Why Readers Care: The Mystery of a Flawed Yet Redeemable Character

I’ve been thinking a lot about character lately. Why do readers fall in love with flawed characters? Is there something about the ones readers love that is a common denominator?

Well…yes. It’s okay if your character is flawed. If he or she is a jerk. If they’re a killer, a monster, or, good heavens, a card carrying member of that other political party. All is not lost if this person loves someone. Or does something kind for someone. Or even has a compassionate thought about another person or animal.

Have Them Care About Something Relatable, Make Them Save The Cat

In case anyone reading this doesn’t know, Save The Cat is a concept and series of books by Blake Snyder, which has acquired a life all its own since he first published it in 2005. The point is that your character needs to do a good deed for the audience to root for them, even if the character is an assassin.

Sure, your MC doesn’t need to be Mother Teresa, but it really is important for us to see a glimmer of kindness within this monster. I was watching a film recently and had to stop because I realized that the main character, for whom I was meant to root, and who had gone through some very awful experiences, was simply unlikeable. Irredeemably so. This character did not do anything bad, exactly, but neither did they ever have a generous thought toward anyone else.

I mean, even Hannibal Lecter treated Clarice with a certain level of understanding and kindness, which made him much more compelling than if he’d spent the ENTIRE movie being mean.

Top Selling Novels Give Us Characters Who Are Not Like Us, Except When They Are

According to Google, these are some of the top thriller and mystery novels of the 21st century, so far:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson: Lisbeth Salander is about as far from warm and fuzzy as you can get, but she is JUST. She cares deeply about punishing the wicked and righting wrongs, and because she goes about this with courage and ingenuity, she’s become part of our culture.

The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins: Yes, the titular “girl” is an utter mess, an alcoholic, and unreliable. But she believes she witnessed a crime and she is determined to help or somehow fix the situation. She does this at great detriment to herself, which makes her someone to care about.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø: With his Harry Hole detective, Jo Nesbø gives us a character who cares deeply about many things. He is flawed and he is being destroyed by his life and his work, BECAUSE he cares. And, of course, that makes us care about him too.

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier: Jennifer Hillier is arguably THE master of the flawed, yet relatable character. The MC, Marin, is barely surviving after a terrible event, but she’s surviving. She feels deeply and she cares. She loves. She does some incredibly messed up things, but we go along for the ride because she’s so human.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman: Okay, not a thriller. It’s a graphic novel and, more recently, a Netflix series. But for a story about gods and eternal beings, it manages to make its otherworldly creatures decidedly human-(ish). These gods, dreams, and nightmares personified are capable of doing awful things, and do. But they also do kind things, and even selfless things. Certainly brave things.

How about you? Who is your favorite monster?

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MIss Demeanors

Author

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in A Stranger Comes to Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.

12 comments

  1. George Sands, the werewolf in BBC Being Human. He doesn’t want to be a werewolf. The morphing is extremely painful. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone much less turn someone else into a werewolf. So he has his friends cage him up every full moon. Then he accidentally infects his girlfriend. So much guilt.

    1. I really think it comes down to a tiny bit of altruism. If the character ONLY cares about their own success and how everything affects them AND is mean and uncharitable to absolutely everyone around them, it’s extremely hard to root for them. If you look at the movies and books that have the worst reviews and rankings, usually people complain about not having anyone to root for.

  2. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng gives us two: Mia Warren and Elena Richardson are characters we love to hate…until we don’t. She successfully shows us their past lives and it changes everything.

    1. Exactly! Plus, each of them has a higher goal they’re fighting for. It’s hard to hate idealists, even if you disagree with their ideals. They each believe they’re fighting for something that is good.

  3. I’ve been reading Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman. The protagonist is flawed, and I have a terrible feeling that in actual life I’d avoid her, but she is also brave and wounded and it’s impossible not to root for her. I also love Save the Cat, and love what he says about finding your characters’ scars.

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