We all know that perfection in protagonists is a bore. Think of them: the flawless beauty poised to discover her submissive side, the suave, fearsomely attractive dom. If you can’t bring them to mind, perhaps it’s because they disappear as soon as you close the book. No staying power. No bumps or faults to catch in our memory crevices. No quirks of taste or temperament.
Memorable characters have complex natures, and flaws that end up making them more attractive, not less. But what flaws should an author choose? This question reminds me of the good old job interview advice: If they ask you about your greatest weaknesses, tell them you’re a perfectionist and you work too hard.
Okay, I’m imagining interviewing a lovely candidate for a sub protagonist. “What are your greatest weaknesses?” I ask, pen poised over pad.
She dimples charmingly. “Well, I’m feisty. I tend to speak first and think afterwards. I rarely say how I really feel. Hell, I hardly even know what I feel until I’m absolutely forced to. And I insist on doing things my own way until I’m in such a mess my dom has to rescue me.” A delightfully self-deprecating eye-roll tells me I’ve got the full list.
Turning now to my applicant for the dom role, I ask for his greatest weaknesses. His light eyes gaze deeply into mine for a long moment.
“I tend to brood,” he says, “particularly during thunderstorms. I’m very stubborn, and I have too many responsibilities because I’m so competent and decisive. I know exactly what I want, except when it comes to love and then I’m clueless. My muscles ripple more than is strictly necessary, and I have far too many finely-tailored suits.”
Aren’t they perfect?
But what flaws do we find loveable, or at least engaging, and which are just off-putting? There are couple of novels by Joanne Harris, (author of Chocolat), in which a male character betrays the female protagonist rather meanly for his own purposes, and later is forgiven, redeemed and ends up with her in the end. This is rather an unusual theme, and one that I confess I had some difficulty with. I’d have a hard time in real life, too. These men’s flaws aren’t grand or fatal; they’re sullen and mediocre. But I think Harris is brave to suggest that sometimes men don’t come up to even decent expectations, but when they’re sorry and make an effort, it’s possible to love them anyway.
One of the commonest flawed characters in literature is the guy who drinks too much. He may be a brilliant detective, but he can’t sort through his own past traumas well enough to stay off the sauce. I love these guys as long as they’re witty and only hurt themselves.
Speaking of wit, isn’t that the stellar redeeming feature? We can tolerate a great many faults in our characters as long as they can make us laugh. Unfortunately in bdsm erotica humour is rare indeed. Let’s face it, it’s hard to write, and a reader's main objective is a different kind of sensation altogether. I just don’t think they’re at all incompatible. In fact, my personal belief is that lack of humour is a fatal flaw that is practically irredeemable.
So what are the flaws and quirks you love in a character, and which ones leave you disappointed and unwilling to read on?