What do I mean by flawed and imperfect? Shakespeare was a master of making complex and deeply flawed heroes from a single trait. Hamlet is indecisive; Othello is jealous; King Lear is vain.
Abandon All Hope?
So what about the novel? Here are some examples. Pip in Great Expectations has abandonment issues because of the death of his parents and the ghastly intolerance of his aunt. He cleaves to the money and social status that drops in his lap, only to find them both false and empty.
Scrooge is covetous of money, because it’s the only thing he can hold on to. All human affection deserted him at an early age, making him the miser of A Christmas Carol.
Jay Gatsby is a fantasist who lacks a moral compass, chasing the girl he couldn’t have. Flawed anti-hero or villain? Protagonist or antagonist? In the novel, the unreliable narrator Nick Carraway should be considered the protagonist. He’s a manipulative egotist and a liar. Again, flawed hero or villain?
James Bond is the orphaned, little boy lost with a rebellious streak who hides behind cultivated machismo, sado-masochistic violence and casual sex. His unsubtle, non-espionage job on Her Majesty’s Secret Service indulges all of his vices.
Jinx in the anime series Arcane is an orphan, later abandoned by her older sister, Vi. Jinx becomes the Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl. Vi is the protagonist, but Jinx is the anti-heroine everyone loves.
What flaws do I write? It seems I home in on abandonment.
In my Escarri series, Jovanka is a child with abandonment issues and a victim of domestic violence. Her brute of father killed her mother and later disappeared. She’s also persecuted on grounds of her ethnic origin – she’s half gypsy.
She’s conceals her Second Sight from the very small circle of people around her. The contents of her visions make her even more secretive. She sets out believing in predestination and thereby gives up significant agency. When the visions in her Second Sight present her with multiple futures, she then struggles to make decisions.
Her once-firm future led her to break off her first serious relationship. The visions also reveal how her two mentor-figures will die in situations she creates.
She clings to a belief in her visions long after they’re shown to be predictions, not certainties. Why? Because she holds onto two threads of hope since she was a child; the death of the Emperor, and finding the man who will be her rock. A damaged, grumpy, dangerous rock, maybe, but steadfast to the ends of the earth.
Jovanka opens up to very few people, trusts even fewer, and is driven to find her Gray Rider and complete the mission. Will it surprise you to learn of the found-family arc across the series?
A secondary character, Risto, was abandoned by her mother as a baby. Her father drowned at sea when she was a child. Risto becomes a spiky thief, gambler and brawler, trusting no one. She also joins the found-family.
In The Sixth Messenger, Aeryn is an abandoned child with a profound sense of unworthiness. Her parents left her after a tragic accident that everyone blamed on Aeryn. Berated by hard task masters in a religious order, she feels devalued in the physical, moral and spiritual realms. Her frenemy in the order rebelled and left Aeryn behind as a teenager. Aeryn might have found her own way out except her only serious boyfriend died – another abandonment. Then her mentor died and Aeryn carries that as a personal failure.
I piled on Aeryn’s abandonment issues to the point where even the character sees herself as ‘Sister Frost,’ the name whispered by everyone around her. She resists forming any kind of relationships in order to avoid pain. Her extreme self-sufficiency, suppressed emotions and mission-oriented focus makes her an ideal covert operative. Until she begins to question the mission…
And in Kamsen Knights, fifteen year-old Yari loses her mother to the pestilence, while the Empire arrested her father. She scours the lists of The Vanished trying to find him. Yari is also detached and distrustful, though she does have a friend and a host family. Her special ability? She sees the lies that everyone tells. Through the book, she builds a found family with Risto, the disgraced mercenary Mikailut (another orphan) and the quartermaster from the castle, Ledran (another orphan).
I appear to have a recurring character trait. It’s not an especially healthy one, but it does drive the characters to extraordinary behaviour. Most of them push people away as a pain-avoidance mechanism. Jovanka is angry, but driven. Aeryn has low self-esteem, despite her high professional competence. Yari has a singular focus to find her missing father. Each of them possesses a high level of self-belief that makes each of them a natural leader in their own way.
In the first draft of the Vipers, Jovanka was a supporting character I needed for her magical abilities. Risto is a supporting character I first thought of twenty years ago. Four stories in, she just won’t go away. I imagined Yari as an alternative heroine who couldn’t fight, magick or intimidate her way out of trouble. I recognise Yari has a lot of Mattie Ross and Nancy Drew in her.
One instance is an intriguing idea. Two is more than coincidence. Three is definitely a theme. Can I stop there? Apparently not. Brainstorming a short story last night, it took me all of two minutes to switch protagonist from an existing male character. The new protagonist is a female recruit to the City Watch who’s not taking any s*** from anyone. Another short story has existing side-character, Sorscha, taking over the leadership of the local thieves guild. What’s her issue? I’m not taking any bets.