In Defense of Weak Characters

(This post will contain plenty of Heaven's Forgotten spoilers. If you haven't read it, why don'tcha? Pick it up on Amazon.)

I've resisted talking about this subject for a few months now, mostly because it will come across as defensive. And it's even a bit silly for me to say anything, because on the whole I've enjoyed incredibly positive reviews--more so than I think I even deserve, to be honest--so focusing on one negative aspect seems both petty and pouty.

But, it is a subject I care about a great deal. I've buried the lead long enough, so here's what I'm talking about.

"My biggest complaint was that I found the main character to be staunchly portrayed as the heroine, despite being self-centered and immature. Moira shows at times a shocking lack of empathy, bad parenting skills, and inability to communicate in a relationship..."

"So what was my problem with the book? Why did I give it four stars and not five? Moira. I understand that she is young, but that doesn't stop me from giving her the worst mother of a year award. How many times could she possible say she's relieved when her daughter is away at preschool? Or hell, even when she is kidnapped? I know there are bad humans out there, but I like to believe that that thought would never cross your mind if your child was taken from you against your will. Then, all she does is cry throughout the whole story. All these strong characters are in this story, but weak Moira just cries in the background while being a terrible parent."

"Moira wasn't very likeable and I found her to be selfish and not a good mother at times.  She also cried constantly!  I hate when characters do that."

"The female characters are reminded time and again that they are helpless from danger without the help of a man and theyall react to stress with screams and tears, sometimes pathetically beating at the chests of the men in the room. Moira depends on her ex-boyfriend to drive her and Penelope from North Carolina to her hometown of Chicago to seek the help of another man, Adam..."

These are a few examples of the kind of criticism that Moira, the main character of Heaven's Forgotten, has received.

I think part of the reason I take these sorts of criticisms so seriously is because Moira is basically me. Having never been a mother myself, I largely based her off of how I've reacted in similar situations. I did my best to guess what I might do, given the extraordinary circumstances she finds herself in.

Creating the character of Moira, I was attempting to create a kid (23 years old, remember) who had found herself, through no fault of her own, in literally the worst parenting circumstances in the history of the world. She responds with tears, with fear, and by seeking help from the few people in her life who might be able to lend a hand. I can't imagine I would do it better than she did--in fact, I'm sure I wouldn't. So if anything, I'm giving her more credit than I give myself.

There's a real hunger right now for female main characters to take on the roles traditionally served by macho male characters: the action hero who doesn't need help from anyone, who stands up to any and all evil and gets what he wants (perhaps walking away from an explosion in slow motion in the process). And that's fine by me. There's space for that. But I've never particularly cared for stories with a traditional macho main male, and I didn't have much interest in crafting a story in that vein. The stories that interest me are stories about broken people leading broken lives and persevering despite their circumstances. 

So, Moira is a "weak" character. She is broken. She is far from the ideal mother.

An author friend of mine put it to me this way: "You could have made Moira a strong character, but it would have made her a worse character."

If Moira didn't need to seek help in these life-or-death, heaven-or-hell circumstances, how realistic would she be? If I as a thirty-something man break down in tears on occasion from the relatively small amount of stress I face, is it unrealistic to think a twenty-three-year-old kid would be more stalwart? I'd imagine I'd be facing a very different set of criticism if I'd gone that route.

Despite her shortcomings, I do have to question the perspective that she is nothing but a weak person, "pounding the chest" of the men in her life, demanding to be rescued. Spoilers follow, and here's where I get really defensive:

Moira alone left her family with her half-angel infant in tow to start a life with no idea what she was doing or what lay ahead.

Moira alone confronted her father about all the terrible things he had done to her.

Moira alone sought a weapon that could kill Michael and set out in secret to kill him, to get her daughter back.

And in the end, Moira alone chased down her (former) best friend, to not only save her daughter, but to save his soul.

I'm curious about what others think. Are traditionally "strong" main characters important to a story? Or is there a place for a character with plenty of "weakness" to spare?