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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