What most attracts you to a character in crime fiction? Bravery, honesty, integrity? Something else? What about their flaws? That might sound like a strange suggestion. After all, not many of us choose our friends or partners because we’re drawn to their negative traits but, to me, a crime protagonist never really comes alive unless they’re flawed.
The first, and most fundamental, question I ask myself when I’m planning a novel is what is it that my main character wants more than anything else in the world? If I can establish what they desire – revenge, justice, the truth – my job as an author is then to throw obstacle after obstacle at them to prevent them from achieving that goal. But those hurdles tend to be external (situational or other people for example). To make things really tricky for my character they need internal obstacles too and that’s why I ask myself a second question – what is my main character’s flaw? The flaw needs to be in direct opposition to their goal i.e. it should make it harder for them to achieve it.
In my last novel, The Missing, my main character Clare’s flaw was her controlling natural. She believed she knew exactly what everyone in her family was up to and how they were feeling. But when her sixteen year old son Billy went missing she had to acknowledge the fact that maybe she wasn’t as in control as she thought. In my new novel The Escape, my character Jo’s flaw is even more extreme. Jo must go on the run in order to protect her two year old daughter Elise but Jo’s agoraphobic. She’s only able to function if her daily routine remains the same and she doesn’t go anywhere that feels unsafe. For someone with agoraphobia just the thoughts of getting on public transport can bring on the symptoms of a panic attack so, for Jo to have to get a ferry and stay in caravans and B&Bs, it’s a living nightmare.
Once I’ve decided what my character’s flaw will be I think about why they are that way and I look to their past for answers. In Jo’s case her agoraphobia was sparked by a second trimester pregnancy loss that made her unable to leave the house. In Clare’s case she became a control freak after a dysfunctional childhood where her mother’s hoarding tendencies almost broke up the family.
In crime series the main character rarely overcomes their flaw because that flaw is an intrinsic part of the character and plot. It’s the same in crime drama on the TV but in a stand-alone crime novel the main character should overcome their flaw by the end of the book, and they should obtain their goal. To me a flaw adds depth to the character and makes them more relatable. And, if the author has done their job well, it gives the reader another reason to frantically turn the pages.
The Escape is published by HarperCollins