Flawed characters turn me on.
For me, a truly great character is someone who fails almost as much as she succeeds. Someone who struggles and makes mistakes and has moments of weakness and bad judgment. Because in real life, humans makes mistakes. Humans aren’t perfect. Humans are infuriating and complex.
I’ve been told before that the main character in my current novel is “unlikable”. Which doesn’t mean she’s not interesting or someone you can’t care about. She’s just not someone you like right away. And you might never really like her. After all, she’s very, very flawed. I wrote her that way. And not intentionally, either – I simply wrote the character as I saw her, and she came out imperfect and in trouble.
For a while, I was worried that she would turn readers off. I worried about it so much that I tried writing her differently for a while. I tried making her sunny and funny and instantly likable, and then realized I hated her like that. She bored me. And if she bores me, I’m pretty damned sure she’ll bore you.
I finally decided I was willing to take the risk that readers may not like her, because what matters more to me – and to the story, I think – is whether people care what happens to her. Are you interested enough to want to see her redeem herself? Are you interested in what the consequences of her actions will be? Do you want to follow her story all the way to the end?
I’ve read so many books where the main characters are nothing short of perfect, and you know what I always end up doing? I finish the book, I put in on my shelf, and I forget all about it. I realize this is a totally subjective reaction – after all, romance novels are fairly formulaic with predictably happy endings, and yet they make up 55% of all fiction sales – but I can’t write a story that I, myself, wouldn’t want to read.
And I don’t want to write a forgettable story. I don’t want something that feels formulaic and predictable. I want complex characters who do great things and terrible things and everything in between.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Kite Runner. The main character, Amir, has got to be one of the most infuriating protagonists ever written. I wanted to slap him silly in almost every chapter because he was so selfish, so whiny, so cowardly. But you know what? I couldn’t put the book down. I had to find out how it ended. I needed to find out whether or not he redeemed himself. I cared what happened to him.
It’s a risk, yeah. Likable characters are a much easier sell than characters who piss you off and frustrate you. I’m sure that in a few months when I try and market this novel, there’ll be plenty of agents who’ll pass on it because my main character isn’t a hero. But I still think she rocks.
I hope you will, too.