Nobody’s perfect. That’s a very obvious point, but when it comes to crime-fictional sleuths, I think it bears a little reflection. I think most of us would probably agree that we don’t want our protagonists to be too perfect. After all, a perfect protagonist isn’t realistic. So characters with no weaknesses and faults don’t feel well-developed or authentic.
In the early days of crime fiction, a lot of character depth was arguably less important than it is now. This isn’t to say of course that no classic or Golden Age detective stories have well-rounded protagonists. But the emphasis was on the plot rather than on the evolution of a flawed but still appealing and believable protagonist.
Just as one example, one of the criticisms I’ve read of Dorothy Sayers’ work is that her Lord Peter Wimsey is too perfect. He gets it right too often. Whether you agree with that particular claim or not, it reflects a more general criticism of some of the ‘heroes’ of the stories of that era. People want their protagonists to be believable and that means to be less than perfect.
One response to this interest in the ‘not perfect’ protagonist has been what people sometimes call the ‘anti-hero.’ Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is arguably one example of that sort of character. Ripley is not without any feelings, but he is amoral. He’s been mixed up in fraud, murder, theft and other crimes; on that level, he’s got many deep flaws.
There are also characters such as Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford, whom we meet in The Killer Inside Me. On the surface, Ford seems to be what everyone thinks he is – a pleasant if dull local sheriff’s deputy. Then crime comes to Central City, Texas. First, there’s a vicious beating. Then there’s a murder. As the investigation goes on, we begin to see what Lou Ford is really like, and we learn about his past. Without spoiling the story, I think it’s fair to say that Ford is not a classic detective-story ‘hero.’
There are more modern examples too of the ‘anti hero’ sort of protagonist. For example, some people feel that Leif G.W. Persson’s Evert Bäckström is an anti-hero. Certainly he’s not ‘politically correct.’ He’s not easy to work with, he’s egotistical and he’s bigoted. By most people’s estimation he’s a fairly deeply flawed character.
And yet, the trilogy featuring Bäckström and his team has been well-regarded. A lot of people think that The Killer Inside Me is a classic noir story. And Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels have certainly gotten a great deal of praise. So it’s possible for an ‘anti hero’ to be appealing enough to hold readers’ interest.
That said though, I think we could all think of examples of stories we’ve read with one too many broken, demon-haunted, drunken detectives. I won’t make a list; you’ve all read your share I’m sure. We’ve all had the experience too of reading books we didn’t enjoy because there simply nothing to make us care about the protagonist. So simply giving a character many, many flaws isn’t enough to make her or him interesting.
What’s the balance, then? A protagonist who’s too perfect is not just unrealistic, but can also be annoying. But a protagonist who is too full of weaknesses, flaws and negative qualities puts readers off. How flawed does a protagonist need to be for that character to seem realistic? How many flaws are just too many? When do your ‘eye roll’ moments start? Of course, different people will have different reactions, but I would really be interested in your input.
If you’re a writer, how do you decide how many weaknesses your protagonist is going to have? What’s your strategy for making your protagonist human enough to be believable, but not so full of flaws as to be off-putting?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.