Most modern novel writers have a balancing act to perform when they sit down to write a book. The act involves the attributes of the main character in the book. If they make the leading man or woman too perfect, the reader will lose interest in them and won’t really care that much what happens to them. They will also have a titanic struggle trying to make that character believable and can run the considerable risk of creating a flat one- or two-dimensional character who acts predictably.
No, what the author should be attempting to build is a character who has flaws, who has a past, and has some secret hidden away which eventually compromises the choices he or she makes at key points in the book. But there are also sizable risks in portraying a flawed character, too. If, for example the main character has too many flaws – as might be the case with an anti-hero – then the reader might find that person morally repugnant. If there are too many flaws that don’t accord with the readers world-view, or that trample all over the reader’s staunchly held beliefs, then the reader may find that there is no one in the book to root for, or that they want the character to be ultimately vanquished by the mounting obstacles that are set against them.
Of course, a writer might quite like the idea of assaulting the sentiments of the reader with characters that are ultimately too repulsive to be even remotely attractive. After all, no too readers are the same and what might be abhorrent to one might be attractive to someone else. The question is: are there enough readers who like the main character enough to still root for him or her despite their glaring shortcomings?
Graham Greene trod a very precarious path with some of his main characters, for example the outlaw whisky priest who fathers a child in The Power and the Glory
, and the ruthless teenage sociopath and up-and-coming gangster Pinkie Brown, in Brighton Rock
and the adulterer, Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter
. But then, Greene’s books were literary novels of a sort, as well as being commercially popular potboilers. So to that extent he had more latitude because of the quality of his writing. And in fact all of these characters reach some sort of redemption in the end, albeit veiled and concealed by their troubling character flaws. So in a sense Greene more or less got away with creating main characters who were in varying degrees detestable.
Modern readers are now generally averse to the kind of moral uplift that characterized British novels of the late-19th / early-20th century. Later on and an ocean away, in the United States, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler pioneered their signature hardboiled style of writing, initially in magazines like the Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, but thereafter in novels which had their heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. In these stories the protagonist is usually more or less a high-functioning alcoholic, something of a womanizer and is no stranger to roughhousing. Plenty of flaws were on display but they never went so far as to alienate the reader too much. There was enough titillation, violence and whiskey-swilling to qualify them for peripheral anti-hero status, but not so much that the reader couldn’t root for the leading man’s eventual success – after all magazines and books had to be sold. From then on, most successful heroes and heroines had to have shady pasts or compromising character traits, in order to be “real.”
Presenting a flawed character who is still attractive is, of course, a bit of a tightrope walk but one that must be attempted by anyone who has serious intentions of producing a successful novel. The good news is that a novelist has much more chance of portraying a well-rounded character by making him or her flawed. And that in itself makes the book a whole lot more enjoyable to read, which in turn means better reviews and ultimately more sales.