Damaged Characters need not apply!

A post I’ve been thinking about for a while based on some advice from potential agents is a trend towards creating damaged characters in order to somehow justify their actions.

This happens in all kinds of genres, from comedy to tragedy to yes, detective fiction.

For example:

Show Damaged Character
The Pretender The
Oh Jarod, you damaged genius you… kidnapped from his parents as a child and raised in an evil secret lab, this man solves crimes and saves people by using his brilliant ‘mind’ to pretend to be whomever and whatever the situation requires.
The Mentalist The
I never watched this show because of its stupid stupid name, but according to IMDB, Patrick, the lead character, is a very damaged soul – having lost his wife and daughter to a ‘madman.’ Ya. Cause you can’t pursue justice unless you’re a damaged man.
The Finder The
I only got introduced to the finder in an episode of Bones (coming up, don’t you worry!) – and discovered that the detective known as The Finder was ‘damaged’ by the wars in Iraq. It is this damage that allows him to miraculously see connections between seemingly unrelated things and solve crimes! Well thank God the man is a veteran!

At some point we need to talk about why so many shows are named by the adjective that most simply describes the activity of the lead, including ‘The Closer,’ and ‘The Ghost Whisperer,’  [Honestly, as an audience, I can take a little more depth of thinking ok Fox?]  but that is a whole other blog post.

Back to the point at hand – the predilection to create characters who have gone through something horrible in order to become the amazing detectives they now are. I touched on this a bit in my post about creating villains here, and the concept is the same – it’s ok to be motivated by something OTHER than trauma.

It’s why Bones is not on the list – despite having childhood trauma (Brennan was abandoned in her teens by her parents who turned out to be running from their criminal friends) – she actually earned the abilities that she uses to solve crimes by going to school and become the best Forensic Anthropologist in the country. So yes, her past does drive some of her passion, but her skills are something she nurtured over decades of schooling and experience.

I think that is a fair mix – everyone has baggage, some more than others, but for the love of God, it has to be ok to be a talented person in your field without the damage.

What do you guys think?

Author: Angela Misri

Novelist, Digital Strategist & Journalist http://angelamisri.com

9 thoughts on “Damaged Characters need not apply!”

  1. This is something I’ve thought about when creating my own characters, and considering this November I’m moving ahead with my superhero novel for NaNoWriMo, I’ve made it perfectly clear that the reason why one of the characters does what she does isn’t because she lost a loved one or a close friend. It’s because she has wealth and power and she just simply can.

    Batman can fall into this list you talk about. We’ve been beaten over the head by the fact that yes, his parents were killed in Crime Alley in front of him while they were walking home from the movie theatre (where they saw Zorro, if you look at some of the stories about Bruce Wayne/Batman’s origin). So this tragedy is what drives him, and to be honest it’s really gotten boring. I’d love to see an Elseworld’s version of Batman where his parents didn’t die, where he became Batman because he could. It would most likely change the tempo of the story greatly (and to a point, there already is someone like that in Green Arrow in the comics, not sure about the TV series Arrow). Batman is also the right wing extremists wet dream; he doesn’t go after government officials or corruption in Wall Street, he goes after street criminals. People who might be in that situation not because they wanted to but because they were forced to. It gets even worse when you consider that many of his villains have extreme mental health issues. But instead of exploring ways to actually help them, he believes everything is a game against him, finds the villain (whether it be Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Scarecrow, et al), beats the crap out of them and tosses them back into Arkham.

    And this is why when I created the Mannekin, she wouldn’t have any tragic backstory. She just does these things, dresses up in a dark costume, uses fear as a weapon, creates gadgets and weapons, because she can. Because she sees a world that can be better, and she fights to make that a reality. And she realizes the world needs fear, fear to scare the politically powerful onto the straight and narrow, but it also needs a helping hand, compassion, understanding.

    1. Batman! Great example! Equally, Superman is an example of the opposite – a powerful superhero motivated simply by the need to do good. His best enemy, Lex Luthor, has a great and believable motivation for his opposition – jealousy and greed – totally believable.

  2. Personally I work with a lot of damaged characters (the Snake being just one of them), and I do admit they are fun to write. However characters don’t have to be damaged to be great heroes and protagonists. Eragon is a great example. So is Sherlock Holmes in any incarnation (though the one in Elementary does come with his baggage). And Castle from the TV series of the same name has seen the dark side of humanity a couple of times, but if anything it’s his partner Beckett who could use the therapy. It all depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

  3. None of my characters are damaged. They realize flaws when reacting to events, but then learn from their mistakes. I created a fiery redhead treasure hunter who constantly battled with a soon-to-be-ex. However, this wasn’t damage to the character. The arguing built her personality and drove her to achieve success.

    1. I beg to differ. Having a close relationship deteriorate into constant battling and then fail (resulting in a “soon-to-be-ex”) is a source of trauma that is psychologically damaging. The difference is in the effectiveness of individual coping: how the character manages to integrate a negative experience and then changes, for the better or for the worse. The damage doesn’t have to result in a dysfunctional personality, but if it’s enough to drive one to achieve success, there’s a some degree of displacement going on (probably along with other defense mechanisms of various origins and strength of influence). These are basic principles of psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology.

      1. I argue with my husband all the time (when he’s drunk), but then I’m a redhead who takes no crap from anyone. I consider the arguing playtime, and no, there’s no psychological aspect involved. The character I created uses sarcastic humor as a release…when she’s not going after relic hunters. Folks who read the book understand the character and the outcome. So far, folks love the character and her behavior.

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