Far Too Many Sins to Mention*

FaultsNobody’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.


Filed under Dorothy Sayers, Jim Thompson, Leif G.W. Persson, Patricia Highsmith

45 responses to “Far Too Many Sins to Mention*

  1. Great topic, Margot! It’s definitely a tight-rope walk. The inner-tortured detective protag who drowns his sorrows in booze is almost a parody these days. But modern readers do require more realism and complexity to their characters than they did in the Golden Age detective fiction, where the puzzle was king. I don’t have any answers to that, except that it comes down to what the story itself will bear. Fab post!

    • Kathy – Thanks for the kind words. I think you’re absolutely right that people are, to say the least, tired of the stereotypical demon-haunted, heavy-drinking sleuth. But at the same time, today’s crime fiction fans want characters with some depth and some facets to them. I think you have a well-taken point that the key question is: what serves the story?

  2. For me, ultimately it comes down to what I think of as the ‘dinner-table’ test. My friends in real life are not perfect (and I’m confident they would say the same about me!) but I enjoy their company. That’s what I’m looking for in a detective – they can have problems, be arrogant or bull-headed, or weak, they might have problems in their personal life, but at the end of the day, would I enjoy having their company at my dinner-table? If I wouldn’t want to spend any time with them in real life, then I don’t want to spend time with them in fiction. So I can like the Rebuses or the Dalziels – faulty but fun, but would never have dinner with Harry Hole…unless we were on a completely dry island with no communciation with the shore. 😉

    A very interesting topic, Margot – as you know, I’m struggling to accept the way crime-writing is heading these days. I’m not looking for all the ‘tecs to be Miss Marples, but I don’t want every book vying to be the most graphic, most violent, most brutal either.

    • FictionFan – Thanks for the kind words. And I must say, I like your ‘dinner table’ litmus test. The only thing is, I can’t imagine that your friends would call you imperfect (and certainly Tommy and Tuppence would never condescend to own a human with flaws 😉 ). In all seriousness, though, I think you have a really well-taken point. If a character isn’t appealing company, why spend time with that person? It’s interesting too that you mention both Dalziel and Rebus, protagonists who definitely fall short of perfect. But as you say, they’re good company. One can imagine having a pint or a meal with them, despite their flaws.
      As to some of the things going on in crime-writing, I have to say I agree with you. To me, too much graphic violence and brutality is a sign that the plot can’t stand on its own. Obviously, murder is a violent thing, and a crime novel that doesn’t acknowledge that comes off as too ‘frothy.’ But a book given to endless graphic descriptions seems to me to be missing one of the keys to a good story – the plot.

    • What a fab answer, FictionFan! I’ll have to think about that one. 😉

  3. I very much like FictionFan’s criterion, above: that sums it up nicely. Because I think, Margot, you’ve certainly identified something that resonates with many of us – we don’t want them too perfect, and we don’t want them too troubled. My nomination for the ideal balance is Elly Griffiths’ Harry Nelson – has his problems and very un-PC, but lovely…

    • Moira – I like that criterion, too. It’s a tricky balance, but we want characters who have enough, but not too many, problems. And Harry Nelson is a good example I think. As you say, he has his issues, but I like his character quite a lot.

  4. Marek Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock has more than his fair share of imperfections! He is a complete swine, but then he is a detective for his time and location. He operates between the wars in those lands of Central and Eastern Europe, from Breslau to Lvov, [now Wroclau and Lviv] that are at this moment are shedding even more blood.

    • Norman – Thank you(!) for mentioning Mock. I’d meant to include him in this discussion and didn’t. I’m very glad that you did. You’re quite right that he is, to put it mildly, a flawed person. And it’s interesting isn’t it how we can still care about the outcome of his cases despite the kind of person he is.
      And you’re right; it’s so sad that there is still bloodshed going on in the same places. Someday I hope it ends.

  5. I respect FictionFan’s criteria and I share your despair about the race to the bottom in some crime fiction circles. But I also read to encounter people and experiences that differ from real life. I’m not sure I’d want to have dinner with Garry Disher’s thief Wyatt or Richard Stark’s Parker, but I like reading about them, seeing how their minds work. I suspect Aurelio Zen would be a dour dinner companion, but Michael Dibdin’s Italy-based novels are among my favorites.

    I want my heroes – and anti-heroes – to be human. Same goes for my villains. As a writer, a lot of this comes down to motive: giving characters a feasible if not good reason for what they do. It’s the mindless violence I don’t like.

    • Angela – You have a point about the way a character can be interesting even we’re just as well pleased that the character isn’t real. I think it may have to do with the character’s unique perspective, originality or something of that sort.
      And I couldn’t agree more about the importance of motivation. A character has to have credible reasons for what s/he does, or there’s not much to keep readers interested. And I think most readers are savvy enough to sense it very quickly if a character does something to suit the author’s purpose rather than something consistent with that character’s personality.

  6. kathy d.

    I don’t mind dysfunction in fictional detectives, cops, etc. It’s psychosis I can’t stand and brutality. If a sleuth is an alcoholic, I can deal, as with Harry Hole. If he can’t get his personal life sorted out, that’s OK, too, as with Commissaire Adamsberg, who is — and I use my favorite language to describe him — a bit of a schlep. That’s fine, too. He’s a genius and Fred Vargas’ books are too brilliant to avoid.
    And, what can I say about our favorite curmudgeon, who is also becoming a bit of a womanizer — or has become! It would be a bleaker world is we mystery readers omitted books featuring the brilliant, but irritable Montalbano. So, his behavior is tolerated by we readers.
    But, I do not want to read about detectives or cops who are secretly murdering people or torturing them, psychopaths, sociopaths — Nope. Not me, especially if they are the protagonists.
    If a good, but flawed detective/protagonist stumbles across the terrible actions of another investigator, that’s one thing, i.e., when an honest, decent sleuth finds a “bad” cop or grouping of whomever.
    But I want the protagonist to at heart be a decent person.

    • Kathy – No doubt about it; there are some memorable (and I mean that in a good way) fictional cops who are – er – not quite perfect, to say the least. And yet, as you say, there is something decent about them, or at least something we can relate to as we read. WE may not like Montalbano’s grouchiness or the way he treats Livia. But at the same time,k he tries to do his job the best he can. The same’s true of Adamsberg. He is bit of a schlep (I love that word choice). But he is brilliant and he wants to do his job well. He has a not-very-conventional way of going about it, but he does want to do his job well.
      I think that for a protagonist, even one full of faults, to ‘work,’ there has to be something human and appealing about them. Or at least something we can identify with, so that we care what happens to him or her.

  7. This is a fascinating topic and one I don’t really have an answer for except to say that I know the right balance when I read it.

    There’s something to Fiction Fan’s dinner table test but ultimately that really only sorts out the characters I like from those I don’t like but I don’t need to like a character to want to read about them. Like Angela there are people who I meet virtually for a reason – in real life I’d probably run a mile from them but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a glimpse into their worlds. For example I think I’d thwack Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor with a wet tea towel if spent more than 5 minutes in his company but I do enjoy his stories. So for me it’s a combination of interesting traits (that would lead me towards a dinner table conversation) and credibility – not too quirky, not too melancholy, not too…anything. I guess I’m looking for the Goldilocks effect – a just right balance of character traits. The difficulty is that the balance is not easy to define – I can’t give it a number or anything but I just have a feel for when interesting becomes ridiculous.

    One of the reasons I can’t be bothered with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books for example is that I just don’t buy him. Not only would I not be interested in having dinner with him but he’s just too extreme a ‘loner who owns nothing and has no consistency in his life’ for me to suspend my disbelief. Sophie Hannah’s pair of protagonists also fall into this category for me – they are so dysfunctional as a couple and as human beings that I can’t believe for a moment any organisation in the world would employ them and give them dangerous weapons.

    • Bernadette – I think you’ve hit on a really interesting way to look at this question. One of the reasons it’s hard to define exactly what ‘counts’ as too many faults or not enough (or whatever) is that each of us is different. So we can’t really define it all objectively very easily.
      That said, your comment’s making me think that there’s really another dimension to this question. There are some protagonists that we find appealing, perhaps despite several faults, because there’s something we like about them. Call it FictionFan’s ‘dinner table litmus test.’ I feel that way about Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. Can’t say he has no faults, but still, I could enjoy meeting him in person. And quite honestly, those ‘dinner table’ protagonists are appealing in part because they aren’t perfect. They’re human.
      Then, there are those protagonists that we find fascinating because they’re as you say unusual, or quirky in some way. Whatever it is, there is something that keeps us interested in them. And yet, that doesn’t mean we’d want to have a drink with them. Jack Taylor’s sort of in that category for me, too. So is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. As a reader, I find them interesting. In real life? No, wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner. So perhaps the point is that we can find characters worth reading about either because we find them appealing or because we find something about them really interesting (sometimes both, too).
      And then of course there are those characters who fall into neither category. Those characters usually populate books that have quickly made their way to Station DNF. And yes, the quickest way to that station is lack of credibility. The minute I start thinking, ‘Really? Really?!’ about a character, I simply stop caring about the book.

  8. Keishon

    Perfect people, perfect protagonists bore me. I’ll echo Bernadette and say that I can recognize a good balance when I read it. Frex, I like Brant (Ken Bruen) despite his flaws and that’s saying a lot! It all depends. Unlikable characters are not deal breakers for me. Villains as protagonists as I classify Jim Thompson’s stories are the most interesting to me but I can only read so many of those.

    • Keishon – That’s just it – perfect characters are boring. And they aren’t realistic. So a good balance of traits has to include some faults. I think that’s especially true for series character (as opposed to a standalone protagonist). That said though, the list of faults can’t be such that you couldn’t imagine that character as appealing at all.
      And as for Jim Thompson’s protagonists? He was quite good at making them interesting as character studies, but they are a lot to take on. And quite honestly, I find his character much more interesting as psychological profiles than as people – as human-ish characters.

  9. Margot: I think Inspector Armand Gamache is a wonderful character. I have read some readers think he is too perfect. His creator, Louise Penny, said he is her dream husband.

    One of my favourite characters is Anthony Bidulka’s sleuth, Russell Quant. I enjoy Russell’s quirky sense of humour and joie de vivre.

    If we are talking dinner companions I would love to sit down with Nero Wolfe. The food would be great. I would try to avoid arguments with the genius. Rex Stout created one of crime fiction’s great characters whose arrogance, short temper and phobias nicely balance his brilliance.

    • Bill – I like Gamache very much too. Like you, I’ve read some criticisms that he’s too perfect, but in my opinion, he’s human enough to seem real. I like Russell Quant as a character too. As you say, he does have a great sense of humour, and he’s at heart a decent guy.
      And dinner with Nero Wolfe would indeed be quite a meal. He’s well-read and intelligent too, so the conversation could be really interesting too. You make a well-taken point about his faults balancing his genius, too. I think that’s part of the appeal of the Archie Goodwin character. He sees Wolfe for what he really is – and respects and likes him despite his faults.

  10. kathy d.

    I would invite Russell Quant to dinner any time. He’s a lively, smart, fun guy.
    And now I’m thinking about what other detectives I’d like to invite over for dinner or meet at a restaurant or whose home I’d like to be invited to for dinner. This would make an interesting post.

    • Kathy – It would indeed. I knew Russell Quant would be on my ‘invite’ list. I’d have to really think about that, though, because there are a lot of fictional sleuths I might like to meet in person.

  11. It think it depends somewhat on what audience you are writing for. There is a small audience that will tolerate extremely flawed characters but most want them to be moral, upstanding people and the flaws must be small ones–like drinks a little too much or is always late.

    • Patti – That’s quite true. Audiences do differ in what they want from characters. Some audiences do want truly flawed, damaged characters. Others want, as you say, upstanding, decent characters. But I think you’re right that even those audiences don’t want their characters to be perfect or right all the time. Sometimes those little flaws make a character more approachable – more human.

  12. I have to agree Gamache would (and does) make a perfect husband… And I do have a soft spot for Lord Wimsey and Adam Dalgliesh (poet and detective, what could be better than that), who is a bit of wishful thinking, as PD James has freely admitted (and I think Sayers did too for Wimsey).
    The problem is not necessarily with loners and depressives per se (Wallander and Martin Beck are each delightful and complex, and provide a very good psychological portrait of Scandinavians), but with the almost shorthand attribution of ‘quirky’ traits in the belief that this will make the protagonist interesting. And so often it really doesn’t, because it doesn’t feel plausible.

    • Marina Sofia – I think you’ve highlighted something really important here. The problem isn’t whether a protagonist has some flaws (or even several). It’s whether those flaws come up naturally, as an organic part of the character. If they’re contrived (i.e. ‘I must give this character a flaw; let me just choose one at random”), readers will notice. It’s far more believable to have a character’s flaws show up naturally, in the course of the story, just as our real-life human flaws do.
      I have to say I like Gamache very much myself. And as for Dalgliesh, he can be a little enigmatic for my taste, but I do usually like him very much.

  13. virginiagruver

    One of the first things I do while developing main characters is choose a flaw. It not only helps make them – not perfect- but it also helps to develop conflicts within the story for that character. Great post.

    • Virginia – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. I think you have a solid idea to start with your characters’ personalities, and that has to include their flaws (i.e. ‘What sort of weaknesses would this sort of person be likely to have?’). Doing it that way allows the negative traits to come out organically and naturally, rather than feeling forced. And as you say, it offers terrific opportunities for tension and conflict.

  14. I take a slightly different view of anti-heroes: if the books have some non-extreme/interesting characters, I can usually put up with an anti-hero, as in the one Persson book I’ve read where Backstrom is a secondary character. If the other characters are flat or the plot is too something (gruesome, etc), then I don’t like the anti-hero either. Interesting post and discussion!

    • Rebecca – Thanks – I’m loving this discussion too. And your contribution to it is really interesting. A book’s context (plot, setting, other characters) really does affect the way we see the major character. I think perhaps that’s one reason that ‘ensemble’ series are sometimes so well-regarded. And of course, a well-drawn context/setting can make a big difference in the story. Perhaps an anti-hero in and of him/herself isn’t enough to carry a story alone. Definitely ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  15. kathy d.

    I like Martin Beck and Erlendur, too, though he’s a bit depressed. I’m not sure about dinner with Beck because in one of the Sjowall/Wahloo books, he buys dinner take-out for his colleagues, and most of it is comprised of all types of herring! And I’d worry that Erlendur would produce hogshead cheese or a ram’s skull. But if it were dining in a restaurant, then yes to both.
    And while we’re at British detectives, I’d put forward two of my favorites: Inspector Foyle and Inspector Lynley, of course of the TV versions with Michael Kitchen and Nathaniel Parker.
    Quirky I don’t mind. Too much alcohol is usually OK. Depression is tolerable up to a point, if the protagonist is dysfunctional. And neurotic – sure; where would we be without our aging Vigata detective?
    I do want to read about a mostly good person solving the crimes, righting the wrongs, not a sociopath.

    • Kathy – You may have a point about both Beck and Erlendur; it would probably be better in both cases to go to a restaurant for a meal…
      And you make an interesting larger point about traits and characteristics. It’s one thing if a character has a quirk, is sometimes depressive or some other such human weakness. We all have them and it makes us, well, human. And that includes the occasional neurotic tendency. But there’s a difference between that and a character who is either not believable or simply too unpleasant for us to care about her or him. For characters like that, it’s harder to imagine wanting to get to know them as people.

  16. kathy d.

    I meant to say if the protagonist is not dysfunctional.

  17. I love all these comments; makes me glad I came late and can read them all together. I guess I just like variety. I like the really good protagonists (like in the Cynthia Harrod-Eagles police procedural series and Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford) and I like the morally ambiguous protagonists (like Ken Bruen’s Inspector Brant) and it usually the author’s style and how they develop their characters that makes a difference for me. The stories I have a problem with are those like Ruth Rendell’s with the really twisted characters; but even those I wish I could get into because she writes so well.

    • Tracy – I’ve been really enjoying this conversation too, and learning a lot. There’s definitely something to be said for variety in characters, and I think most crime fiction fans read about more than just one kind of character. As you say, whether or not we like a character probably is affected by the way the author develops and presents that character. And like you, I find it hard to be drawn to truly twisted characters. I can intellectually respect the way they’re developed, but to really be drawn to them? I’m usually not.

  18. Margot – It occurs to me that, for all his good qualities, Inspector Morse has an unpleasant side. He a touch arrogant and sometimes uses his official authority in heavy-handed ways. Moreover, as much as he likes the ladies, he’s mostly unsuccessful in the romance department. I base these observations on the TV series as I’ve not read any of the novels. One positive quirk about Morse I like is his fondness for classical music, especially Mozart operas.
    I confess it’s a challenge to create a sleuth that we root for who’s maybe a touch brilliant but has character failings as well. K.B. hit the nail on the head in commenting it’s basically what the story will bear. Angela’s point too on giving the protagonist – as well as the villain – a feasible if not good reason for what they do is well taken. And there are some characters I find interesting simply because they’d fail, rather than pass, the dinner table litmus test!

    • Bryan – You make some interesting points about Inspector Morse, and they’re actually true, I would argue, of the literary character as well as the Morse of television. He can be acerbic, he is sometimes heavy-handed and no, he’s not much of a success with the ladies. That aspect of his character is painted perhaps a little more sympathetically in the novels than it is in the television show, but the overall Morse is quite similar in both cases, in my opinion.
      You’re right too that it’s not easy at all to create a sleuth who is interesting and sympathetic enough for us to side with, but who also has flaws. It’s part of the challenge of being a writer, I think. You and Kathy are entirely correct too that one has to take the story as a whole into consideration when one’s thinking about the protagonist. And it’s true; there are some characters who are interesting on a lot of important levels because they aren’t really sympathetic.

  19. One of the reasons I enjoy Simenon’s Maigret novels is that Maigret is not a drunk (at least not by the standards of the times), he has a happy marriage and is faithful to his wife – Madame Maigret is a fascinating character who develops through the series – and yet he is a totally convincing, well-rounded character who is far from perfect.

    • Chrissie – I find those things about Maigret very refreshing too. He is interesting, he’s hardly perfect, and he’s got his quirks. But he does seem to have a sane (if I can call it that) life. And I do like the fact that he and Mme. Maigret are a happy couple. It’s possible to depict that sort of relationship without sugarcoating it, and I think Simenon succeeds.

  20. Col

    It’s funny Krajewski’s Mock I can’t stand and I haven’t enjoyed those books at all, but Backstrom entertains me and I have a liking for him. Yet they are both unpleasant.

    • Col – That is interesting how sometimes, an anti-hero is appealing, but other anti-heroes are just simply unpleasant people. I think each of us is a little different too about which characters have some sort of a appeal and which don’t.

  21. Character’s without flaws can be a bit boring, but too many flaws make the character less appealing. I like to give a character one major flaw that he can overcome or at least start to overcome over the course of the novel.

    • Pat – I know exactly what you mean. Too many flaws can make a character so unappealing that readers aren’t going to stay engaged. But yes, perfect characters get boring. And one of the nice things about creating that one flaw that the character works on is that it can form an interesting sub-plot to a story. Or, the author can simply use that flaw to add to the tension.

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