When I was fresh out of high school, my mother made an interesting observation about a friend of mine. ‘Trouble with Kathy,’ she said, ‘she’s just too perfect.’ Now Kathy was a truly lovely person, sort of girl who taught Sunday school, made friends with homeless people, considered a glass of wine a walk on the wild side and discovered all kinds of intimate details about people I’d known for years and never bothered to ask. And she was popular – I’ve no idea, in fact, why she was hanging out with me. But would I want her as a heroine? Maybe, if I was writing a certain kind of romance. Then again, possibly not. After all, wouldn’t most of us want to be or spend time with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind rather than the saintly Melanie Wilkes? Yes, Scarlett’s selfish, wilful, and likely to steal your boyfriend but you can’t help but admire her beauty, her spirit and her resilient courage. But how to create characters with enough interesting failings to add depth and complexity without alienating the reader completely? Marian Keyes, Jane Green, Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella are masters of the art. Their books cover some serious issues – alcoholism, abuse, overeating, romantic obsession, rampant consumerism – but their heroines’ multiple insecurities and very real problems are balanced by an ability to keep you laughing through the misery which is what makes them ‘chicklit’ rather than Oprah Winfrey’s Pick Of The Week. And then there are those recent bestselling thrillers: Girl On A Train and Gone Girl. While most of us would shun the company of an alcoholic stalker or a psychopathic murderer, look how cleverly Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn use their unreliable narrators to suck us in, getting us totally absorbed in the story before we realize exactly who we’re dealing with and by then, it’s too late, we absolutely have to turn the next page.
Anyway when Pam and I were crafting out our chicklit romance, Million Dollar Question – the tale of two women, one who loses a fortune, one who unexpectedly acquires huge wealth – we struggled with the whole flawed vs likeable character issue. We wanted Olivia, the hedge fund trader, to be a ruthless, ambitious, money-focused counterpart to Rosie, the downtrodden self-sacrificing single mother, still pining over her philandering ex-husband. But therein was the challenge. Olivia had to be imperfect enough that the reader would somewhat enjoy her come-uppance but still find her sympathetic and Rosie couldn’t be so pathetic that said reader would end up despising her and flinging the book against the wall. In each draft we piled on redeeming qualities, showing Olivia’s intelligence, quick wit, the insecurities that made her so uptight and stressed about her career. And then we turned Rosie into an incorrigible optimist, the sunny sort of character who thinks there’s always a silver lining in every thundercloud, even as rainwater is cascading down her neck. Did we succeed in balancing out their obvious shortcomings? Well, if you’re interested, you can find out for yourself as Million Dollar Question goes on a 99cent/pence promotion this week in UK and US.
Meanwhile it would be interesting to find out how other writers deal with similar dilemmas. We all know that characters take on a life of their own. Have you ever had a protagonist that just refused to become who you wanted them to be? Or that you couldn’t get yourself to love no matter how much you tried to shower them with delightful qualities like the Good Fairies in Sleeping Beauty? And who are your favorite ‘bad girls’ in fiction?
Competition: We’re giving away free copies of Million Dollar Question to the first five readers at Take Five Authors who follow us on our Bookbub page and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the word done!