Why does the hero always need to wear the white hat?
That is a typical question to ask of protagonists as a reader ages and reaches a certain level of life experience. When we are kids, life is a lot more black-and-white. The good guys always do the right thing and the bad guys have no motivation except for spite or greed. There were no shades of gray, just right and wrong.
But as we grow older, we begin to see the world in various shades of gray.
Take Humphrey Bogart. In this publicity photo, he is dressed as Sam Spade, the detective from “The Maltese Falcon.” Spade is the good guy, the shamus who cracks the case while using his brain instead of a roscoe.
But Spade was not squeaky clean. He was a womanizer who was sleeping with his partner’s wife. He has no problem with beating up smaller men that he can manhandle and he frequently uses his rapier wit to tear apart people who are not as smart. And when push comes to shove at the end of the tale, he turns the woman he liked into the police rather than help her escape.
Deep down, Spade is not a nice guy. But he is the hero of the story because despite all his faults, he sees the case through to the end.
I like characters with flaws – the bigger the better. Those are the characters that feel more real, more human. Books are more exciting when the protagonist hangs on the edge, drawn into only looking out for himself rather than the group, answering a needs that only he feels.
Flawed characters and anti-heroes add excitement to a story. Yes, they have solved the mystery/beaten the bad guys, but will it all fall apart at the end because of those faults?
I am reminded of this because a reader of “Dreams of Ivory and Gold” sent me a message a few days ago. They said they found themselves cheering on Greg Novara as the book continued, despite his quirks, his past, and his unpredictability. Then in the next sentence they told me how if they ever met Novara in real life, they would punch him in the nose.
I figure that is why I kept him around.
(The headline for this post is a partial quote from one of the most famous anti-heroes in literature, Shylock from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”
Shylock to Bassanio – “Hates any man the thing he would not kill.”)