I’m turning the blog over to my alter ego K. A. Laity today to talk about the hero of her novel White Rabbit and the appeal of the flawed character. I’ve blogged before about ‘likability’ in a character, but how many flaws is enough? How many are too many? Take it away, Kate —
There’s a dismissive term, Mary Sue, used in the SFF world to describe impossibly virtuous characters that are assumed to just be the author inserted, flaws scrubbed away in a wish-fulfilling fantasy. Not surprisingly, it’s often gendered in its use (*cough* Conan, John Carter, just about ever pulp hero).
I find flawed characters much more fun: for one thing, flaws make conflict that much easier and conflict is the motor of a story. Most of us have good intentions but we’re easily tempted by easy outs or short cuts. Characters who are too good just aren’t believable.
In my new supernatural crime novel, White Rabbit, the main character James Draygo is haunted — literally. He has a death on his conscience but he also has an ability to communicate with the dead — an ability he has done his best to avoid for a long time. He’s done all kinds of things to block it out including his abuse of a certain substance he refers to as ‘dust’ but he continues to work as a fake psychic, as if to further denigrate his real gifts.
Then two women come into his life and upend it.
The first is a trashy socialite named Peaches who gets gunned down at his tapping table, which of course puts the blame on him. The second is Helen Saunders, who bails him out of jail. He mistakes her for a lackey from his legal representative at first, but discovers she’s a journalist investigating Peaches’ husband, an unscrupulous media mogul.
There’s a spark of attraction between these two unlikely people meeting under far from ideal circumstances. Saunders rescues him from a holding cell, but his troubles are just beginning. Draygo wants to sink back into the oblivion of his life, but the woman reappears. Here’s the scene where that first spark gets awkwardly revealed:
Looking at the light filtered through the curtains I would guess it wasn’t much more than eleven. And probably the same day. It wasn’t that bad after all. I was pleased to see Jinx had the hot water heating already and started my bath running. For a moment I thought I could smell peaches but doubtless it had been only an illusion. Was there a word for an illusion of smell? Nasal illusion? No, what’s the word? I needed to recharge the nasal passages anyway and pulled open the drawer next to the bed. Ah, cornucopia.
I lay in the warm waters in bliss. Nothing as restorative as a nice hot bath. Well, a nice hot bath with chemical enhancements. And I could hear Jinx’s step in the hall, doubtless bringing me some caffeine as well: good man.
Olfactory illusions, that was the word. I could smell the coffee before it arrived and it gave me a shudder of pleasurable anticipation. ‘Jinxy, I have been looking forward to your magic beans.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’
My eyes popped open and I splashed helplessly. ‘You can’t come in here!’ My voice screeched a little with unexpected alarm.
‘Nothing I haven’t seen before, Mr. Draygo,’ she said, balancing the mug on the tray with the soap and sponge. ‘We need to talk.’
‘I’m having a bath here, in case you haven’t noticed,’ I said, trying in vain to cover up my unmentionables.
‘I’ll look the other way,’ she said, chuckling, which did not endear her to me. Crossing over to the window, she made a show of staring out it, which was a bit difficult given the textured glass and all.
‘Who are you anyway,’ I asked reaching for the mug and taking a good gulp of it. Ah, bless your craggy heart Jinxy! The only thing better than his java was a cup of his java with a little kick of scotch. Almost made me feel human again which is to say, curious now. ‘And why did you spring me?’
‘I’m working on exposing Dockmuir and I want to know what happened before you get all cagey with legal counsel and whatnot.’ She held her elbows in her hands, close against her body despite the heat of the bathroom.
‘Journo, eh?’ I took another gulp and let it burn its way down my throat. My brain began to wake up. ‘Trying to take him down from the inside?’
She laughed, a short bark without too much humour in it. ‘Yeah, I work for the rags. You know, for a washed-up has-been, addled by too many abused substances you’re quick off the mark.’
‘Washed up? Says who?’
‘Most accounts of your brilliant career. Teaming up with Psychic Sally next?’ I could hear the smirk in her voice. She seemed less tense, too, releasing the grip on her arms and leaning against the sill instead. It gave me a chance to notice the rest of her. Clad in a sensible grey suit, the tailoring didn’t really enhance the fact that she had a nice form, but there wasn’t much that could conceal a fact like that for long. Was she really a journo? My experience with the species generally skewed more toward pear-shaped nail chewers of the grizzled variety but maybe that was the crime beat.
‘I have a booming and, might I add, legitimate business, at least when it’s not being interrupted by trashy socialites who insist upon getting snuffed at my table.’ I was moving back toward irritable although I had to say there was a lot to enjoy in the view before I left curious. A little more caffeine woke up the rest of my corpse and I realised I was going to need to hide my nether regions again. ‘What paper are you with?’
‘I have a broad portfolio. No one can afford to work for just one paper anymore. Get with the 21, Draygo.’
‘I like things fine back in thenineteenth, where women were women and men were men.’
‘And everyone died of cholera or tuberculosis,’ she said turning around to stare me down.
A contest I lost immediately. ‘Hey, turn back around. I’m still naked here.’
‘I see.’ She smirked. I shriveled a little.
‘What’s your name anyway?’ I said to cover my embarrassment. ‘I usually like to know the name of people who interrogate me in my bathtub.’
‘Helen Saunders. I’d shake hands but—’
‘Yeah, all right. Well, here’s the deal. Let me finish my ablutions while you go get Jinxy to rustle us up a full English—’
‘I don’t want a full English.’
‘Well, I do. We can talk over brekkie. I refuse to say another word until then.’ I crossed my arms over my chest.
She stared at me, but slowly cracked a smile. I was right. She had nice lips. Reluctantly she walked to the door. ‘Don’t forget to wash behind your ears.’ Laughing she closed the door behind her.
Is he too damaged to follow through on this attraction? Can he believe in himself enough to find out more about this intriguing woman? And who is Saunders after all? Is she just using him to get to a good story? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.