Flawed Characters and the Arc of Redemption by Jamie SchultzI like my fictional characters flawed. And by “flawed,” I don’t mean they’re a little clumsy, or a little socially inept in some humorous but harmless way, or that they have any of a dozen other cute, quirky flaws that ultimately have no bearing on the outcome of a story—I mean flawed in almost a Greek tragedy sense. They have a single, pervasive, possibly catastrophic flaw that they struggle with throughout the story, a flaw that will ultimately prove their undoing if they don’t address it.
When I say “flawed,” what I mean is that they make bad decisions, almost always as a result of some single, specific character problem. Caul Shivers, in Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold is one of my favorite examples. He can’t stay away from violence, even when he wants to try to be a better man, and as a result he signs on as muscle for somebody else’s revenge trip, even though he knows better. Unsurprisingly, he ends up paying a heavy price for it. Jack Torrance in The Shining is another good example—his ego and his focus on himself ends up opening the door to all kinds of badness, ultimately turning him into a puppet operated by the Overlook Hotel. Another great example is Walter White, from TV’s Breaking Bad. “I am in the empire-building business,” he says, his chest all puffed out, and, well—look how that worked out for him.
The flipside of those stories is the story in which the character overcomes his or her flaw. Going back to Stephen King, I was always partial to Larry Underwood from The Stand, who chronically uses up everybody around him and then throws them away when he gets what he needs. Through the course of the story, he makes a conscious decision to move away from that, partly as a result of some pretty traumatic failures in that department early on. I’ve read the book maybe a dozen times, and still, every time I get to the part where he turns away from Nadine, I breathe a sigh of relief.
Those are the stories that really resonate with me. Let’s face it, we all fuck up. We do things we wish we hadn’t, and often we do them knowing at the time that we’re making a bad decision, but we go ahead and do them anyway (anybody who’s had regrettable post-breakup sex with an ex can now hang their heads in shame with me). These stories give me a little hope that people really can change, that I can become a better person, and I feel a little swell in my heart, a sense of triumph at humanity’s better side when I can vicariously live that experience through a great character.
When I wrote Premonitions (arguably, when I write anything), I had that very much in mind. The characters in the story are virtually all criminals, some with better reasons than others, but there are a lot of flaws to go around. The main protagonist, Karyn Ames, struggles with a bizarre condition in which she hallucinates the future—handy in a pinch, but when dozens of possibilities, some presented metaphorically, start crowding her perception, the real world can get swamped in a hurry. The only control over it is an expensive black market drug, and Karyn has gone into a life of crime, basically shoveling money down the hole of her treatment as fast as she can make it.
Other characters in the story struggle with their own demons—sometimes in a very literal sense—and most of them are working toward either redemption or simply escaping the consequences.
I can’t say that all the characters find happy endings, and I can’t promise that all of them find the resolution—or escape—they seek, but I can say that I tried hard not to let the story become cynical. It’s a dark story, make no mistake, but redemption (or at least the possibility) is there, and I find that that holds the door open enough to let some light in.
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Jamie is offering one lucky Book Den reader a print copy of Premonitions. US only.