Why I Write Flawed Main Characters

Reese Witherspoon as the unforgettable Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair movie 2004

It’s an interesting experience, writing in first person. You see, when you write in first person, the reader is in your main character’s head. And, well…


Sometimes your main character does things less than heroic. Sometimes your main men might not say something when they should. Sometimes your main women might not be the best moms, or wives, or daughters.

Thing is–those are the characters that stick with me, so that’s why I write them.

I don’t like when people describe characters as “flawed,” but that is code for flaws like: they don’t brush their teeth 3x a day, or they lie to cover something up, or they forgot to get their girlfriend a Valentine’s Day card. When I say “flawed,” I’m talking about people who resemble the real people I know, including myself. I figure we all have one besetting sin, our Achilles’ heel, if you will. And we like to hide it. And we like to clean up the outsides while sometimes our insides are rotting away (Click to Tweet!).

Those are the people I write about. And I realize it might make people uncomfortable, being in their heads and seeing them do the wrong thing or act the wrong way. I figure God feels that way quite often with us…but I digress.

I’m kind of saying this as a heads-up, because I know for sure that Freydis is not going to fit into any box of how to act and obey the rules. And I’m bracing up now for people to hate her. But you know what? She was a real woman, and she really did much of what I’m going to write about. And I have to try to understand why she did much of that. Just like I had to try to understand why Gudrid sailed with all three husbands, and yes, the last time, probably while she was pregnant. I had to try to see what it would be like living in a camp full of men as a woman who was known for her beauty. Of course, with my Viking historicals, I’m working with main characters who were indeed real, living, breathing people. And I know they did things I might not understand, but as an author, I need to understand them enough to bring them to life.

I love Thomas Hardy books. Many times you’re shouting mentally at his characters not to make those fatal choices, but they do. Same with so many classics, from Vanity Fair (aptly subtitled: A Novel without a Hero) to Anna Karenina.

So if I garner some one-stars because people don’t get my main characters, I’m okay with that. I’m just hoping you won’t ever forget them. You may never struggle with the same issues they do, but you might run into someone who does. And I’m hoping you’ll say, “Hey–that reminds me of __________.”

My characters might not always even get their acts together by the end of book one. I know some real, live people who don’t get their acts together till the end of their lives, and it’s a tragedy. But it does happen, and I’m not scared to write about it.

So that’s why I write some seriously flawed main characters. That’s why I enjoy reading about seriously flawed main characters–because I usually see in them something I’ve seen in someone else, or in myself. I want my characters to tell their stories with their choices, even if they’re not always superior role models. I never claimed they would be. But the light of God will always shine into their lives, even if they reject it. Because I truly believe it always does for real people, too.

Sometimes we learn about the way others think by reading about them. For instance: Scarlett O’hara. Love her or hate her, but by the end of Gone with the Wind, we knew how that gal was thinking and dealing with life. And there are women like her out there today.

Just wanted to open up and share this with you readers now, at the beginning of this journey. I know some of you were able to relate to Gudrid and some were not. I know some liked Freydis and some did not. I imagine some will “get” Tess Spencer and some will not.

I guess I’m saying all this to say: a) I love writing first person, getting into flawed characters’ heads, and b) I don’t think I’ll stop writing that way anytime soon. I’m willing to take the chance that not everyone will love my main characters, so that those who DO relate to them will find them…well, utterly relatable, and those who don’t will at least not soon forget them (a la Scarlett O’hara or Becky Sharp). So please buckle up!

15 thoughts on “Why I Write Flawed Main Characters

  1. Great post Heather! I think flawed characters are important because they are REAL. Sometimes we just want a feel-good story, and sometimes we need a good dose of reality to make us take a better look at ourselves. Gudrid was a fabulous character, with intriguing layers, and I am sure Fredis will be the same!

    1. Thank you so much, Jen! I do know that what I’m writing isn’t predictable and your standard CBA main characters, but for me, the books I love, the characters are real and memorable. Definitely committed to bringing those kinds of charas to readers, even if they can’t stand them sometimes! As an author, sometimes those characters make some choices that freak me out, too! 🙂

  2. Well-said, Heather. I love it when I’m reading and I can tell the character is going to do something really, really stupid. I can see it, and I know why she’s doing it, and I’m still saying “Please, don’t!” It’s real. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! I definitely feel that with your characters and THAT is why they stick with me. I remember their names, and that’s not something I can say about many books I read. I think characters who have epic flaws or struggles are the ones we never forget, even if they don’t ever overcome those (like Scarlett!).

  3. Heather, I love how you write based on historical events. That was one thing that intrigued me about God’s Daughter. You develop vivid, “non-cardboard-cutout” characters. Looking forward to future novels!

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. I really felt readers needed a heads-up before the second Viking book comes out. I might even put some kind of warning on it, as it is NOT your standard Christian fiction novel and there will be some violence. And yet I really do have to cover Freydis’ story, as well. I will say that Tess in my upcoming mystery series is probably the most “normal” of my main characters! But even she has her foibles and issues. To me, that’s what makes her fun to write.

    1. SO true! I agree! And I don’t think modern authors would get away with nearly as many paragraphs of setting description as he used! But still–so right. Those brooding countrysides…the moors…the provincial life…all key to those stories.

  4. Good point about the “besetting sin” … I think books that use flawed characters as their protagonists, especially Christian novels, do really have an opportunity to show the grace of God at work in those characters. I liked that in Gudrid, and I also liked how she GREW in that area of struggle (her insecurity, her attraction to other men) through the book. As a reader, I could see the triumph of the Holy Spirit at work in her. The disturbing thing for me is when a Christian author shows a character with a serious moral flaw but portrays it as no big deal. So glad that’s not the case with God’s Daughter! 🙂 Looking forward to Freydis’ story.

    1. Thanks so much for those observations, Alicia! You’re so right. Gudrid knows what she’s feeling is wrong, and she tries to fight it, but continually finds herself giving in (an absentee/too-quiet husband and personal depression doesn’t help, either!). I sometimes wish I could manipulate my characters into easier situations, but that would eliminate the internal struggle I’m trying to portray, and to me, that’s always the primary focus of my writing. I know externals can push our characters and their choices can produce some very real external and emotional consequences, but it’s that heart journey that captivates me in both my writing and reading. Thank you and I’m going to try to bring that to readers with Freydis as well.

  5. I wouldn’t call Gudrid or Tess flawed characters – they are human. Like anyone else, they don’t always make the right choices, but they learn from their mistakes and keep on going. I love your characters, with all their imperfections. It would be boring to read a story with a perfect protagonist who never makes a mistake.

    Now Freydis is another story; “flawed” wouldn’t begin to describe her. You portrayed her sympathetically in God’s Daughter, where we were able to see her positive attributes before she began to descend into apparent severe depression or perhaps insanity. But we know what the sagas will soon tell, and it may be hard to maintain sympathy for Freydis. I can’t wait to see Freydis come to life in your next book!

    The shelves of libraries are full of great books about truly flawed characters, but they are not always easy to read. From college I remember a class assignment on The Stranger by Albert Camus. The main character commits murder with apparently no feelings of regret. In fact, he seems to have no particular feelings at all. This novel makes many lists of the most influential books of the 20th century, and it is indeed a book with lessons to teach. I am glad I read it, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a fun read. I just started Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan. It has received many positive reviews over the years, but I can tell you that the main character commits his first cold-blooded murder in Chapter 2 and I understand that is just the beginning. None of the local libraries had a copy of this book, so apparently it is not very popular to read despite the fact the author is reasonably well known for his works of historical fiction. There is also a novel about the Merovingian King Chilperic on my “to read” list, but it is even more difficult to obtain than Conscience of the King, so I guess it is not a popular book either.

    So books about characters who don’t appear to want redemption and don’t seem to achieve redemption can be hard to read, even if they are “good books”. Most of us enjoy stories about the bad guy or gal who repents from evil ways. That’s why the story of Saint Olga of Kiev, a near contemporary of Freydis, is so compelling. Olga commits truly wicked acts, but she undergoes a conversion and turns her life around. Freydis has no Olga-like conversion related in the sagas. I don’t think we really know what happened to Freydis after the big expedition, so perhaps there is hope for her yet! Conversion or not, I look forward to reading Freydis’ story.

    1. What great observations, Aly, and it sounds like I need to read up on Saint Olga! I am so glad you’re excited about Freydis and I am really going to try to bring her alive so we don’t hate her in the process. Those cold-blooded murdering psychopaths would be hard to write, for sure. Not impossible, but really tricky when you’re writing in first person in particular. Freydis will be a challenge! And I’m so pleased you know these saga stories. Always so happy to run into a fellow saga-lover! Thanks for commenting!

  6. You tell ’em! I am bringing GOD’S DAUGHTER along with me on a road trip, and I am so excited to read it! I sneaked a peek at the first few chapters, and it’s getting difficult to wait. : ) I love the Thomas Hardy references and Thackeray. (Team Farmer Oak! Woo hoo! I loathed Becky with a passion… but I kept shouting at Amelia to get her act together as well, and I kinda grew fond of both of them.) Thank you so much for writing this post; it is always wonderful to see authors who are completely fearless about telling the truth to their audience. Looking forward to reading GOD’S DAUGHTER!

    1. Thanks so much, Allison! I hope you enjoy God’s Daughter! And Team FARMER OAK for me, too. One of my all-time fave heroes! And I agree–I think I was even madder at Amelia than at Becky, to be honest. At least people like Scarlett O and Becky Sharp DO something when they’re stuck, instead of sitting around and waiting for things to happen…anyway. Thanks for your comments and will be glad to get your thoughts on Gudrid!

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