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Writing Tips: Character flaw as a genre convention


Character flaw can apply to genre fiction as well as literary fiction.  Quite often, character flaw is one of the conventions of a given genre. For example, in crime fiction, the detective will be very good at his or her job, but their private life is usually a shambles.


John Rebus drinks and is estranged from his wife and child. Jon Spicer, Chris Simms’ creation, is always having marital difficulties. Though he loves his wife and daughter, he gives too much to his job and not enough to them.

Michael Connelly, creator of Harry Bosch

Michael Connelly (above) created Harry Bosch a brilliant detective with a high success rate in crime-solving, but in his personal and work relations,  he is unable to connect with others or unable to sustain connection. His colleagues think he uses them to get what he wants in pursuit of a murderer. He falls for women but is unable to sustain the relationship; these women feel he isn’t really there. And he isn’t. The character flaw in these cases is that the detective is obsessed with the job and can’t find enough room in himself for other things. He puts the dead first, the living a distant second. This is a convention in crime fiction. It is used over and over again.

In romance, the man is often cold. His coldness will be explained away at the end of the novel, but while the story moves forward, his coldness comes between him and the heroine. His coldness, his inability to connect emotionally with the woman, is his character flaw. At the end of the story, his coldness is explained away as the lovers at last come together in some act of commitment to each other. But since it is a standard feature of romance fiction that the man is cold, it assumes the mantel of a convention. 

When character flaw is used this way, characterisation is not explored in any unusual depth because it is limited by the convention. It is used merely to increase the tension, not for anything else in addition to that.

But when the writer decides to step outside convention and use character flaw in an original way, the results are electric. One of my favourite crime novels, The Last Coyote, does this. Harry Bosch has been put on stress leave.

He has been stripped of his badge and gun and forbidden to go near the robbery/homicide division of LAPD’s West Hollywood precinct. If he is to get his job back he must attend sessions with a police psychologist to explore why he did that bad thing that forced him to take stress leave. He is angry and defiant, but he is also a shattered man, suffering a breakdown. 

His house has been red-tagged for demolition after it was damaged in a recent earthquake, but he refuses to believe there is anything structurally wrong with it, or nothing that can’t be fixed. So he goes on living there, re-hanging doors and doing other repairs, despite the danger. His house and his refusal to believe it is broken is the symbol of his character flaw.

He is not allowed to do his job, but he sees himself as having a mission in life: to speak for the dead, to avenge the dead. If he can’t do his job, he is nothing. 

There is one murder he has never investigated, and which has been left unsolved for over thirty years. That is the death of his mother. Now he knows he can’t ignore it any longer. Everybody counts or nobody counts. He has been acting as if his mother didn’t count, her murder didn’t count. And now he sets out to find out who killed her.

This is a crime novel, a classic of the genre. But because of the artistic use of character flaw and the way it deepens our understanding of Harry Bosch, a damaged man, the novel becomes something much more.

It becomes the story of a man who is driven to the brink of insanity by his refusal to forgive his mother for being killed when he was 11-years-old. In exploring the events that preceded her death, the people she associated with, he comes to understand her and forgive, not only her but her killer. This is character flaw at its best.


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Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. Sydney's next blog comes out on July 1.



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