Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortably with (i.e., substance abuse, misogyny, etc.)
by Paul D. Marks
...get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left.
―Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli
Many of my characters are flawed one way or another. Some of them with major flaws like racism, others with everyday flaws like vanity or envy. I think we’re long past the days where the good guys wear white hats, don’t cuss, don’t smoke and don’t throw people off the tops of buildings. And if you look at the examples below I think you’ll see that I’m not “uncomfortable” with much in terms of flaws. Not because I like these traits, but because I think they’re real. And if I want my characters to ring true they have to have real flaws because no one is perfect.
Phillip Marlowe, the quintessential knight errant private eye, was misogynistic, racist and more, just as a matter of course. But he was also a product of his times. We notice it today when we read Chandler, but I’m sure many people reading those stories when they first came out wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Nor do I think Chandler would have given it a second thought or consciously put it in his stories. It was just the zeitgeist of the times (if I’m not being redundant). But today, when most of us write characters with these traits we are doing it on purpose to make a point of one kind or another and to round out the character.
The two main characters in my novel White Heat are both seriously flawed. Duke, the main character, is a screw-up in more ways than one, only that’s not the word he uses to describe himself. His partner, Jack, is majorly flawed. He a racist – at least on the surface. He says things that maybe other people only think. But a lot of them do think those things. If you only listened to Jack talk you’d think he was a really bad guy, but if you watch his actions, you see that it’s not that simple. Jack is also a good guy. He may say the wrong thing, but he pretty much does the right thing. In Jack’s case actions definitely speak louder than words.
White Heat takes place in and around the 1992 “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. And, though it’s a mystery, it deals with many racial issues and concerns – which are still relevant today. So the book is sort of a prism on today, though set in the not-too-distant past. I was so concerned by the raw nature of some of it that I put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book. I put the disclaimer in, but I also left in the raw language and actions of the characters. But I was still nervous about how people would react. Luckily the reaction was pretty positive on all fronts and the book ended up winning a Shamus award.
I also see Jack as the little devil on Duke’s shoulder, like you would see in the old cartoons. Jack is sort of Duke’s alter ego, the bad side of Duke, the nature he must fight. And he does. But why, one might wonder, would Duke even be friends with Jack? Because, besides their personal history, Duke sees beyond Jack’s posturing to the real Jack underneath and maybe that person isn’t quite what the surface person comes off as. We all say things we regret, and sometimes do things we regret. Jack pretty much does the right thing, even if he spouts off the wrong thing. And ultimately we are all flawed and can relate to the flaws in others. It makes the characters more human, more accessible. And more real.
The main character – a cop – in 51-50, a story first published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories – Psycho Noir edition (so the edition title alone might tell you something about the character), now in my LA Late @ Night story collection, shoots a gang banger out of sheer frustration, not because of a life-threatening situation. The cop is unraveling throughout the story, the pressures of life on the street are too much for him to deal with anymore. The story was written and published some years ago, but again is relevant in light of what’s been happening in the country today. The cop is not a bad guy. He wants to do the right thing. But dealing with the stress of the streets and the thugs he has to deal with just wears him down.
Ray Hood (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is an aging rocker in Dead Man’s Curve, his glory days as a road guitarist for Jan and Dean are long behind him. He’s selfish, he does bath salts (not the kind you put in the tub), he doesn’t appreciate what his sister is trying to do for him. Definitely not a model of perfection. And he wants to get back in the game. To that end he will do just about anything.
In Poison Heart (Deadly Ink 2010 anthology), Winger is a crime beat photographer, who can’t adjust to the modern world and has become jaded by all the violence he sees in the real world. So he decides to take things a step further and goes way beyond the bounds of the law to get a good pic, selling his soul (so to speak) in the process. Another desperate character who will do desperate things to stay on top and be a modern-day Weegee. Again, his flaws are the petty flaws we all have, but he takes them to another level. A more personal level of envy and the desire to be on top and what he’s willing to do to be there.
My Enemies Have Sweet Voices features the “typical” noir-guy flaw – he falls under the spell of a woman who convinces him to kill for her. But his real fatal flaw is that he betrays the trust of his best friend by asking him to help him hide the body. His weakness is that he picks lust over loyalty to his friend, while his friend is loyal and helps him with the body, no questions asked. But there is a bigger price he has to pay for it later. (Coming later this year in the Coast to Coast: Murder From Sea to Shining Sea anthology from Down and Out Books. Anthology title is tentative.)
Howling at the Moon (November 2014, Ellery Queen): This one’s a little different in that the character is not a bad person. Not selfish or suffering from envy or any of the other seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride But he is disaffected and has separated himself from his American Indian roots, especially after coming home from the war in Iraq. He ultimately does something we might think is immoral, but we empathize with him and understand why he does it. Nonetheless, he becomes a flawed person by the actions that he takes.
Most of my characters are flawed because people are flawed. I don’t necessarily set out to write a character with this or that flaw, but the character comes to life in the writing and develops those flaws, just as people do as they go through life. Ultimately, I think the reason most of us like flawed protagonists is that we can relate to them more. They are more like us. Not perfect, not saints, more like real people, just trying to get by in a flawed world.