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.
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.
6. Sales: Is the Publisher Selling Books?