“Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.” –Barnaby Conrad
Okay, this is going to be 95% preamble with a strong point made at the end:
There’s a reason some characters go on to become legendary while others fade away. Think of all the Marvel Comics characters you can name and then tell me which one stands out most in your mind. In that top two or three, I guarantee Spider-Man is named.
Here’s a high school kid from Queens, a shy nerd who got picked on by the school bully, who struggles to pay his rent, lives in dump after dump, when he’s not couch surfing. He doesn’t have the best luck in the world with work or women, but everyday he puts on that red and blue costume and, through a series of being in the wrong place at the right time, fights villain after villain in an attempt to save all the lives. On top of that, he blames himself for his uncle’s death, and he’s not entirely wrong on that score.
He’s no billionaire genius inventor, he’s not a national symbol, frozen in ice for decades. The reason Spider-Man is one of, if not THE most popular Marvel character is because, since his introduction in August 1962, he has represented the kids reading his comics. Most of us aren’t as smart as him, for sure, but when a passing car splashes water all over us, or we drop our pizza on the way home, we trip and fall in front of our secret crush, or we lock ourselves out of our house or car, we can feel pretty certain Peter Parker has gone through the same thing. We feel a kinship with Spider-Man because, unlike the other brilliant scientists of the Marvel universe, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, all celebrated for their intellect and all heroes of their own making, Peter goes unnoticed among the wider world. He gained his powers completely by accident, that Parker luck, and so far they haven’t done a single thing to make his life better. He is still put down by his boss, he still rents, he still faces all the struggles we face every day.
He is us. And that’s why we love him. He’s not perfect, his life isn’t perfect, and we can too easily see ourselves in him.
By contrast, let’s look at some of the biggest DC heroes. Superman? Last son of a dead planet, sure, but he’s got all the power in the world, he had a great childhood with loving parents, he’s got the talented, ambitious, smart as hell wife with a Pulitzer, he’s well-known in both super- and secret-identities, has a high-profile job.
Batman, yeah his parents were killed in front of him, and while his BILLIONS of dollars don’t change that, he’s got the resources to get the best therapy in the world. Bruce Wayne, with all his money, could hole up in his mansion and do nothing but read and watch Netflix. He CHOOSES to go out into the world.
Wonder Woman is a goddess. We like her books, but does anyone really RELATE to her?
This is a lesson all writers have to learn if they hope to connect with readers on any level. Unless you’re writing about Jesus, your characters have to be flawed. Not deeply, not completely, but if we write about the perfect character with the perfect life, no one’s going to care. As readers, we feel the tension of a story when we can imagine ourselves in the main character’s place, and if we’re reading about a character for whom everything always goes right, who’s never faced a hardship in their life, we just don’t care.
And if we don’t care, why are we reading it?