Whether I’m reading or writing, I’m a sucker for flawed characters trying to do the best they can with what life has dealt them. Maybe I love these people a little too much—my novels are full of them. Sometimes I even throw additional obstacles in their paths. I don’t enjoy torturing my characters—most of the time—but I like to see what they’re made of and how badly they want to redeem themselves. Not only do their flaws and demons make for rich, honest writing material, but it’s also more fun for me to work with someone who isn’t a “perfect” hero.
Even more telling about broken characters is what they choose to tell the world about themselves. In real life, it takes a lot of courage to admit when you’ve screwed up big time, when the path you’re on is no longer working, when you’re in too deep and feel like there’s no way out. Who hasn’t been tempted to mask private agony with a smile and tell everyone that everything’s fine? Who hasn’t hidden behind a brave face, at least until the trouble passes or the weight becomes too heavy to carry alone? Since the fiction I write often draws from reality, I’m fascinated by self-image—the faces my characters decide to show the world, and how that changes over the course of the story.
As I began working on my most recent novel, A Sudden Gust of Gravity, I realized I had another cast of characters spinning their self-images to cover their pain, their grief, and their weaknesses. Christina, the claustrophobic magician’s assistant, is consumed with looking like she’s got it all figured out, that she’s in control of what is sometimes an out-of-control life. And all her plans depend on her ability to keep that mask fastened tight. Devon, the surgical resident, compensates for his greatest failure with a driving desire to rescue anyone who will let him. And Ralph the magician, hiding behind his stage name and his charming smile, tap-dances around his misdeeds like he’s been played as the innocent victim all along—because what antagonist really believes he’s the bad guy?
I faced a slightly different problem when I wrote Don’t Tell Anyone, the story of what happens when a big, fat secret (or three) lands in the middle of an already dysfunctional family. An unrelated medical emergency reveals Estelle’s breast cancer, a secret she’d been keeping from her children since she discovered the first tumor. Daughter-in-law Liza strives to be her champion when everyone else seems to be deciding Estelle’s fate for her. Estelle’s elder son Adam is angry and lashing out; his brother Charlie lightens the mood with dark humor. But while each of the principal characters are freaking out in their own way, each has a self-image to maintain. Liza’s mantle of practicality and super-competence covers her doubts about the future and her private disappointment that her mother-in-law never liked her. Adam’s shield of anger wards off his fear. Charlie’s humor lets him hide from his own pain.
But similar to real life, there’s only so long characters can keep up the façade. They are discovered, or provoked into dropping their guard, or it’s just too much work propping up all that pretense. I love that moment of vulnerability when the secrets come out and a character decides how to play it. There’s great potential for growth and change. And maybe that’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward flawed people. In that moment when the window opens on the pain, the anger, the shame, the doubt—that’s when these fictional people become real in our heads, when we recognize our loved ones in them…and ourselves.
Laurie Boris has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of six novels, including two indieBRAG medallion honorees. When not playing with the universe of imaginary people in her head, she’s a freelance copyeditor and enjoys baseball, reading, and avoiding housework.