Rooting for a Flawed Protagonist

Readers love to root for their action heroes, so even when authors endow their main characters with flaws to add depth and realism, the “defects” are often designed to make you sympathize with the character more (like a job applicant who reluctantly admits to being a workaholic). The archetypes are familiar: the rogue cop whose street justice appeals to your inner vigilante; the down-on-his-luck drunk whose affliction masks a heart of gold; the naive rookie whose cute mistakes are endearing. But in my new suspense novel, King of Paine, Frank Paine did a bad, bad thing, making him a rarity in the thriller universe–a truly flawed protagonist. In today’s post I’ll discuss how I tried to meet the challenge of making him sympathetic.

Frank’s about as far from the cliched law man as you can imagine, an ex-Hollywood stud with a kinky past, an irreverent jackass who failed the woman he loves. Your first instinct (and maybe the second, too) will be to dislike him. This early clip describes the newly-minted FBI agent’s predicament:

The thrill of imminent battle had kept Frank up most of the night, and the bedroom mirror reflected some puffiness under his baby blues as he knotted a red Hermés tie. His problem was clear. Millions of educated, respectable people dabbled in harmless kink, but no major entertainer, athlete, or politician had ever publicly admitted their sadomasochistic tendencies. And even if middle America and the Bureau brass could get past the kinky imagery, his exposure as the coward who let the woman he loved endure her public humiliation alone would be beyond redemption. He had spent three years, in therapy and out, trying to find a way to earn back his dignity, but if his shame became public, everything he cared about would be flushed down the crapper.

I didn’t start out writing a book starring a cad. My original intent was to craft a sequel to my first novel, The Jinx, but my protagonist, a young lawyer (yes, a naive rookie who made endearing mistakes), fell flat as an FBI agent. I went for the Hollywood upgrade, and Frank Paine’s history made the character motivations more authentic and freed me to explore more interesting (kinkier?) plot developments.

While Frank’s history of womanizing and dabbling in BDSM is essential to the plot, I tried to paint him as a man in transition. Sometimes his instincts are consistent with his former lifestyle, but he’s conscious of the better man he wants to be, drawing on his inner strength to quell those natural urges. Here’s an example of how he reacts to an impure thought while interviewing an attractive victim:

Shaking his head to clear that vision, he carefully daubed the lipstick to conceal the graffiti. You’re possessed, Frankie Boy. If only he believed in a higher power, he could order up a goddamn exorcism. What was that, Step Seven, humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings? Unfortunately, the burden of rewiring his brain chemistry fell solely on him, not a miracle to be performed overnight but a process of playing it sweet until sweetness became his true nature. People could only judge his actions and spoken words, not the thoughts he kept locked in his head.

Hopefully, Frank will win you over not because he’s a skilled actor who can conceal his flaws, but because he truly wants to change them. To him, the Bureau’s motto–fidelity, bravery, integrity–represents ideals to which he aspires. He feels remorse for hurting the woman he loves, and you may find his perilous quest to earn back her love also redeems him in your heart, too. Here’s a clip from one Goodreads reader who Frank won over:

Please don’t let the sexual content of this novel scare you away because, for me, it only made up about 2% of the novel and only because it was necessary to provide a creative, unique plot with wonderful heroic, moral and ethical characters! Ultimately, the novel is about true love and what great lengths many GOOD MEN will go and how much they will risk to find and save their soul mates.

Who’s your favorite flawed protagonist of all time, and how did he or she win you over?

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  • Larry and Ellie Kahn

  • When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010, my neurologist told me there was nothing I could do to slow down an inevitable slide into disability. So I simply (apathetically?) went about the business of researching my third novel for over a year until I crossed paths with others who had discovered a curiously overlooked goldmine of scientific research suggesting vigorous exercise could help slow the progression of PD and improve quality of life.

     

    After experiencing the impact of exercise myself, my wife, Ellie, and I began brainstorming with other believers about how to effectively spread the gospel of exercise and hope.  We formed PD Gladiators in 2013, a nonprofit charged with developing a plan to ally metro Atlanta fitness instructors and clinicians to convince people with PD to take a proactive approach to managing their disease. PD Gladiators entered agreements with the Atlanta YMCA, Livramento Delgado Boxing Foundation, Yellow River Center and other independent fitness instructors to build a network of PD-specific exercise classes based on PD Gladiators’ promise to promote the exercise research and the PD Gladiators Fitness Network to local clinicians to create the referral “pipeline” necessary to make the adapted fitness programs sustainable. I believe recruiting the support of influential clinicians in our community from the start was the critical insight that has led to the phenomenal growth of the Network.

     

    By 2018, the Network consisted of over 60 weekly classes, and metro Atlanta “gladiators” logged almost 25,000 class visits for the year! On August 1, 2018, the Parkinson’s Foundation and PD Gladiators determined they could better serve the needs of the Parkinson’s community through an organizational unification. Ellie and I served on the Advisory Board for the Parkinson’s Foundation Georgia until retiring in October 2019. PD Gladiators Executive Director Annie Long continues to manage and grow the Network as an employee of the Parkinson’s Foundation.

     

    Ellie and I still practice the proactive, hopeful approach that we  preach. With Ellie’s loving support, I exercise daily, eat a nutritious diet supplemented as recommended by Dr. Laurie Mischley (a Parkinson’s researcher and naturopathic doctor practicing in Seattle), and have adopted good sleep habits. While excited to begin the retirement we had deferred to nurture PD Gladiators, I intend to devote some of my energy–without stress and deadlines–to brainstorm ideas for other areas of Parkinson’s care in need of intervention  for consideration by government and charitable organizations with the mission and resources to undertake these projects.

     

    I believe that problem-solving is a team sport, and I encourage you to join in the discussion. Let’s make Parkinson’s Ideas, Man an incubator for high impact solutions to the issues that effect us most.