Not too many years ago, writers and editors thought that characters should be likeable. This often translated into characters without flaws, or strengths disguised as flaws. Characters were good or they were bad, and there wasn’t much gray in between. Then the shades of gray expanded to encompass characters who were more complex, who took risks, made bad decisions, had tragic pasts, were sometimes outright evil, but always, always had compelling motivations.
Now books are filled with flawed characters. In fact, the other day a writer I follow on Twitter mentioned that she wouldn’t even be able to make a protagonist likeable or unflawed if she wanted to. That got me thinking about flawed characters in thrillers.
Are flawed characters necessary? Do readers like flawed characters more?
I took it to my Facebook author page and asked my readers. Unsurprisingly, they all agreed: flawed characters are better in fiction because it makes them three-dimensional. Life is shades of gray, and no one is just any one thing: good or bad. Characters who are flawed are more relatable and give us someone to root for.
Personally, I’ve always found flawed characters intriguing. Like real people, characters aren’t just a mix of positive attributes. Every positive has a negative, every up has its down. If a character has too many strengths, not only will they seem unrealistic and unrelatable, there won’t be enough tension and conflict to propel the story forward. In other words, likeable, flawless characters are boring.
The flawed aspects of characters—what makes them jaded, angry, broken or incomplete—makes them interesting. It’s what makes readers become invested in them, what makes readers cheer when the character wins and cry when they succumb. Flawless characters kill tension with the ruthless efficiency of a samurai sword.
When I sat down to write my most recent novel, Behind Every Lie, I knew my protagonist was going to be intensely flawed. Not only is Eva scarred from a traumatic past, she’s also implicated in the brutal murder of her mother. The problem is, much like that traumatic night in her past, she can’t remember what really happened. And with violent memories emerging, she doesn’t know who to trust. Least of all herself. That self-doubt, her fatal flaw, drives her actions and impedes her success again and again.
Behind Every Lie is a thriller exploring how some secrets refuse to stay hidden. But more than that, it’s a story about a flawed woman’s exploration of self-worth, identity and trauma. Because to be flawed is to be human.
Here are a few of my favorite thrillers with flawed characters.
You are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
This wonderfully mesmerizing thriller is about Shay, who has no job, no apartment and no boyfriend. She is lonely with a capital L. When Shay sees a woman throw herself in front of a train, she spirals into fear and anxiety. But all isn’t lost. She meets some new friends and, as the title indicates, isn’t alone any longer. But Shay’s biggest flaw, her fear of being alone, is driving every decision she makes. And though she thinks her new friends are giving her a new lease on life, she soon realizes maybe she really was better off alone.
Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier
A little over a year after Marin’s four-year-old son was snatched at a Christmas market, she’s hit bottom. But then her PI tells her that her husband is having an affair. Marin is desperate. She doesn’t want to lose the only family she has left. And as they say, desperate people do desperate things. This desperation leads Marin to do some seriously dark and twisted things, leaving us with a fast-paced, gorgeously written novel with genuine heart and a lot of emotion.
The Other Mrs by Mary Kubica
This creepy and cinematic thriller follows Sadie Foust and her family, who’ve moved to an isolated island off the coast of Maine. Sadie is a complicated protagonist. She loves her family but she’s distant with her kids, suspicious and jealous of other women around her husband, and is completely unpredictable. And then there are all the bizarre half-memories she keeps having. This is one seriously messed up lady. But then one of their neighbors is murdered and Sadie becomes a suspect. You thought she was flawed before, just wait until the explosive twist at the end!
Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel
After 18 years of thinking she’s ill, Rose Gold Watts learns her mother has been making her sick, in this twisted tale of Munchausen by proxy. Now her mother’s out of jail and Rose Gold wants revenge. But she’s been emotionally scarred from her mother’s abuse. She’s deeply insecure, full of self-loathing, and deceitful, all characteristics, funnily enough, that her mother exhibited. Rose’s significant flaws propel the story on to greater tension again and again, telling an utterly unpredictable and deliciously disturbing tale of revenge in all its brutal glory.
Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
I know many consider Amy from Gone Girl to be Gillian Flynn’s queen of flawed characters, but personally I think Camille from Sharp Objects is even better. Camille is an alcoholic, she’s self-destructive, and she cuts herself. When she returns home to write about a murder in her hometown, she comes face to face with her mother, the woman arguably responsible for her problems. There are deep psychological puzzles to piece together here, and a captivating, intensely flawed character who keeps getting in her own way. Camille is a character you won’t soon forget.
My Lovely Wife, Samantha Downing
The protagonist of My Lovely Wife is a hands-on dad and a devoted husband, willing to do anything for his wife, Millicent. But there’s such a thing as being too devoted, and this is his fatal flaw. Whether he’s stalking potential victims for his wife or just disposing of their bodies, he soon finds himself in deep trouble because of his proclivity to do his wife’s bidding. A twisted, sinister story with an utterly compelling character, Samantha Downing is giving Gillian Flynn a run for her money.
The Two Lila Bennetts by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke
I’ve recently discovered this writing duo and have been making my way through their books, which I love thanks to their capacity to create likeable, incredibly flawed characters. In this book, Lila Bennett is a selfish defense attorney with some decidedly dicey moral that get her into serious trouble. It would’ve been easy to make Lila hateful, and yet you understand each of her decisions and root for her in the end. I found myself thinking about Lila long after I’d finished the book.