Many screenwriting theories hold that the protagonist should be flawed at the story's beginning and overcome this flaw by its end.

Now, there are stories where the protagonist is thrown out of a seemingly normal, happy and functional life only by the intervention of the antagonist. Think of all the tales of killed or abducted wives and children.

Does the protagonist of such a story need or usually have a "flaw" beyond the desperation, hate, or guilt caused by the antagonist?

4 Answers 4


You're at a serious risk of running into a "Mary Sue" issue if your protagonist lacks flaws. It's dubious that you can create a truly interesting story with the protagonist being absolutely perfect, unless you think it as some kind of satire, where that perfection is actually a flaw.

For example, take "The Iron Dream" by Norman Spinrad, a "a metafictional 1972 alternate history novel". It's a book-within-book thing, with like 90% of the content being verbatim contents of the inner book: "Lord of the Swastika", by Adolf Hitler, a renowned Sci-Fi writer, winner of the Hugo award.

The protagonist of "Lord of the Swastika" is perfect in all respects. Feric Jaggar is a proud, young, strong and genetically pure male with blonde hair and blue eyes. He reinforces the lacking strength of the falling bastion of genetically pure humanity and begins conquest against countless mutant hordes, unstoppable and unchallenged.

Only thanks to "Preface" and "Afterword" what would be really just a total purple prose takes on some perspective, placing the book within a world where IIWW never took place, where deep flaws of character of the writer (Hitler) are reflected as special strengths and preferences of the protagonist, and the whole thing becomes a strong satire and a social commentary instead of just author's wet dream.

Note, your example:

the protagonist is thrown out of a seemingly normal, happy and functional life only by the intervention of the antagonist.

This is the flaw. Lulled into comfortable, calm life; weak; incompetent as a fighter, and lacking courage. A hen-pecked puppy becomes a war dog. Or opposite, the flaws become the strengths. Or even more opposite, a character appearing flawless in the beginning begins to exhibit increasingly more flaws as the story progresses.

Without flaws there is no difficulty in resolving the conflict. Without difficulty there is no sense of reward, no sense of risk or danger. Perfect protagonists are boring.

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    I disagree. I don't find happiness boring. Books showing a happy person leading a happy life make me happy. Books need not show life as it is, with all the failures and evils that humans commit. They can show what life might be like and offer a blueprint for utopia. The ultimately interesting book (for me) would be one featuring a protagonist who competently and successfully dealt with life's small and large catastrophes, from losing a job to a child being tortured to death, and despite the pain never lost his joy to be alive. A flawless protagonist would impersonate an ideal I could aspire to
    – user5645
    May 23, 2014 at 14:55
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    A flawless protagonist would never allow these things to happen, showing enough foresight to prevent them. Lack of caution or foresight is a flaw. Extremely bad luck is a flaw too. And a happy person may lead a happy life despite their flaws, and utopia without flaws will bore to death.
    – SF.
    May 23, 2014 at 15:08
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    @what why would your ideal protagonist have to be flawless to be "a happy person leading a happy life," or to "competently and successfully deal with life's small and large catastrophes, etc."? Why couldn't a flawed person be happy and succeed over adversity? Do you think the presence of a "flaw," however you define it, automatically makes a person miserable and a failure? May 23, 2014 at 15:13
  • @what I also find it interesting that you phrase it as "A flawless protagonist would impersonate an ideal I could aspire to," although I don't know if English is your first language. To impersonate means "to fake, to pretend to be." You're saying your ideal protagonist would only pretend to be your ideal. May 23, 2014 at 15:14
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    There's a whole genre of what you're looking for: Pastorals. Perfect protagonists living happy, simple lives, romantic and idealized. Of course the genre isn't very renowned nowadays...
    – SF.
    May 24, 2014 at 9:11

People have flaws. If a character is portrayed as flawless then that character comes off as having somewhat less substance than otherwise.

The abduction or murder of a relative is not a character, it is an event. The character comes through in the way the protagonist reacts to the event. In "Taken" Liam Neeson's character is pretty bullet proof during the main part of the action but the film takes care to acknowledge (at least in passing) that Neeson's character is, in normal reality, deeply dysfunctional.

In the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird the character study angle of a fairly thin revenge plot is extrapolated to the point where the genre of the thriller becomes de-focused. The movie is more interested in putting together the character of a man who would exact revenge for the death of someone close to them in the manner he chooses to do so rather than concentrating on the mechanics of the act itself.

EDIT: And to push the revenge trope even further the very new "Blue Ruin" presents a man getting revenge with the entire hook being that he is the least likely candidate for vengeful retribution you could probably think of. At one point someone tells him he's "weak" and he doesn't reply at all, just stands there looking mopey. This either signals the guy is not very self-aware (because he goes through a hell of a lot in the course of the movie), or that he can't deal with verbal confrontation, or that he is, at some level, deceptive in the way he presents himself. All of these are flaws and the movie seeks to make the protagonist complex and problematic in order to deepen what is, like the former examples, a fairly bland revenge narrative.


I would say that characters need not have flaws, in the sense that they have negative character traits or are unsuccessful at life or unable to face and complete the story task, but rather that the story induces them to change and grow even further.

Characters must be "flawed" at story onset only in relation to who they become at its end.


Building on @what's answer (to his own question ;-) ), I'd say that the question is falsely assuming the protagonist will improve. Much more interesting is the case where the protagonist changes due to new circumstances, and the readers/viewers/gameplayers are left wondering to themselves if that was a good change. For instance, a gentle person becomes a killer. Or even, a hardened killer becomes a committed pacifist. Or how about a double change (having nothing to do with killing), like in "Flowers for Algernon"?

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    But if the gentle person became a killer, wouldn't that imply a hidden flaw, some weakness or vice that offered a foothold for evil to infect him?
    – user5645
    May 23, 2014 at 14:59
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    @what So you're saying that there are no possible extenuating circumstances under which a gentle person might break and become a killer, despite having no predilection to killing before the event? Does the little old nun who beheads zombies after the zombie apocalypse have "a hidden flaw, weakness, or vice which offered a foothold for evil to infect her"? Or is that gentle person using her strength and compassion to keep an orphanage from becoming a zombie incubator? You're really painting things in black and white, and neither life nor fiction are that tidy. May 23, 2014 at 15:19
  • You have a point there, @LaurenIpsum. Although I wouldn't call such a person a "killer", because to me that word has a strong negative connotation of someone intentionally causing an avoidable or pointless death. To me a killer commits a murder, that gentle person "commits" self-defense.
    – user5645
    May 23, 2014 at 15:33
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    @what: It might imply a hidden flaw, but I think it's more interesting if the author keeps it ambiguous and challenges the readers to decide. Or anyway, at least that's a possible way to tell a story. For example, a pacifist is drafted into the Army and becomes a skilled warfighter (e.g. Sgt. York). So, is he a "killer who abandoned his principles" or a "hero who prevented evil from triumphing"? It's even better if the protagonist himself is torn, or if the protagonist and author appear to disagree.
    – dmm
    May 23, 2014 at 19:51

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