Flawed Characters And Why They’re Loveable – Interview with Author Linda Gillard

I am fortunate to be able to feature an interview with Linda Gillard, who so graciously puts up with my emails imploring her to tell me all about the backroom secrets of A Real Author. Linda is, of course, the award-winning U.K. romance novelist whose novel Star-Gazing is the loveliest book I’ve read in ages, and she has two others I loved as well: Emotional Geology, and A Lifetime Burning.

Linda Gillard with a copy of her novel Star Gazing

In spite of working feverishly on a new manuscript, Linda agreed to take some time to answer my latest questions. I’ve often been curious about characters with flaws. If the author recognizes an attitude as flawed, how does the author know how to be consistent about it? How can the author resist “fixing” the flaw? And how would the author like the reader to react to the flawed character? Here’s my interview with Linda (who will probably be writing an article soon about flawed fan-correspondents):

Flawed Characters: How Can Authors Stand Them?

RIB: Do you struggle with a desire to fix the flaws of your characters?

LG: No, not at all. In fact I consciously strive to develop flaws. I actually like flawed characters because I find them more interesting – heroes particularly. In any case I have to have flawed characters because my novels are character-driven, not plot-driven. My characters struggle with inner conflicts rather than external villains so plot complications arise out of the characters’ flaws and foibles. I think that makes a story more convincing and a more satisfying read.

RIB: How do you “relate” to the flaws so you can keep them consistent throughout the story?

LG: I don’t worry a lot about consistency. I pretty much allow my characters to dictate to me what they say and do! They’re in charge and I just hang on to their coat tails. My novels are so character-driven that if a protagonist behaved uncharacteristically, I’d just go with the flow. (I once read that the way to make a character really convincing was to have them behave out of character occasionally, as people do.)

I think consistency in your characters is less of a problem if you don’t have the demands of the plot driving the novel along. Inconsistency arises when a character has to do something out of character to make the story work. How often do you read a novel and think, “But she just wouldn’t have done that!”

RIB: Do you like your character even though you have filled him or her with flaws?

LG: Oh, yes, I love them! If I don’t love a character by the end of a book – even the less admirable ones – then I consider I’ve failed to fully realise that character. As a writer, you “love the sinner, not the sin” and I can grow fond of seriously flawed characters who behave in morally reprehensible ways.

I think this is partly because I was an actress for some years. As an actor you have to find a way of playing moral turpitude without descending into melodrama. You have to try to work out why a murderer would kill, why a thief would steal. You can’t just walk on stage and play two-dimensional evil. The portrait needs to be rounded out. So in fiction, I try to present the big picture. In EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, I portray a womanising mountaineer who can’t cope with the mental and emotional demands of caring for his manic depressive partner. Infidelity is one of the ways he meets his own needs. As an author, I don’t approve, but I understand and find it very interesting! (In my opinion it’s not an author’s job to judge, but to evoke compassion and understanding.)

RIB: Do you ever find yourself not “knowing” that some characteristic will be distasteful to readers?

LG: Oh, yes! You can’t second-guess readers! But I find readers are more tolerant of characters’ behaviour than editors. I’ve often been asked to remove flaws to make characters more sympathetic. For example, one of my protagonists drinks when she’s pregnant. I was asked to change that because it made her appear unsympathetic. (I refused.)

I suppose it’s because my novels are fundamentally love stories that editors have wanted the characters to be attractive and wholly admirable, but one of the things that irks me is, higher standards of behaviour seem to be expected of female characters than male! There seems to be this assumption that a female character has to be a shining beacon of goodness to engage a reader’s sympathy. Certainly there are a lot of reviews on Amazon criticising books because the reader just didn’t like the female protagonist. But I think the first duty of a fictional character is to be fascinating, not virtuous. I know a lot of readers agree.

As a writer you tend to forget that readers want to spend time with people they like and admire. But for a reader the book is just a fling. For the author it’s a grande affaire and common sense doesn’t always prevail.

RIB: Do you ever think some behavior or attitude is a positive one but it turns out others (editors, readers) take it for a flaw? I’ve always been curious about that – especially when the character doesn’t get “fixed” at the end – is it because the author doesn’t even know it’s a bad thing?!!!

LG: I think I’ve often backed a character’s surprising behaviour/decision because it bespoke integrity or taking control of his or her own destiny. But editors and readers don’t seem to see things the same way. While I admired STAR GAZING’s blind Marianne for certain choices she made, readers have often emailed to say how irritated they are by her stubborn independence.

Similarly in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, Megan’s sexual precocity upsets her mother, Rose, and so relations remain pretty frosty between those two women. Any number of readers have suggested Rose isn’t a very good or loving mother because she holds this grudge. They’ve made it clear they would have preferred a nice warm mother-daughter reconciliation scene. My view is, for this to happen, Rose would have needed to be more of a doormat. (I also take the view that the frosty mother/daughter relationship is more true-to-life!)

I wrote a scene in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY which involved the heroine taking the sexual initiative – behaving rather like a man. My hero enjoyed it, but one correspondent was appalled. She claimed women don’t behave like this. (How did she know?) But I didn’t consider Rose’s behaviour inappropriate. It was assertive.

As a 70s feminist, I’d thought what I’d written was an entertaining (and fully-clothed!) erotic scene of female sexual emancipation. But it would appear that when it comes to sexual pleasure, some readers still think nice girls lie back and think of England.

So in sum, the short answer is yes, I sometimes differ with readers and editors about what constitutes a flaw versus an admirable trait. I think some readers like to sit in judgment, but authors can’t afford to. We’d be writing tracts, not fiction.

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37 Responses to Flawed Characters And Why They’re Loveable – Interview with Author Linda Gillard

  1. Bookjourney says:

    This was fun to read! I love to read about flawed characters ad I can imagine (at least for me) they would be fun to create. I would probably put in some of the irritating habits that bother me and put them into a character just for fun.

    Thanks Linda and Jill!

  2. bookingmama says:

    Terrific interview — both the questions and the answers. I love learning how an author feels about her rather flawed characters. I really appreciate that she loves them for what they are!

  3. Barbara says:

    Great interview, filled with questions I’ve often wondered about as well. Her answers were certainly food for thought. I hadn’t heard the phrase that nice girls lay back and think of England in ages. 😀

  4. Ti says:

    I adore flawed characters. I find that they are much more interesting and often a bit more complex. However, I do have to see a bit of growth in them to appreciate them fully. It’s especially satisfying when they come full circle.

    On FB you mentioned Wuthering Heights. In WH, you have a collection of flawed characters but they don’t grow at all, so I didn’t find them special or endearing in any way.

    • WH is one of my favourite books, though I can never really work out why. Dazzling technical brilliance could have something to do with it. I think Heathcliff does change – but he goes downhill! But that would fascinate me as much as a character finding redemption. 😉

      I sometimes wonder if writing fiction is something like being a doctor. Your working life would be very dull if no one ever got sick and when they get sick with something unusual and challenging – say bubonic plague – things get *really* interesting.

  5. Alyce says:

    This is such an entertaining interview! I have to say that some of my favorite characters of all time are those who are flawed.

    And amen to the comment about the frosty mother-daughter relationship being more true to life. I don’t want anyone to think I’m a terrible daughter, so I won’t say anymore than “I can relate.” 🙂

    It made me laugh to think that readers would have a problem with a woman taking the initiative in the bedroom. I never mind that in a book, what I do mind is when things get too detailed (especially if it starts to sound too clinical). I’d rather leave some things to the imagination. My reaction to a graphic sex scene can range from giggles (for the ridiculous) to being grossed out (for too much information).

    • I do agree about the clinical detail being laughable, Alyce. It’s sooo hard to get this right! I long ago decided that the English language was wholly inadequate in this department. I sometimes wonder if other languages fare any better. Do they have words for body parts that don’t fall in to either the medical or profane categories? (Surely the Italians must have got this right?)

      I think the sexiest thing I’ve ever written was a scene in a tree house in STAR GAZING where the blind heroine slowly unzips the hero’s fleece jacket. I had to lie down for a while after writing that.

      • TMI! I’m blushing! :–)

      • Alyce says:

        Now see the unzipping of the jacket sounds great. Anticipation is so much better to read about than mechanical details of sex.

        I’m sure you’re right about the Italians. 🙂

        • Yes, I pay a lot of attention to (and spend a lot of words on) what happens *before* the deed is done. I try to set the scene with sensuous detail (and often humour because I think women love men who make them laugh). I create a lot of tension and anticipation… and then I stop writing and have to go and lie down.

          Readers are co-creators. You start something off and they’ll finish, in their own way and in their own time. I think graphic writing about sex is a form of control freakery – telling readers what to see & feel, instead of allowing them their own take on the scene. (The noise I heard as she undid the zip wouldn’t necessarily be the same noise *you* heard. But your noise will be just perfect for you.)

          Is this making any sense?!…

  6. bermudaonion says:

    Great interview! I like flawed characters because they’re real – who’s ever met a perfect person in real life?

  7. Nymeth says:

    “As a 70s feminist, I’d thought what I’d written was an entertaining (and fully-clothed!) erotic scene of female sexual emancipation. But it would appear that when it comes to sexual pleasure, some readers still think nice girls lie back and think of England.”

    I want to hug Ms Gillard for this paragraph alone. An excellent interview!

    Also, I think I need to read WH again. I don’t trust the judgement of my fifteen-year-old self 😛

    • Thanks for the virtual hug, Nymeth. Well timed. I just moved house.

      Do please read WH again! When I read it as a teenager it didn’t occur to me that Cathy and Heathcliff could be (and probably were) half-brother and sister. Bearing that in mind and what we now know about cycles of abusive behaviour and how bullying can a child’s development, you might see Heathcliff in a new – but still sombre – light.

  8. Jenners says:

    I’m glad you continue to pester Ms. Gillard on your and our behalf. It is fun to hear her views on topics like this. I love how she lets her characters dictate what happens to them.

    • Thanks Jenners. 🙂

      re characters dictating: it’s hell – like living with teenagers. They won’t do anything you tell them and they think they’re the centre of the universe.

  9. Great interview, ladies! I’ve got this posted at Win a Book for you guys; thanks for the e-mail.

  10. Margot says:

    I love this interview and all the discussion here. I just finished Star Gazing a few days ago (review tomorrow) and I must say how much I loved the flawed characters.

    The female character is often crabby with an attitude but I could completely identify with her. It’s so much better when characters in a story resemble real people, flaws and all.

    As to Keir, the male hero, I am completely in love with him. I’ll take him over Heathcliffe, etc. any day. Well, maybe not over Mr. Darccy.

    • Can’t wait to read your review, Margot. 🙂

      I was madly in love with Keir too. (I used to think I’d never be A Proper Writer because I fall in love with my heroes. I’ve since discovered this is standard behavious for authors.)

      My editor had a problem with Keir being rude to Marianne (I saw it as bluntness merely) and she wanted that toned down to make him more sympathetic, but since Marianne actually said she liked his rudeness, I didn’t see the problem, so it stayed.

  11. Jenny says:

    Wow, so crazy – I just finished typing a comment on another blog about how unflawed characters are boring as hell, and this was the next post in my Google Reader. Great interview! I’m interested in what you say about authors sitting in judgment – have you ever tried to write a character and had to change him/her because you were finding it too distasteful to live inside his/her head?

    • No, but there are certain topics that I wouldn’t go anywhere near as an author such as child abuse, torture or physical cruelty.

      I did have a weird experience with one book. I’d planned an edgy but consensual sex scene but when I came to write it the heroine surprised me and said, “No”. But my anti-hero wouldn’t take no for an answer and it became (technically) a rape scene. This is what I mean about hanging on to the characters’ coat tails. They have minds of their own and the books they want to write are better than the books I’d write if left to my own devices.

      Or, as I say to writing students, “Your unconscious mind – if you let it – will write a much better book than your conscious mind.”

      • Think I should clarify a bit more here. As far as *I* was concerned, the scene was a rape because the woman (although in love with the man) didn’t give consent. But the ambiguity of the scene is such that some readers haven’t seen it as a rape.

        I think the thing I’ve most wanted to walk away from (because being inside his head was so painful) was a protagonist adjusting to major disability. That damn near broke my heart.

  12. Valerie says:

    I loved reading “Emotional Geology” — Calum (Rose’s love interest) seemed so realistic to me — and am very eager to read “Star Gazing” soon (I have a copy already).

    For sure, one of my very favorite flawed characters has to be Rhett Butler! I think the GWTW movie sanitized his character somewhat from that of the book.

  13. Thank you for the thoughtful interview, Linda and Jill. As an author who has gotten a lot of comments about my flawed characters (mostly positive), I’ve also noticed that readers are generally more accepting of flawed male characters than female characters. Guys just seem to get away with a lot more, maybe because female readers like bad boys but are more critical of other women.

    I agree that unflawed characters are boring, and they also lack the complexity that makes them real. Furthermore, the main character’s imperfections create conflict that drives the story. And to the extent that readers see themselves in the characters, the characters’ flaws can help readers to observe dilemmas and challenges in their own lives. In that sense, fictional people model decisions and their consequences–and bad decisions are especially useful in this respect.

    • Lyn,

      Thank you so much for commenting. I agree that women like “bad boys” but I also think that women may have lower expectations for the behavior of males. In thinking about your book, Gringolandia, I can see that I definitely felt more annoyance with Courtney when she was being immature than with Daniel. I thought it was because I saw too much of Courtney in myself, but maybe I was just letting subconscious prejudices take over my reading reactions!

      • They’re not mutually exclusive, Jill, if your subconscious prejudices make you harder on yourself than on the men around you. There’s a lot of me in Courtney, too, and being hard on myself helped me to develop her with all her flaws and questionable decision-making. However, it took me 22 years and a lot of growing up to see her with enough objectivity to write that character.

    • I agree, Lyn. As readers (and as people?) we seem to have lower behavioural expectations of men. Why do female readers love Mr Darcy so much? He’s uncivil and a snob! But we make allowances. We allow him to be complex, to have a past that has wounded him. But some editors and many readers won’t make those allowances for female characters.

      Perhaps it’s comforting that the same double standards exist in fiction as in real life. 😉

      • It shouldn’t happen in either fiction or real life! For the companion to my most recent novel, Gringolandia, some readers and an agent wanted me to make the female protagonist–Daniel’s younger sister, Tina–more sympathetic, even though I depict her in Gringolandia as troubled and rebellious. I ended up softening her considerably by changing a plot element. The change strengthened the story and was consistent with her character, but I would have a hard time making changes that I felt were dishonest simply to conform to societal expectations. I consider it the role of fiction to challenge expectations.

  14. Bumbles says:

    “…it’s not an author’s job to judge, but to evoke compassion and understanding…”

    Very well said by Linda. I used to always want to know what the author felt about their characters, thinking that would tell me the truth. But that is not the truth at all – it is just another person’s opinion. It is what it is, as they say.

  15. Thanks, Bumbles. Much as I love to read (and give) interviews like these, I don’t want to know what an author thinks when I’m actually reading the book. I expect an author to be dispassionate (which isn’t easy when passion is what motivates you to write – passion for your subject or your characters.)

    I’ve found to my cost it can also work the other way round. Some readers fail to make a distinction between the author *depicting* something immoral and *condoning* it. There have been some very spirited exchanges on the subject of A LIFETIME BURNING, my 2nd novel. 😉

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I love flawed characters! Star Gazing has been on my wish list, but now I’m moving it to the top 🙂

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