We're all tired of stereotypical perfection - perfect princesses, handsome guys swooping in to flawlessly save the day. So we add imperfections - little weaknesses that make our heroes and heroines more like regular people. She doesn't always tell the truth, he tends to be overbearing and arrogant...But when does it cross the line to being too much? When do we lose all sympathy for them?
Help me out here guys - what makes you despise the characters you're supposed to be rooting for? Have you ever read about a hero you just couldn't stand?
Lisa: For me a character can be too flawed when he or she is no longer redeemable. There has to be one saving thing that sticks in our head and makes us think Jack is so infuriating, but wasn't the way he handled his sick father soooo sweet? Or there has to be a good reason. There needs to be something going on with Jane that makes it obvious why she is the way she is. This way we can have sympathy for her even through her negative traits. Such as, Jane is overbearing and controlling, but she's that way because she is the caretaker of her handicapped little brother. He is only handicapped because of an accident she believes she could have prevented had she only taken control of the situation and not let little brother slide down the slide head first. She has a daily reminder that loosing control only leads to pain and permanent injury.
So my answer is that characters can be very flawed as long as you have strong and regular reminders that the character is this way for a reason, there is something saving in their actions, and they can be cured of their flaw (character arc) or at least improve.
Caitlin: I agree with Lisa's answer. I love flawed characters and I love dark characters, but I don't care much for characters who have very few redeemable qualities or explanations for their actions. My husband sometimes teases me about how I like characters, my own and others, to ultimately lean toward "good." He uses Walter White as an example. I never really got into Breaking Bad and I think it's because I couldn't see any reason to root for him. (Full disclaimer, I'm basing this off of glimpses of the show while my husband watches it. I really don't know much about the show/character, but what I do know doesn't draw me in.)
However, I used to think if a character did something bad, I'd have to know why right away. Stephanie Kuehn proved me wrong recently with her Charm & Strange. The main character horribly beats up another kid within the first five pages (so no spoiler here), and he isn't even remorseful. But...there was something about him the fascinated me. I'm still not quite sure how she pulled it off, but I felt for him (in ways I never felt for Walter White). So I kept reading and, in the end, I think Lisa's explanation would be right on. He has a lot of flaws, but you begin to understand why he has the flaws, and you root for his redemption.