People have written books about this. Greater minds than me. But I’m just gonna talk about one thing in particular, because I’ve been ranting about it all week and what better topic for a blog post than a rant?
I randomly started watching the show Knightfall on Netflix this week. It’s a History Channel show about the Templar Knights looking for the Holy Grail in Paris, mostly historical drama, and it’s pretty good, I’ll admit. Apparently, three of the episodes were produced by Jeremy Renner. You know, Clint Barton–uh, I mean, Hawkeye–from The Avengers?
That really doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but I mentioned it anyway.
I don’t want to harshly criticize a show that’s–frankly–very watchable, but once I’d gotten through the first season, I started to notice some things. Weird things. Things that had to do with writing flawed characters. And basically, it amounted to some character-writing flaws.
flaw #1: don’t just call someone a meanie and expect your reader to believe it
One of the weirdest things about the show was how utterly mild the supposed “villain” was. Granted, he wasn’t the main main villain, but by the end of the season, the king of France character is definitely not on a redemption arc. He’s built up to be an asshole and a terrible husband, but the thing is, you never actually see him be an asshole/terrible husband until the last couple of episodes.
All you get is the other characters, particularly the queen character, talking about how much of an asshole he is. You never really see it. He’s actually a pretty sympathetic and complex character up until the end, one who’s actually trying really hard to be a good king and a good husband.
And yes, you can have a character who starts off doing his best and ends up going down a bad road, but you should probably see glimpses of their poor judgment first. You don’t really see that with this king character. You mostly just see him try and fail to win back his wife because… she doesn’t love him? More on that in a bit.
And this is what I learned from watching this: if you’re going to write a character who’s on the highway to hell, you gotta show them wrestling with their demons. You can’t just have other characters call them a meanie behind their back, and then anytime there’s a scene with them, all you see is their good-ish side.
Sympathetic villains are great and all, but if you can’t even find a reason for them to be villainous most of the time, ya ought to think twice about how you’re writing them.
flaw #2: make your characters’ moral development… make sense?
This is going to be a hard one to parse out, but I’ll do my best. Let me explain the story first: so, these Templar Knights are devout Catholics, right? And they’re monks, so they’re sworn to celibacy. Except, of course, the protagonist breaks his vow because, ya know, dat ass. Except dat ass is the queen. Yes, our villainous king character is a cuckold amongst cuckolds. But more on that later.
So, as a viewer, you’re like, “Okay, yeah, celibacy is hard, people want sex, it makes sense that he’d break his vow because he’s a man and he fell in love. Fair.” Except you’re never really clear on whether our protagonist realizes that or not, because he vacillates between feeling guilty about his “sin” and just, like… being okay with it? Of course, once word gets out, his fellow Templars will not let him live it down. And that line of thinking continues into the second season, which I haven’t finished yet.
I get it: historically, religion was strict like that. But the show never makes it clear whether the audience should be rooting for puritanical morals or pragmatic humanness. For all the times the knights say “by the grace of God,” they sure as hell don’t practice it. And maybe that’s the point, but the show’s message overall is unclear.
So, stitching together the fragments I’ve mentioned, we’ve got a king on the brink of immorality, a Templar Knight who’s supposed to be a chaste monk but is instead the queen’s lover, and to put the icing on the cake, the king and the Templar are best friends. You don’t see the king act like an asshole until after he finds out about his wife’s affair, and you’re never clear on whether or not the Templar understands the gravity of his own actions until the end of season one.
I haven’t said much about the queen yet except to say that she calls her husband a meanie, but all we really get is that she’s dissatisfied with her life and her marriage because… she never loved him in the first place? Except that they’ve been married for twenty years or so and they imply that only the last two years have been bad?
Given all that, how could you not wonder who’s actually in the wrong here? Like, yes, the king does some really shitty things in the end, but after realizing that his wife has been sleeping with his best friend and that she’s carrying that man’s child, why wouldn’t he be pissed off? After realizing that everyone he loved or cared about has betrayed him in some way, why wouldn’t he turn evil?
It’s actually a great set-up for a villain, but the problem is, you can’t really feel too sorry for the Templar Knight or the queen, with whom you’re definitely supposed to sympathize. Listen: under no circumstances should protagonists be perfect little angels unless you want a perfectly boring story, but if your characters don’t learn anything in the end, then what was the point of giving them flaws?
And learning something does not mean (and this is where I’m really bashing this–once again–perfectly watchable show) that the main character gets sent back to the beginning of his overly-religious training to be re-indoctrinated and subjected to self-inflicted injury in season two. Meanwhile, the viewer yawns because they’ve already seen this shit before in season one (with a B-plot character, mind you) and it feels like the protagonist has learned literally nothing because they’ve just gone from being human to being boring.
That’s how not to write a flawed character.
Do you disagree with anything I just said? Are there any shows/books you think do exactly what I’m describing, but do it well? I’m open to friendly debate! Comment below!
Photo courtesy of syfy.com