In Defense of the Imperfect Characters

Back when I first started this blog, I posted an article responding to the mistaken notion that exceptionally good, upstanding heroes in literature are detrimental to readers. I’m finding now that it seems an equally passionate faction has the opposite complaint: they fret that characters in literature aren’t perfect enough.


I read a lot of blogs. The last time I tried to count how many, the number fell somewhere in the dozens. Not all, but most of these blogs have to do with books, writing, and/or publishing, and more than a few of them are written from a Christian perspective. In reading these blogs, I’ve found that many in the Christian community at large are put off by depictions of sinful behavior in literature, no matter the context or the extent of that behavior. They expect their good guys to be good no matter what and their bad guys to be bad, just not too bad (a term whose definition depends solely on the reader). Like the people who complain about prejudice in books written hundreds of years ago in vastly different social settings, these readers refuse to see how the less savory aspects of a story don’t necessarily negate its worth.

He wasn't exactly an angel, but no one asks that we stop teaching about him. // Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Need I remind you that David, Paul, Peter, and pretty much every major figure in the Bible excepting God has at least one major screw-up to his/her name. // Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

To put it bluntly, characters need to fall short sometimes. They need to fall short because people fall short. It is inevitable. If literature is meant to reflect the human experience genuinely and accurately, it cannot shy away from the less desirable aspects of our nature. In fact, it must embrace them–not in a way that seeks to make them into something admirable, but in a way that exposes them for the evil they are and, hopefully, inspires readers to strive against them. Only God is perfect, therefore to make one’s characters perfect angels who never do a thing wrong is either A) an affront to God’s perfection, suggesting that humans can be what He is, or B) a complete and utter failure to grasp the point of what you’re doing. Good literature shouldn’t hide from our weaknesses: it should expose them, pick at them, and–if the author is particularly good–weed them out. In short, characters who sin are not only acceptable, but also necessary.

This isn’t to say that all depictions of sin in literature are acceptable; fiction can just as easily be a vehicle for glorifying evil instead of denouncing it, especially in the way it depicts sinful acts. Like anything else in this world, it all depends on the intent behind it. For example, if an author seems to revel in the dastardly deeds of his/her antagonists, getting into gritty, unnecessary detail about the sordid things they do, it may be time to put that book down. Obviously, art that promotes something ugly and perverse isn’t good art at all and doesn’t deserve the attention. However, as long as the book as a whole isn’t promoting immoral behavior, carry on.

Of course, it’s easy to see the merit in a story where the lines dividing right and wrong are clearly defined. However, even if a character’s ungodly actions aren’t expressly condemned in the story, that’s still not necessarily a reason to toss the story out with the trash. I’ll give you an example: in 2011, Neil Gaiman wrote a beautiful short story called “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.” The story’s protagonist (as well as its sole character and sole speaker) is slowly losing his memory, possibly to Alzheimer’s, and with it, he has lost the name and the stories of Ray Bradbury, his favorite author. At one point, our pitiful hero, speaking of the possibility that the world could forget Bradbury altogether, says this:

I think it’s God’s fault.

I mean, He can’t be expected to remember everything. God can’t. Busy chap. So perhaps he delegates things, sometimes, just goes, “You! I want you to remember the dates of the Hundred Years’ War. And you, you remember okapi.”

“Make good art!” Neil said. And that’s what he did. // Photo by Manfred Werner.


Obviously, this isn’t true: God does not delegate things to people, nor does He have any reason to. Maybe Gaiman believes this and maybe he doesn’t. Regardless, it’s still a perfectly good story, for this reason: it is neither a treatise nor a sermon, but rather, a portrait of a broken man, one who is desperately looking to escape his fate. He’s looking for some way out of the encroaching darkness, but if he can’t find that, he’ll instead look for someone to blame. Maybe that person will be God. Wouldn’t we all at least be tempted to blame God if we were in the same situation? It’s certainly not the right thing to do, but it is the innately human thing to do, which, I think, is why Gaiman chose to have his character do it. We don’t have to accept it: instead, we can see it as an image of fallen humanity, of what depths people are capable of sinking to apart from God. In this light, it becomes moving and sobering, reminding us that “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I understand that we must be discerning readers, but just as we can’t be too permissive with what’s allowed in literature, we can’t be too sensitive either. If we want stories that truly speak to who we are as humans, we need to make some room in them for human frailties, even human evils. Granted, fiction, especially more modern works, can prove to be quite liberal in its depictions of evil, even to the point of promoting it. That cannot stand. But when the actions of fallen men and women are presented in such a way that shows the true depravity of man and the superiority of good, we shouldn’t shun it. In fact, we should embrace it; only by facing these shortcomings head on and taking “a plunge into reality” as Flannery O’Connor called it can we hope for good, meaningful art.

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