Of Loss, Brokenness, and Scrooge


I was listening to an NPR show one morning on the way to the lab, (a rerun, surely) and they were talking about books, interesting characters, the psychology of loss, and Scrooge. I never got the name of the show, but it had a varied and almost dissonant cast of professionals, including a psychologist, a book reviewer, and the host, among others. If I hadn’t been driving I’d have taken notes, but it’s a long winding country road to the lab, and so I didn’t. What I did was let the ideas being tossed around by the guests ferment in my brain and combine with the thoughts from the post that I wrote on the 6th about Chaos and Order. This could be part two. Or not. We’ll see how it plays out.

In the previous post I said that: Order without chaos is entropy, and entropy is death. That led us back to my usual posit that the best characters are broken, and the more broken they are the better the character and the more memorable the character. Not everyone agreed with my conclusion that every good character is broken. NPR said I was right. (cue happy music) I don’t get to be right often, and certainly don’t get any potential rightness to be affirmed by NPR—a media that generally looks down on all genre books, all genre writers, and all genre readers. I have been in a jolly mood ever since, let me say.

As I remember it, the psychologist and the reviewer were talking about loss and how only the best characters, and the strongest (real life) human beings accept and deal with loss. And they got to talking about Scrooge as the ideal vision of characters and humans and loss. Yes, they were talking about the Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ play written in 1843, A Christmas Carol.

In the play, (movies, films, animations, etc. for the last 170+ years) Scrooge is always depicted as: a skinflint, a cold, hard, unyielding, self-made man, one who did it all his way, one with no regrets, one who fears nothing and no one, one who is totally self-satisfied, one who needs nothing, and most important for this post—one who is NOT broken.


The reviewer’s and the psychologist’s take on it was that Scrooge was in reality (or in fictionality)  ultimately, truly, and totally broken. He just didn’t know it. Which made me go “Ahhhhh!”

The entire story of Scrooge’s change into a good kind human being, was dependent upon his acceptance of his brokenness and loss. He was forced to face his own emptiness, his loss of family, love, wife, potential children, joy, friends, hope, and community. It was his acceptance of his loss that made Scrooge  evolve and develop and that made the play one that we still watch (and dissect) today.

Their conclusion made me look at a couple of characters from literature in a different way—based on the characters not knowing they are broken, and based on the readers (initially) not knowing that the character is broken.

I went back to The Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick. In Red Badge, Henry is this naïve, idealistic character who thinks he understands what war is, a man who intends to seek honor in battle, though he’s never seen battle at all. The story not only breaks him, it reveals the cracks in his character that made him broken in the first place. Then it rebuilds him (develops him) into a character of worth and value of what it means to be a man.

In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab suffers from a major fatal flaw. Like Scrooge he believes he is perfect. The critic M. H. Abrams says that Ahab (and similar heroes) “moves us to pity because, since he is not an evil man, his misfortune is greater than he deserves; but he moves us also to fear, because we recognize similar possibilities of error in our own lesser and fallible selves.” Ahab was broken inside because of his self-confidence and hubris long before he came up against Moby Dick and (whom he considered the embodiment of evil).

So. What do I draw from this? That every decent character is broken somehow. Except for the Mary Janes and Mary Sues of the of literary world. And that they are useless for a writer, simply because they aren’t broken. We need brokenness. Even if it is only a chink in the armor that the writer can hammer away at to reveal the deeper weaknesses inside.

If you want to jump in here and argue, please do. I’d love to see some memorable not-broken characters. (Dorothy from Oz, anyone? Yes, I can find a brokenness in her!) Or you can offer up some broken characters from *literature*. Now’s your chance.  😆     







22 comments to Of Loss, Brokenness, and Scrooge

  • Vyton

    Faith, great post. In this, you are correct. And you are quite probably more often right than not. Certainly you have to look no further than the Bible or Shakespeare to see that you are right. There’s not one character in the Scottish play that’s not broken (except maybe Duncan’s kids). Certainly Dorothy is. Now I have to go and hammer some cracks into my MC. Thanks for your insight. You are right.

  • Great post! I love the humanity of broken characters — we’re *all* broken, so that’s what makes the made-up ones real. As a writer, though, I often find reviewers grumble about the cracks in my characters (“She (the 12-year-old girl) is so immature!” “She (the 13-year-old girl) makes such bad decisions!” etc.) To which I blow raspberries 🙂

  • When I think of broken characters, I think of Nicola Griffith’s Slow River, which is filled with them. It is a brilliant book and well worth the read.

    And I think you’re almost always right. Except when we disagree . . . 🙂

  • Thanks Vyton. I think the cracks we hammer into our characters make them richer, deeper, more human.

    Mindy, I totally agree about reviewers. Then cannot remember what it was like to be that young if they think they were mature and made good decisions. None of us did. Heck. I still don’t.

    David, LOL. Let’s be honest. I am never right. I was not right when I was 12. I am not right now. But it’s fun pretending. And when NPR says I’m right, I’ll take it! At least today. And … when have we ever disagre… Oh. Yeah. 🙂

  • Does brokenness have to be a bad thing? Characters can be good to fault where they are so good that they refuse to see dangers or faults in others. Can that in turn be called broken? I am thinking like Sansa in GRRM’s work. She is so oblivious to the evils at court that she does not see the bad dealings all around her.

    (of course pretty much every GRRM character is broken, it’s his thing)

  • Ahab is so broken! Terrfied that, in fact, the whale isn’t evil, and then all the horrible stuff that has happened to him isn’t because evil is out to get him (or God, perhaps), but because horrible things happen without purpose. And how do you fight against that?

    I can think of characters so broken (or broken in a particular way) that I don’t want to read them or watch them. The big example of “I get you’re broken, but no thanks” for me is Thomas Covenant. Yeah, I get he suffers, but I got to the rape and went “nope!” and put it down and never picked it up again. I saw that again recently in a book I picked up–I just opened to a random page just to see, and the MC was raping a woman (and he’s the good guy) and he was justifying it. I was like “nope!” and put it down. And this is a pretty successful multi-book author.

    So, yeah, a character has got to be broken, but for me there are some ways I just don’t want to read about. (And it’s cool, people can, obviously, write whatever they want, I just also get to not read it if it isn’t for me).

    About the only non-broken characters I can think of either get broken (Luke Skywalker, for example) or are meant to be messianic or to stand against evil as an example of the Good. (I think you could argue that Gandalf, while flawed, isn’t broken. I don’t think Sam is broken either, and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s able to survive and successfully integrate back into society. I mean, come on, he says “let’s go a bit farther down the mountain Frodo, just because we shouldn’t give up!” (paraphrase)–that’s pretty not broken).

  • How about Atticus Finch? He’s not broken, although to pea faerie’s point he is meant to be Good. Plus we see him through his young daughter’s eyes, so maybe she just doesn’t see the cracks or realize how he’s broken. It’s been years since I read the book, so there may be places where the author shows the cracks the narrator misses.

    On a more personal note, this post made something click with me, and I realized the problem I’d been having with my character. She’s broken, but while I was reading this I realized that I hadn’t really thought about her flaw, the one that keeps getting in her way when she tries to fix the outer part of her life, and prevents her from even thinking about her inner self as broken. Thanks, Faith!

  • Cindy

    I think the ultimate broken family is your DeLandes. Most of them are so broken that evil seems normal.
    It would be interested if the DeLande family got to interact with Jane Yellowrock.

  • Cindy

    OK, I mean it would be interesting.

  • Hmm. My MC was messed up to start with, then someone else messed him up a whole lot more in completely different ways, and in fighting his way back from that, he eventually outgrew his older being-messed-up stuff. In his middle age I can’t think how he’s still “broken”, but now he’s having to deal with other “broken” people and what they in turn break, so maybe that’s it.

  • My current MC is the “more broken than she realizes” – events in the story are forcing her to confront her sense of abandonment, her loneliness, that fact that she doesn’t feel secure in her family. She’s a foundling raised by a fighting order of religious sisters which has given her a sense of identity and belonging, but that identity is a lot more fragile than she realizes.

    I don’t know that Sam starts out broken, but there’s a moment when the narrator says something like “Sam was by nature a cheerful hobbit, and so he hadn’t yet learned to need hope.” I think Sam evolves from a generally cheerful person whose safe world has confirmed his “it’s all going to be fine” view, to a person who has seen horror and chosen / learned to hope even in the face of despair. That’s a kind of break in his character that allows him to go from being a follower to a leader in the Shire. (He’s also a prime example of the last shall be first too – he’s the servant who becomes the master because he continues to serve and serve well with love.)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    A lot of interesting thoughts with this post. In some ways I’m very conflicted on the subject because I think it’s often too easy for lazy storytellers to say, “broken is good, lets go all angsty” while for my tastes quietly strong characters seem to be undervalued (not that they don’t have their own brokenness).

    At the same time, brokenness can be more broadly lumped in with “characters with limitations”. I saw the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe recently, so here are my examples: I think Edmund is a much stronger character than Peter. Part of this goes right along with this post in that he is the clearly more broken character, but really both boys are broken, but Edmund is allowed to face and heal his brokenness, whereas Peter is not; in the next movie Peter has the same insecurities (and they seem to give his character more emotional vibrancy) whereas Edmund has been labeled by everyone as broken, but is a much more grounded person as a result, a much better example to viewers of how to deal with brokenness in our own lives.

    Similarly, Lucy is clearly the more awesome character than Susan, and while she’s pretty much not broken at all, she is very young and therefore very limited. She has to be strong within the confines of her more limited powers, so her achievements are much more memorable.

    Finally, as with the Scrooge example, I think that the *healing* aspect is the most important for me to really enjoy broken characters. Characters who can or have confronted their limitations and have learned to focus more on what they can do rather than on what they can’t are the ones that *I* really cherish.

  • Oh yes, Mark. I totally agree. Perfection is its own fault-line in a character. I think that works beautifully.

    Pea (and Sarah), I have to agree. Thomas C was very, very difficult. I also read Ghost by John Ringo. The MC is a serial rapist seeking to take charge and control over his rape-compulsion. I forced my through it, and the one after, because I wanted to see if Ringo could make this work. It was very difficult, and, in my opinion, the character never did find any kind of change or redemption. Gandalf… Yeah. I haven’t thought about him. He starts out and ends the messianic character. Luke and Sam had weaknesses that the writers exploited for the story. Luke’s were both historical and familial, and Sam — well I agree with Sarah. His weakness was his very innocence, and if he broke, he made that brokenness into his strength and carried on.

    Sisi, oh yeah! Glad it helped.

  • Cindy, Jane Yellowrock would chew up and spit out the DeLandes. Of course, the women in the extended families did that pretty well on their own. 🙂

    Reziac, I love a character who can fight free of brokenness. Of course, all characters, even us real life characters, are usually brought (by life and living) back to face that brokenness again and again. Once broken, we are never free of the scars.

    Sarah, see above with Pea comment.

  • Hep, I totally see that. Characters who grow through any weakness or loss or brokenness are the ones we remember. If they don’t change — if they lack character development — then they are cardboard, two dimensional characters. They are, ultimately, less interesting. As to the angesty part — the woe-is-me character is boring too. It is fighters we love, and gutsy underdogs we love best.

  • Ahem. Sam was broken. He was jealous of his position in Frodo’s life, and a bit insecure. Rather than try to sympathize with Smeagol, he consistently tormented, until Frodo does what he ultimately fears – sends him away. Granted, it’s a little flaw, but it carries throughout the tale, right to the end. Frodo has to leave the Shire, because that’s the only way Sam’ll be whole and undivided for his family.

  • Lyn, I’m pretty sure that’s just the movie. Unless I’m remembering wrong, Frodo NEVER sends Sam away in the books. They are separated because of Shelob. Golum ditches them both at the Spider’s cave thing, Frodo is “killed” and Sam takes the ring and tries to go on, then realizes Frodo isn’t dead and goes back to rescue him from goblins. He’s much less jealous in the books, too–if he’s jealous at all. He distrusts Smeagol, yes, but mostly completely correctly. He’s devoted to Frodo without it becoming a “broken” thing, I think, too. Sam is a picture of devotion, faith, loyalty and friendship–it’s be irritating in the too goodie goodie school if it wasn’t so well written. (Plus, I think he’s the pov character for the audience in the Frodo/Sam scenes, rather than Frodo–like Sam, we can’t know what Frodo is feeling, esp. the weight of the ring, so we see it through Sam)

    I’d also argue that weakness isn’t necessarily the same thing as “broken” (depending on the level). For example: weakess = fear of hights. Broken = Vertigo (the film) where the MC can’t even hardly think about heights and it gets two women killed (the MC doesn’t heal the brokeness, in my opinion, at the end of the movie).

    I just think that “broken” is good in books, but we have to distinguish between “flawed” (which is good, too) and “broken.” Broken has to have some level of non-function. Emotional, physical, mental, spiritual. While flawed hinders someone, makes them human, it isn’t that grand scale. My guess would be that succesful secondary characters have flaws, while succesful main characters (heros or villains) are more apt to be broken.

  • quillet

    I love this post, and I love this subject! I strongly agree that Scrooge is broken. That poor lonely boy, neglected by his father, and then letting the death of his sister harden him against the whole world, to the point that he lost the woman he loved and ended up old and alone? He couldn’t ~be~ more broken! Just goes to show that “broken” does not equal “weak.”

    I also think “broken” does not equal “angst” or even “not good.” I’ll point to Cazaril, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s _The Curse of Chalion_, a character who is good and mild-mannered but so broken it’s painful. He’s been put through A LOT, and it’s left scars not only physical but mental and emotional too. Which is what makes him such a fantastic character (one of my faves, I’ll say at the risk of sounding like a broken record.)

    Many thanks to Sarah and Lyn Nichols for arguing for Sam’s brokenness. Saves me having to do it. 😉 I’ll second pea_faerie, though, and point out that Frodo does ~not~ send Sam away in the book; that’s only the movie. In the book, Sam’s jealousy (and I believe it is jealousy) causes him to snark at Gollum for “pawing at master,” as Sam thinks of it, when in fact Gollum was having second thoughts about sending Frodo into Shelob’s lair, and his touch is almost a caress. Sam thus ruins a moment which could (maybe) have been the beginning of Smeagol’s redemption. It’s rather sad.

    I also think Gandalf ~is~ broken. Not severely, but still, he’s been waging a long and very thankless battle against evil (which has left him rather testy), and he has made a lot of mistakes that weigh heavily on him — not least being his failure to recognize the One Ring when it was under his very nose, in Bilbo’s possession. Had he recognized it sooner, it could have been dealt with sooner. I think he feels the dreadful responsibility of that. And then later in the book he’s broken physically by the Balrog, and comes back re-forged, woo hoo! 😀 Goes to show that being broken — assuming they come back from it — can really make characters stronger.

  • Nicely discussed you guys. I admit it has been too many years since the book and not enough since the movie for me to argue either way.

    Quillet sums up our discourse quite well with the statement: I also think “broken” does not equal “angst” or even “not good.”

    Personally, I think broken, weak, faulted, tired, etc., all equal the same thing — a really great, workable character.

  • This is a very interesting post. i think it makes you looks at your own work and think, “are my characters too safe?” “do I mind pushing their limits?” Because lets face it, we read about our favorite characters ultimately because they are flawed. the world is so full of people who have so much going on; no one wants to read about people who don’t have THINGS going on, it just seems fake if they don’t. We don’t want safe in our beloved characters. That’s why some of the greats (authors/ characters) are so great because they don’t ,ind pushing the limits of their characters and breaking them even more then letting them come up for breath.
    This is how we get to the point of being broken; now you have to figure out what motivates your character, how did he get to this point in the first place. To me BROKEN is a challenge to overcome your past, find out what broke you and how and if you can fix it. It’s the universal code of books everywhere,; someone has something they have to overcome, a fear to get past, a hurdle to climb.

  • Wait, you said it perfectly: BROKEN is a challenge to overcome your past, find out what broke you and how and if you can fix it. It’s the universal code of books everywhere,; someone has something they have to overcome, a fear to get past, a hurdle to climb.
    Yes yes yes.

  • sagablessed

    All my characters are broken. One was thrown out by family; two lost their mothers; another had a secret affair, another killed his own abusive father; the last killed herself when her home State lost the war.
    Crap, sounds like Jerry Springer.