Only Beyoncé Can “Wake Up Like This”: Characters Should Be Full of Flaws Just Like Us
by Emily Kocis
It’s universally accepted that pretty much nothing beats flopping down on the couch after a long day and losing yourself in your favorite TV show. Whether you prefer to turn off your brain and laugh at the ridiculousness of lighthearted shows like “Parks and Recreation” or be completely emotionally invested in the slow burn of those more similar to “The Vampire Diaries,” we all love a good old-fashioned Netflix binge.
I love shows because I love their characters, especially when they are ones that I can identify with. I will always want to watch a character grow, learn and figure out how to navigate life when I can see parallels to my own experiences in their journey. And, ultimately, these characters become commonplace archetypes that we use to describe each other. I compare my coworkers to characters from “The Office,” my friends to those in “New Girl” and even my family to that of “Schitt’s Creek.” I see Michael Scotts, Nick Millers and Moira Roses in the people surrounding me and it makes me treasure those fictional characters and their real-life counterparts that much more.
Relatability, though, is not at all new to storytelling. In fact, the earliest piece of dramatic literary theory, Aristotle’s “Poetics,” emphasized the need for the same very thing. Aristotle posited that the aim of art, literary or otherwise, should be to evoke catharsis — the cleansing or purging of emotions.
Catharsis is why we cry when a beloved character dies or irrationally yell at the TV when our favorite fictional couple breaks up. Books, movies, TV shows and even music that overwhelm us with an undesirable emotion like sadness or pity in turn allow us to healthily release our own pent-up emotions. So no more feeling guilty about listening to sad music and having a good cry because, odds are, Aristotle would probably have joined you.
Aristotle and I also agree that a well-crafted character is paramount to achieving catharsis. Aristotle’s ideal character is one that is relatable, but also able to slightly transcend reality and therefore is able to be both idealistically virtuous while at the same time true to life. This, he says, keeps an audience both sufficiently entertained, while still being able to relate to the core of a character’s story arc.
A character’s virtuosity is important, Aristotle explains, because it establishes them as a larger-than-life character with idealistically noble motives, which ultimately allows them to gain the audience’s sympathy. These heroic qualities are what set these characters apart from ordinary people and keep the audience hooked on their journey.
I see Michael Scotts, Nick Millers and Moira Roses in the people surrounding me and it makes me treasure those fictional characters and their real-life counterparts that much more.
However, even more important is the realism of these characters. In order for an audience to relate to a character, they ultimately must be flawed. It is this “hamartia”— a personal error, such as great pride or arrogance — that will be the cause of their many torments and ultimately of their downfall, too. But these flaws are also what make the best characters so relatable. Everyday people are themselves flawed and, for them, perfection remains unattainable. This reflection of imperfection in our favorite characters is where, Aristotle argues, one can begin to see themselves mirrored in fictional stories.
Aristotle’s theories about character development are not at all things of the past. In fact, today there exist entire genres that center purely around this tragic hero literary trope. Superhero movies are some of the most obvious. Take Captain America, one of the most adored characters of all time, for example. His heroic qualities are this time quite literal — superhuman strength, speed, endurance, reflexes — and he clearly establishes himself as a virtuous character.
But he also isn’t without his flaws. He’s stubborn with a strict and, at times, old-fashioned moral compass that ultimately condemns him to an endless struggle to try and do what he considers the right thing. Aristotle would love Captain America, because while people love and are entertained by his fantastical heroic feats, they also are able to relate to his flawed moral conflict.
Sure, some of your favorite characters set unrealistic standards and are flawed in probably more ways than one, but that’s the whole point. This combination of exaggerated traits and relatable flaws is simply what makes good art.
Even the whole premise of the popular TV show “The Office” hinges on the fact that the boss who runs said office is, at times, completely insane. It would be no fun to watch a show about a normal office run by a level-headed and efficient boss because that wouldn’t transcend the audience’s reality in the slightest. But Michael Scott is, at his core, a virtuous character desperate to build the chosen family he never had and for that reason remains widely beloved. And we all know that those last two seasons after Michael Scott leaves are significantly not as good because the show falls apart a little without its lovable tragic hero.
There are numerous examples of tragic heroes in literally any television show, movie or book out there because it is this trope that builds an invested audience. From Walter White to Michael Corleone to even Meredith Grey, the best characters that remain beloved by viewers are those written to expertly balance Aristotle’s duality of heroism and weakness.
Emily Kocis knows that she is the Schmidt of her apartment and hopes you go take a BuzzFeed quiz to find out which “New Girl” character you are in yours.
McDreamy Is More Than a Hunk of Man Meat
by Atmika Iyer
Almost all members of Gen Z have been watching TV since they were born. Hell, our parents even turned on education shows to stimulate our brains when we were fresh out of the womb.
From a very young age, we’ve had our eyes trained on our screens. Depending on how well-developed a show is, we often find ourselves identifying with the character we have the most similarities with. Why? Because it’s nice to leave grounded reality and instead live as a meth-dealing high school teacher, or as the Mother of Dragons, burning everything in our way. Fantasy makes reality pause and allows us to live in an entirely different world through the eyes of a fictional persona.
Given the power and impact of characters, I have to ask why so many male heroes are given such toxic characteristics yet somehow still maintain the love and admiration of their respective audiences. More male protagonists need to be written to be better people for three main reasons: to update sexist and racist archetypes, to break down toxic masculinity and, finally, to present a better example of behavior for young viewers in shows and movies that are targeted toward teens.
Most characters are the product of age-old stereotypes, many of which are the result of old understandings and practices, i.e., sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc.
A study, called “Archetypes, Stereotypes and Media Representation in a Multi-cultural Society,” found research from 2006 suggesting that “negative images that relate to stereotypes of minority populations, such as African Americans and Latinos in the United States, can lead to negative interpretations of their actions.” The effects of such stereotypes were even evident in “policy decisions and voting behaviors.” Ultimately, important “decisions can be based on negative stereotypes triggered by media depictions instead of the actual characteristics of the population.”
It’s why there is a running joke that the Black character in every horror movie dies first. Or why most shows have a controlling wife that the husband makes fun of. And then there’s always the staple Asian nerd. These archetypes need to be updated and/or improved upon to reflect our less stereotypical understanding of people. One common archetype to address now: the toxic male protagonist.
To clarify, I’m not talking about the villains — I understand that toxicity is an essential ingredient for evilness. Instead, I’m talking about our so-called heroes.
To ask something we consume on a regular basis to be held to a higher standard to minimize the harm derived out of stereotypes is not a big ask — it’s a basic request for the betterment of humanity.
In the storylines in which the hero does not overcome their “fatal flaw,” male characters are created that display toxic traits and remain loveable — and not with a sense of irony. Take Nick Miller from “New Girl,” a hero whose consistent lack of willingness to grow up is romanticized. I’ll admit it, I love Nick. He’s a slob, he’s funny and he’s who I wanted Jess to end up with. However, had a female character been just as immature, noncommittal, messy and childish — they wouldn’t have had the same fan following. “New Girl” fans, let’s please remember why Nick and Jess broke up the first time: He wanted to drive a truck and live on Mars.
Nick isn’t the only one — take Derek Shepherd and Mark Sloan from “Grey’s Anatomy.” I’m not even going to touch on why they were so problematic in their respective romantic relationships; instead, just look at how two doctors who had many a groundbreaking medical achievements were reduced to sex symbols — which was quite literally shown by their nicknames on the show, “McDreamy” and “McSteamy.” To those watching the show who identified with and admired these characters, did you like them because they were good people and good doctors, or purely because they were super attractive and you were invested in their toxic relationships?
All right “Pretty Little Liars” fans, you should have seen this one coming. Why the hell is a show targeted at teens showcasing statutory rape and a student-teacher relationship? Ezra knew Aria’s real age and who she was the entire time, and yet he still continued that relationship despite the fact that he was her teacher for his weird book and some pussy.
And Edward Cullen in “Twilight”? He was possessive, jealous and, I’d argue, stalkerish. But because the writing of the character was romanticized, this emotionally abusive character became the subject of the poster plastered on the wall of every teen invested in the vampire-werewolf-human love triangle. Again, this is the kind of behavior that is present in a book/movie series targeted toward teens.
I’m not saying characters shouldn’t be flawed. But, in the real world, we all have to recognize our flaws and work on them. That’s called self-improvement. Why shouldn’t the same be expected from the characters we watch, love and identify with?
More importantly, we must ask the media to update their depictions of various groups. The same study referenced above found that when people watch shows that have characters who are “familiar and similar to them, they identify with them positively.”
Put differently, “the more similar an in-group or out-group target is to the relevant characteristic of the perceiver’s in-group, the more favorable the evaluation.”
That’s how powerful the media we consume is. To ask something we consume on a regular basis to be held to a higher standard to minimize the harm derived out of stereotypes is not a big ask — it’s a basic request for the betterment of humanity.
In fact, I’d argue that more people would start on the train of self-improvement if their heroes displayed a desire to be better people. Perfection is an unattainable goal, whether that be applied to real people or fictional characters. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try. Try to break down toxic masculinity and try to emulate better behaviors on TV and movies to set better examples for apt viewers.
Atmika Iyer wishes that Coach had a bigger role in “New Girl.”