 100% my spirit animal.

      Also, somehow your comment ended up being marked as spam! And I’m wondering the comments you make on other blogs are also landing in their spam folder too? So just a heads-up! Because I know a lot of bloggers are having this issue lately.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sophie @ Me and Ink says:

        You’re so welcome– it was an awesome post!! Yes it is so great– the characters are wonderful and they are really lovable. I’m interested in Damien as I listened to his first one the other day– I thought his voice was really well done as it conveyed parts of his personality so well. I have heard about the book coming out and I’m very excited– I really like Caleb and I think his power is so interesting!!
        Yes Neil is amazing!!
        Thank you for telling me– I have noticed some of my comments haven’t been going through. It’s a shame other bloggers are having this issue as well. Thank you again for telling me!! ❀

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

        OMG YES, Damien is my favourite of the cast!! I kind of feel bad saying that because I adore all of them (and this is like saying which of my children I love the most :P), but he’s just such a super interesting character and, like you said, his voice actor does an *incredible* job.

        And no worries!! I didn’t even think to check my spam folder until someone told me, and I’ve had to rescue several comments since. WordPress is strange sometimes lol.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Nicole Evans says:

    I love this! Though I still love your traditional hero every now and then, I agree with you on all of these points and would LOVE to see a wider range of heroes in fiction, 110%.

    And, fantastically written, as always. ❀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Thanks Nicole!!!! ❀ And oh, for sure! I'm always a little afraid that whenever I write these posts that someone will be like, "oh, so because you want more of X, you hate Y!" (but that's never happened yet so yay :D) I just think people are complex and we have much variety to offer to the world and I just want to see more of that reflected in our stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nicole Evans says:

        Oh gosh, I hope I didn’t come off that way (and I am right there with you, for sure). But yes, I agree, 100%!! Hopefully the stories will continue to be complex and diverse and varied!

        Like

  9. May @ Forever and Everly says:

    Oh, I love this post so much, Kathy! I definitely am tired of seeing the “perfect” heroes in books (but I do love the point you brought up about female characters being subject to a double standard), and the character archetypes you mentioned are definitely my favorite! I think some of my favorite heroes are antiheroes, because I can NEVER get enough of moral greyness and ambiguity. But I do have a soft spot for the Neil Josten types, because I love Neil so much πŸ˜­πŸ’• Fantastic post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Thank you, May!!! I definitely feel like female characters get scrutinized with a fine lens far more often than male characters do, which is incredibly frustrating. And oh gosh, Neil is a big mood. ❀ I don't think I'd want to be friends with him (or most of the AFTG squad for that matter) because he's just so…intense, but I adore him for being such a complex character.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Meeghan reads says:

    I am 100% here for this post, and cannot wait to see the follow up / extra content on the ‘baby, i’m a fuck up’ hero. Neil is 100% goals. And now I want to write a diatribe on my thoughts on the ‘i don’t want to be your hero’ hero, which coincides nicely with the ‘i’m just here to watch the world burn’ anti-hero. πŸ˜‚

    Liked by 1 person

  11. @lynnsbooks says:

    Great post – and completely agree. Nobody wants a perfect hero do they? It’s just so predictable and a little bit dull – plus, nobody is perfect and so flawed characters are so much more relatable.
    Lynn πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      I’m pretty sure no one actually wants a perfect hero, but from the way so many people complain about flawed heroines being *too* flawed (and thus unrealistic or unlikeable), I think people have veeeeery different definitions of “perfection” when it comes to female characters vs. male characters.

      Like

  12. waytoofantasy says:

    FANTASTIC POST!!! I would also like to see more variety. ESPECIALLY the shy and awkward hero types. Newt’s character in the new HP movies is pretty much the only thing I love about them. Because he’s so….awkward. He’s not your typical hero and I love that. I need more!

    Liked by 1 person

      • waytoofantasy says:

        I’m not fond of the new movies either. The first wasn’t too bad but…ugh. It was not the direction I would have taken such a franchise and the missed opportunity annoys me. (I also could rant forever) But I do love Newt!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

        I wasn’t super unhappy with the first one (I thought it was fluff with no substance, but at least it was still fluffy :P) but the second one with the whole Nagini-is-a-Korean-woman deal and Dumbledore being but gay BUT NOT REALLY, and plotlines that don’t have any significance, it’s just…UGH. I can’t believe there’s going to be three more films in the series. I wish JKR would step back from the franchise and let someone else take the reins.

        Aaand I went on a mini rant anyway. πŸ˜›

        Like

      • waytoofantasy says:

        AGREED ON ALL OF THE ABOVE.
        I think I’ve ranted about it before, how I wish the movies would have been more serialized adventure films showcasing the magical communities around the world–UGH, it’s just such a missed opportunity.

        Liked by 1 person

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