The Flaws of the Flesh
The human condition is such that in some capacity, we all know too well the temptations of the flesh. Every hero has a flaw that blinds him in some way. Ask any storyteller if you do not believe this. It is by this means that authors use a fundamental characteristic of human frailty to illustrate the transition from an everyman into a hero. Flaws let us accept the character as one of us, making him or her real and only highlight the character’s exceptional qualities rather than detract from them.
The same rule holds for villains, only inversely so. The character flaws of villains are magnified by the inclusion of a redeeming trait. It is what makes us revile villains all the more. The most memorable villains are designed this way not just because it gives them a depth of realism, but also because it is a gift squandered. Not a gift of individual merit, but a gift for society at large. When we see the cruelty of an evil overlord that loves children or animals, it is what he does to the parents that we are not placated by his generosity like those he fawns over. That grotesqueness makes us want him stopped.
The misguided actions of a Lawful Good character brought about circumstantially through a flaw are no different. The erroneous action horrifies us far more than bogymen. When we see the flaws of the flesh dominate the soul of an honorable person, no matter how brief of a moment, we realize how far we can fall because the great ones are just as vulnerable to taking the easier path as we are. It is that one act of hamartia that makes the tension all the greater when the climax of the story approaches. Up until that point, his actions may be seen as unjust and immoral, but when the truth is about to be revealed, we fear the outcome and pity whomever the guilty party is.
This brings up an issue that is controversial and for many is darker and infinitely more disturbing: mental afflictions. It is a trope that has been used repeatedly in fiction and film. Consider Renfro from Dracula, cultists from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or even the mad god archetype like the World of Greyhawk’s Tharizdun. The truth is that while the loss of self or agency is terrifying, it is often inverted in a villain in the same method just described for qualities. The inversion of what is perceived as the natural order is used to construct a villain at the expense of this otherwise rich terrain. Mental illness is not inherently evil. Since alignment is but a reflection of basic tenets and habits, storytellers have a vast psychological landscape to explore – and exploit – in our characters. Imagine the OGL ranger’s Favored Enemy ability as an obsession (and an unhealthy one at that).
Any number of ailments or quirks can develop in a well-intentioned person. Traumas are often the catalyst that sends a character down the path of heroism. Often the character is haunted by that event, or even a series of them. Consider a character that develops Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Make her a high-ranking member of society. Minus the desire for power, this could readily describe Lady Macbeth (out damned spot,” anyone?) after the horror of murder begins to eat at her. With such a fragile state, it is quite possible for the OCD to manifest from a need to wash hands frequently as a public safety precaution to an edict that oppresses a nation or a specific population, like a minority group, for being seen as a source of pollution (such as a group unable to bather regularly in this example) – perceived or otherwise.
Sadly, these flaws have a habit of showing up in national affairs. The physical and psychic failures and limitations leave an indelible mark on cultures and how they act towards outsiders. We do not have to look far to see this in action. Look at the political climate of the US over the last twenty or thirty years. The line touted by both Democrats and Republicans is that they seek to do what is best, but the influence many members of Congress fall to the traps of special interests and the pervasive power of money. These things, along with the desire to garner power amongst their supporters, lead to numerous problems. Without name-dropping or pointing fingers, there is enough news concerning any number of dishonest behaviors, whether an affair, controversial remarks, or even corruption charges at all levels of government.
The flaw of a character means he or she is capable of committing an act of unimaginable horror. In the moment it can be construed as an act for the good of all. A vice in the guise of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins serves as an excellent starting point along with books on psychological disorders. Indiscretion on the part of a hero does not make him evil, but can lead to character traits that are neither lawful nor good to those on the receiving end. These flaws fall outside of alignment and are either rooted in beliefs or psychological issues, but they are the blind spots in everyone. It is how the character atones for his actions that prove he is good.
Still not convinced? Consult any religious or mythological text to find heroic figures that struggle with such flaws. When they rise above those failings, they are viewed as exemplars of what we can achieve as a species. When they fall, the story is a tragedy and a cautionary tale. Lest we forget the Lilliputians, their flaws that generated their conflict were pride and deep nationalism. What they sought was a promotion of the public good on either side of their cultural divide.