Gillian Flynn and her horrifically, spectacularly flawed women. Paula Hawkins and The Girl on the Train. Nurse Jackie and Jessica Jones on television. All these women have the same thing in common–they are all total and complete train wrecks. Many people enjoy watching a woman become undone (another great female, mess-of-a-main character–Dolores Price of She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb).
However, not everyone will be a fan. The main character of my trilogy was a blistering stew of issues: subpar mother, functioning alcoholic, funeral director, and a roll-out-of-bed sense of style. I’ve been to over fifteen book clubs, mostly comprised of women, and every time, someone takes offense to my main character, Evie (which rhymes with heavy) McFagan. On the flip side, most of the women found her to be relatable, that her flaws made her accessible and realistic. And really, who among us is not real? Who among us is not really flawed? To those who took offense, you have to wonder if they weren’t seeing something in Evie mirrored within themselves, something they didn’t like. Just a thought.
If you would like to develop your own catastrophe of a main character, here are some things to think about …
Flaws, flaws, insufficiencies, defects, and more flaws
Make a list of all the things you don’t like in a person, or ask others to help you write it. Then use this list to create depth in your character. Reading about someone who is perfect is only okay until you find out that they are not, indeed, perfect. Then the story gets interesting. Use this to your advantage and enjoy the ride of bad behavior.
Make her unreliable
Because she is flawed, she can not be trusted. The character Rachel Watson of Girl on the Train was a fantastic unreliable narrator due to her own trust issues, her alcohol-infused black-outs, and her inner self-doubts. This creates interest in your story and will keep your readers guessing. However, be sure to have your beta-readers vet this. You don’t want to lose anyone with too many lies and clever slights of hands.
But–give her a moral compass
Make her have, at her core, a good heart. She means well, but she ends up making a mess. She wants to do the right thing, but she comes up short. Keeping her intentions on the up and up will keep your readers rooting for her. Everyone has someone in their family that they make excuses for out of love for their finer qualities. Maybe think about that person as you write. Why do you support someone who is a screw-up?
She wasn’t born a hot mess, so how did she get there?
There needs to be a compelling backstory to your character’s current state of disaster. All good anti-heroes have their tipping points or combined moments where their lives went sideways and they turned on themselves, sabotaging their own success. For my character, her parents didn’t have much of an input in her life growing up so she had no reason to excel at anything. Her grandfather made her feel as if she were sub-human on a regular basis and, over time, she chose to believe him and play the part.
Make sure she shines over time
There needs to be a redemption or a challenge that she faces that brings her hidden patina to the surface. If you keep her as a failure during the entire story, that’s not fun for the reader, it’s downright depressing and you have no business calling her a hero. Make sure she has something heroic she’s working towards.
In the end, an anti-hero who is dragged kicking and screaming towards her success offers hope to the rest of the flawed population who, like myself, are just trying to make it through another day without too much lipstick on her teeth.