On Writing: The Flawed Protagonist

Numerous times I’ve seen readers roll their eyes and say, “Oh, no, not another recovering alcoholic detective.” I get that. It’s a common, perhaps overused, trope and not everyone is sympathetic to a struggling drunk or addict.

Why a Flawed Protagonist?

In her classic writing treatise, Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel, Hallie Ephron tells us that the reader must care about the protagonist from the moment she opens the book, and teaches us how to build the sympathetic character. “Readers are far more taken with a character who is flawed in interesting ways.” Often, that protagonist is going to have a dark past which motivates her or him in the present. The reason why the protagonist must solve this mystery is because it’s her or his chance “to get it right this time.”

With this in mind, let’s take a look at a few of my favorite flawed protagonists:

Miss Marple, the Ageing Spinster

Jane Marple was a lady of a certain age living in a small English village, never married and forced to live on a budget. Many of her friends are widows or spinsters too, given that world wars had decimated British males for two generations. Living modestly as she does, she doesn’t have the resources to race around interviewing suspects. Instead, she relies on her keen powers of observation and sharp mind. Her motivation? Keeping villages tidy, free of evil and danger. The villagers are her family. She cares for and protects them as she would have, if only she had children and grandchildren.

Hercule Poirot, the Foreigner

Hercule Poirot, a Belgian, settled in London following the Great War. Apparently at the time, the British were suspicious of foreigners. No surprise that, having barely won the WWI yet beat of war drums soon began to sound again in the distance. Poor Hercule is constantly fighting prejudice, supercilious patronizing, and language difficulties while solving the crime at hand. His motivation? Justice. As a refugee, he feels a kinship to underdogs. He endeavors to free them from injustice and punish the wrongdoers.

Monk, the Phobic

Adrian Monk suffered profoundly from OCD which was only made worse when his wife was murdered in a car bomb. According to Wikipedia, he suffers from 312 phobias. Fear of germs was the most prevalent as I recall. (You know, he was right about that.) After his wife’s murder, his mental instability cost his job at the police force so he’s forced to work as a private detective. He has two driving motivations: find his wife’s killer and prove that he is well enough to rejoin the police. The obsessive nature of his personality often facilitated solving the crime at hand.

Longmire, the Widower

Who doesn’t love Walt Longmire? Deeply grieving from the loss of his wife, he drinks too much but is devoted to his job. Walt’s drive comes from his personal and official duties. In the television series, processing his grief and survivor guilt is intertwined with the solving the crime at hand.

A Question for You

Who are your favorite heroes and why do you love them? Tell us in the comments below or on social media.

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Keenan Powell

Author

Keenan Powell is the Agatha, Lefty, and Silver Falchion nominated author of the Maeve Malloy Mystery series, Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, Hell and High Water.

While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.

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13 comments

  1. Barbara Haversack in Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley series is about as flawed as you can get and readers, including me, love her. From her stained t- shirts to her red sneakers and her multiple efforts to quit smoking, there is so much more to love. I’m sure that’s why her presence in the series has grown.

  2. I agree with Michele. I love Barbara Havers. Lisbeth Salander in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is another wildly flawed character loved by many.

    I think they grab us and hold us because the authors show us their humanity, their struggles and we identify with them and root for them. At least I do.

  3. I’ve never heard of the Thomas Lynley series, I’ll have to check it out. Thanks, Michele!

    Lisbeth Salander was so messed up, poor thing. That and her absolute drive to prevail pulled me in.

  4. Such an excellent blog, thank you for this. I like Hallie’s observation and you’ve distilled it into a few compelling, interesting characters that elevate the reader’s experience from the classic noir detective.

  5. My favorite flawed investigator is Spenser (creation of the late Robert B. Parker.) His motivation was his personal version of right & wrong as well as his fierce loyalty to friends. I loved that Boston was a character. (I’m a Californian, but I love Boston.)

  6. I’ve always thought of Sue Grafton’s character, Kinsey Milhone, as a closet thief – a klepto of sorts. She’s an accomplished lock pick(rake), she reads peoples mail (upside down, no less), she skulks and prefers the “tightly coiled places”, even her car is quite small. I honestly think I wouldn’t like her in person.

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