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Imperfect Characters Inspire Us

Novelist Gillian Bronte Adams: “Imperfect characters are inspiring because they remind us of grace, modeling how to fall and rise again and how to keep on keeping on.”
| Jul 17, 2018 | 6 comments |

Chances are if you went looking for outdoorsy-reader-me as a kid, you would have found me perched in a tree limb with a book in hand. Or walking around the house with my nose in a book. Or sprawled out reading on the back of my oh-so-patient horse, an elderly fellow named Sylvester who we jokingly referred to as “the English Gentleman.”

I read and read and read and drank in heroic stories as if they were water and I was dying of thirst, and somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the characters within. The hobbits who chose to stand up. The Apprentice Pig-Keepers who dreamed of being heroes. The shieldmaidens who stood between those they loved and certain death.

At face value, the character I loved had little in common. Some were male. Some were female. Some were warriors. Some were gardeners (and body-guards). Some were computer geniuses. Some were just ordinary kids thrown into the wildest and craziest sorts of adventures.

This week we feature Gillian Bronte Adams and her novel Orphan’s Song in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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But all of them had strengths and skills all their own.

Honor. Courage. Hope. Love. Indomitable spirit. Intense Loyalty. Sacrifice.

Those were the qualities they exemplified, and so those were the qualities that I—even as a kid—knew that I wanted to have too.

Maybe my Hogwarts letter wasn’t going to show up. Maybe the next wardrobe I opened wouldn’t whisk me to a magical land with talking animals (although that didn’t stop me from trying despite the sad lack of wardrobes in my daily life—closets proved an unexciting substitution). Maybe I wouldn’t show up at summer camp and discover that I was fated to be a hero and fight monsters.

But I could try to be just as brave and fierce and courageous and hopeful in my daily life as my favorite heroes were and maybe that made me just a little bit like them.

Some days, I didn’t feel brave. Some days, I didn’t feel hopeful. Some days, I didn’t feel like sacrificing. And it wasn’t until I got older, that I realized that the same was true of my favorite characters.

Not one of them was perfect.

They were all complex characters with a blend of strengths and weaknesses that ultimately made them seem real and relatable. After all, perfect people don’t exist. So perfect characters shouldn’t either.

Take Sam Gamgee for example. Incredibly loyal. Positively adorable with his down-to-earth nature. Always ready with a sold dose of good hobbit sense. He is willing to sacrifice himself for Frodo every step of the way as he walks to Mordor (See … it can be done, Boromir!) and braves the fires of Mount Doom. This kind of friendship is something that we can all strive to imitate.

And yet, Sam’s attitude toward Gollum (reasonable or not) can be painful to read in the books and especially painful to watch in the movies. Dear, kind, loyal Sam allows his protectiveness toward Frodo to lead him to despise Gollum. He insists on calling him names like “Slinker” and “Stinker,” and it could be argued that Sam’s actions hinder any potential redemption arc for Smeagol.

And yet, I can so relate to Sam’s weaknesses even as I can admire his strength. Because in Sam’s place, I might have done the same.

Nowadays, I don’t just get to read stories about imperfect (but wonderful) characters, I get to write them too. Developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing because it’s through characters that the connection between readers and a story truly takes place.

Orphan's Song, Gillian Bronte Adams

“A classic medieval fantasy setting populated with archetypes that somehow feel fresh and vigorous.”
Lorehaven Magazine

So when I started writing Orphan’s Song, the first book of The Songkeeper Chronicles, I knew that the characters within would not be perfect, but I hoped that they would be inspiring even in their imperfection.

So Birdie, who begins the story as an orphaned drudge at an inn before she is launched on her wild adventure and wrestles with fear and identity, inspires me to be courageous and to know who I am and whose I am.

Ky Huntyr, who has a stubborn streak as wide as a river and starts off the story as a street-wise thief dodging soldiers to stay alive, inspires me to keep pressing on. Kind of like Captain America standing up after he’s been knocked down again and again. “I could do this all day.” What I wouldn’t give to have that kind of indomitable spirit!

But he also reminds me to be willing to bend and acknowledge that maybe I’m not 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. (Crazy thought, right?)

And Amos McElhenny, the wild-haired, brash-tongued peddler, inspires me to love fiercely and be completely me, no matter how “boggswoggling” odd that might be. Because strength needn’t always be hard and love is not weakness. (But also, Amos’s mishaps remind me that maybe I shouldn’t go around calling people “beswoggled fools.” Unless they really deserve it.)

Joking aside, at the end of the day, imperfect characters are inspiring because they remind us of grace. They model for us how to fall and how to rise again and how to keep on keeping on even as they face the good and bad consequences of their choices. And as they struggle with choices—and sometimes make choices that have negative effects on themselves or on their worlds—I know that I am inspired by their struggle as much as by their victories, because I understand that struggle too.

Who are some characters that have inspired you the most over the years?

“A classic medieval fantasy setting populated with archetypes that somehow feel fresh and vigorous.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Gillian Bronte Adams’s novel Orphan’s Song in the Lorehaven Library.

Read our full review exclusively from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine!

Gillian Bronte Adams is the sword-wielding, horse-riding, wander-loving fantasy author of The Songkeeper Chronicles. She is rarely found without coffee in hand and rumored to pack books before clothes when she hits the road. She loves to connect with fellow readers and wanderers on her website, Instagram, and Facebook page.

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Travis Perry

Well, wouldn’t it be nice to only be as flawed as Sam Gamgee! I mean, he’s pretty close to being without flaws, though he does have a rather justified at times mean-streak towards Gollum, as you pointed out.

How do you feel about characters that are beyond merely flawed? That are seriously disturbed or with major character defects? I can’t say I’ve written such characters successfully (though I’ve tried), but it’s fascinating to me to consider where is the point when flaws are so big that they make a character unlikable. What are your thoughts on that?

Gillian Bronte Adams

Personally, I think as long as you can make a reader connect with the character, you can get away with having a fair number of flaws or defects. But the key thing there, I think, is establishing that reader connection. Without it, even a minorly flawed character can be annoying and a majorly flawed character would frustrate me to no end. But if I as a reader really connect with a character, I’m willing to travel with them on their journey, no matter how painful it gets. If at some point the author breaks my belief in that character, by having them act in a way that’s counter intuitive for the character, then they’ll lose me.

“Seriously disturbed” could be taking it a bit far in terms of readers rooting for the character, but I do think it can be done in a way where readers continued reading because they are intrigued, if only because they want to see the trainwreck. I haven’t ever really tried to write that sort of character though as a protagonist, so it is an interesting question.

Autumn Grayson

Not sure which imperfect chars have influenced me the most, but some recent ones that are important to me are Kiritsugu (along with many others from Fate Zero, the anime he’s from) and Itachi from Naruto and Naruto Shippuden.

Kiritsugu’s story arc helped me articulate a lot of things I sort of subtly believed but couldn’t quite express before. One of the large aspects of Kiritsugu’s arc is that he’s trying to win the Holy Grail so that it will grant his wish to end all conflict in the world. That goal crashes and burns in a very horrible way. Yet, there is redemption at the end of it, and we still see some small kindnesses and good in Kiritsugu’s life even after he fails so badly.

So his story kind of helped me articulate my philosophy when it comes to fixing things: It’s good to try and improve the world, but that desire turns destructive when we attempt to force (our perception of) perfection on those around us, especially if we want to ramp that up to a world wide scale, like Kiritsugu did when he tried to eliminate all war. In real life terms…not everyone will cooperate with attempts to ‘perfect’ the world, so the only recourse is to either allow for some imperfections, or to hurt/destroy anyone that doesn’t cooperate. Most people will say they’re willing to allow for imperfections, but that’s obviously not completely true when we see how hostile people are on both sides of the political spectrum.

As for Itachi…he’s a very good tragic hero character, much like Kiritsugu. Itachi made some horrifically difficult decisions to protect his village and his little brother, but there were still some unintentional negative consequences to his decisions, and to an extent he seems to wish he approached the issue a bit differently. The imperfections of his decisions, his hurt and regret, and the tragic complexity of his situation makes him feel very real and human.

Characters like this are good for figuring out how to handle our own imperfections. With these two characters, that’s especially true for me, since I actually have a few personality traits in common with them.

Autumn Grayson

Also, sometimes it bugs me to see a character touted as ‘perfect’ or without ‘major’ flaws. In real life, sometimes those people can be even worse because they don’t have as much self awareness as they should. They’re so used to matching up to society’s perception of good, that they don’t recognize signs that they are about to do something bad. They may also lack empathy in crucial areas, since they don’t know what it’s like to make a huge mistake and regret it. Sometimes, in real life, I’ve seen this lead to hypocritical, controlling behavior because the ‘good’ person thinks they know what’s best for everyone.

Sometimes this is why I respect redeemed or flawed characters a lot more in many cases. Taking a character like Edmund from Narnia, for instance, we can see why he was chosen to be Edmund the Just. Due to his experiences, he is more inclined to have humility and empathy, and thus realize that there are times when mercy is needed, instead of just looking down people who make mistakes. And when we look at the Prince Caspian movie, we get an example of how valuable and wonderful a redeemed person can be. When the White Witch was being resurrected, Peter was tempted to take her offer and almost did. Edmund, on the other hand, was so traumatized by his past with Jadis was so grateful for the redemption Aslan gave him that he destroys the Witch right away.

Obviously the redeemed or flawed character will continue to make mistakes, but sometimes being flawed and redeemed gives them the experience needed to avoid problems they would have blindly stumbled into otherwise.

Gillian Bronte Adams

Yes, that’s a really good point, Autumn. Those hidden flaws can be just as destructive and deadly. And I love what you said about how those flawed but redeemed characters know how to show grace to others too! It’s such a good reminder for all of us who know that we are flawed but redeemed to be willing to keep on showing grace, even when we don’t understand what’s driving a person to act or do the things that they are doing.

Travis Chapman

Thanks Gillian. I carry before me, daily, the reminder that while I want to be Aragorn, I’m all the more likely to be Boromir. That doesn’t mean evil, but it does mean flawed. Now that would have been a neat character arc, to see someone step up and help Boromir see his blindspot, and to see him grow into a king/lover role rather than fall short as a half-redeemed tyrant archtype.

Here’s to characters with flaws, like the gang surrounding Jesus!