All too often characters in novels are built up as superheroes. More often than not, this “picture perfect” character is the male. He’s able to defeat the bad guy, save the girl, and scale a twenty-two floor office building using his bare hands. The woman is presented as endearingly flawed, a kind of She’s-Every-Woman for the Outta-This-World dream guy. Or worse, she’s just Fantasy Dream Girl, with no flaws and no point to the plot.
But it’s important to build up characters with just as many negative qualities as positive ones. Human beings are weird. We’re complex; we’re messy; we do things which sometimes can’t be explained. Aesop was on to something. Writing about animals is way easier than documenting the strange mistakes we make as humans.
What are a thriller hero’s flaws anyway? Aside from not being to hold down a job for longer than a novel or meet girls who don’t work for the government, he doesn’t have many.
Let me preface this by stating how I love thriller novels. The genre inspired several of my characters from The Innocent Assassins. The lead for most thrillers is pretty formulaic – he’s effortlessly cool; he’s exceptionally well-trained; he looks like Tom Cruise (?).
Okay, so he doesn’t follow the law. Somehow this is worked into a positive for him. Sometimes the law can be corrupt, but you know who’s never corrupt? The thriller hero. He’s perfect. He’s the one everyone aspires to be.
He’s also impossible.
The same applies for romantic suspense novels. I see the flawless hero so often it’s nearly its own trope. I understand the initial appeal of a hero with no flaws, but there’s something about those characters which always feels missing. Flaws allow characters to not only be interesting and complicate the plot, they also add a dimension of realism to whatever crazy story line is going on. I am perfectly willing to suspend my belief that the US federal government wants to kill all members of the very death squad they funded – but can you please give him a flaw other than memory loss?
Flaws grant a character distinctly human characteristics. True flaws that can’t quite be redeemed – hunger for power, selfish pride, social climbing – present a much more complete portrait of someone. While these are all “stereotypical” detestable qualities, they’re understandable. They’re real flaws people have, versus killing one too many bad guys.
Save a thriller hero, add some flaws.