My favorite characters tend to be damaged, especially the male love interest. This pull isn't an unexpressed need to fix a broken man. I simply get very irritated when characters are too perfect. It was my one complaint about a few books written by the great Louis L'Amour, particularly The Walking Drum. My grandfather loves the book and encouraged me to read it. I struggled through it even though it was beautifully written and quite interesting. Why? The protagonist was good at everything. He was the best horseman, could beat anyone with any weapon - he could even do acrobatics like a boss. I remember yelling at the book about a third of the way through: "Aren't you bad at anything???"
I believe the need for a flawed hero is common and not overly complicated. The main driver doesn't stem from a "White Knight" syndrome - a need to be the savior in a relationship. It is easier to relate to a character with flaws than a character who is perfect for the simple reason that we are not perfect. There are very few people who grace the planet who have never experienced insecurity, especially during their teenage years. The formative years of our life are spent comparing ourselves to the people around us and wondering if we fit in - if we are normal. This (hopefully) becomes less important as we age and begin to identify as individuals rather than a peer collective. As we grow older, we recognize our differences. I hope other people celebrate them as much as I do. It's what makes us interesting, and that rings true for characters in a book.
There are several ways to make characters multi-dimensional, but few are as effective as exposing a history of trauma. Let's start with some obvious examples. Susie from The Lovely Bones, a young girl who is raped and murdered. It would take a cold individual not to feel some emotional turmoil - especially since the author does such a fantastic job of giving Susie a voice that is both little sister and tormented victim. A second example: One of my favorite paranormal romance novelists, J.R. Ward, brings us Zsadist in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series - a severely abused man turned vicious warrior. Without the complex history she brings to his story, he would just come off as a crazy a**hole. The knowledge that he was kept as a chained sex slave for nearly a hundred years makes the reader much more sympathetic.
We don't love these characters just because they are damaged. The damage is what makes it possible to relate and sympathize with them. We love them because of the character arc - the development - they show throughout the story. Susie learns what must happen for her to move on and Zsadist learns to love. Without development and growth, the reader would likely grow uncomfortable with the character and start to give up hope. Sometimes this is what the author intended and it is still successful.
One of my favorite examples of the damaged hero is Jack Torrance from The Shining. Stephen King does a phenomenal job of taking someone who could have easily been written off as an abusive father and brings enough insight into what drives Jack to make us feel sympathy. I wouldn't have thought it possible to actually hope that someone as angry and abusive as Jack could turn it around, but King give us such a clear window into how hard his character is trying to be a better man that I started hoping he would be. I knew it couldn't happen, but it didn't stop me from hoping. Hope died when he went completely insane, but I still love the novel.
Before I close out this post, I would like to point out that character flaws do not need to be as radical as the examples I have provided to draw in a reader. Clary from Cassandra Clare's City of Bones, Katniss from Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and Reuben from Leif Enger's Peace Like a River are all examples of protagonists that have less noticeable flaws. Their short comings, although far more subtle than my previous examples, are exactly what pull us in and makes us hope they can still prevail.
Who are your favorite heroes? Why do you love them? Do you have a favorite perfect hero that contradicts this theory?
a little too seriously. He's still my hero.