Monday, November 9, 2015

Why We Love Damaged and Tortured Characters, by Polly Iyer

copyright Polly Iyer, 2015

What is it about damaged heroes that attract women readers, and writers? Damaged and tortured heroes and heroines, either emotionally or physically, are a staple in literature: Hamlet, Quasimodo, or Heathcliff. Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. In film, give an actor or actress the role of a handicapped or emotionally challenged character and you can almost be sure an Academy Award will follow. The Three Faces of Eve, My Left Foot, The Theory of Everything, A Beautiful Mind. Even children’s books have damaged characters: The Secret Garden, Beauty and the Beast. How about theater’s award winning Phantom of the Opera? Those are but a few of the examples. The list goes on and on. 

My critique partner says that I make heroes out of damaged characters. I had never thought of it that way, but I went over my bibliography, and she’s right. My stories are full of damaged characters, both emotionally and physically. I’ve written eleven books, eight suspense novels under my name and three erotic romances written under a pseudonym. Out of the eleven novels, nine have damaged heroes/heroines. The two that don’t are the second and third books in my series, but that’s only because the main characters’ histories are explained in book one. No sense beating a dead horse.

All villains are messed up, but in my book, Mind Games, the villain is almost sympathetic, even though he’s evil to the core. It’s much easier to write a pure villain with no redeeming qualities than it is to make him understood, in that weird villainous way.

Not only do I write damaged heroes, I read them. The most interesting, in my opinion, is Will Trent, Karin Slaughter’s series character. Because he’s dyslexic and wired differently—he literally can’t read―he uses other methods to piece together the clues in a crime that “normal” cops don’t see. He’s socially inept, almost backward, but that’s because he had a Dickensian childhood. I root for him. I want him to succeed. More about that later.

I have a character like Trent in my book Threads, written long before Will Trent came on the scene but published long after. I worked on it for years, but one character remained true, and that was Garrett. What a mess, but I fell in love with him. I’ve fallen in love with all my heroes. If I don’t, I can’t write them.

My book Murder Déjà Vu may have my favorite damaged hero. Architect Reece Daughtry spent fifteen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and was released when his lawyer proved he was convicted on tainted evidence. Fifteen years in prison has left him with a form of PTSD. He has a terrible fear of being confined. Even the house he builds has skylights in every room, so he can “see the clouds and stars and know the universe exists.”

There’s Luke McCallister in InSight, a deaf cop forced into counseling with a psychologist blinded by her ex-husband’s failed attempt to kill her. Now there’s an interesting coupling. Abby isn’t my only damaged female character. I believe in gender equality. There’s retired call girl Tawny Dell in Hooked. She can’t fall in love, so she does her job and goes home to an empty loft. A little messed up? Ya think? Then she meets the cop who might send her to jail if she doesn’t do a job for the NYPD. Bet you can guess what happens. Oh, he has a history too, of course.

So what’s the fascination with damaged characters? I might be a little close to the situation to answer, but I think it’s because readers want to root for a character, whether male or female, to beat the odds, to win, to come out of their shells, or take the first step. To find love because they never experienced it or because they were so badly hurt by someone they shunned the very people who could give them what they don’t know they need. As readers and as writers, we want to care about the people in our stories because they become real to us. From the time we create them to the time we type, THE END, we live with them, become them, and feel them.

Of course, the real answer why we’re fascinated by flawed and tortured characters might be that normal is boring. But don’t tell anyone I said that.


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Polly Iyer was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, a coastal city north of Boston. After graduating from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she didn’t need much encouragement to accompany a friend to Italy, where they both expected to spend a year. Polly spent a year and a half. Her friend never came home. It was a formative time. Having never experienced much outside her own area, Rome truly was the City of Lights. And enlightenment. During that time, she worked as a free-lance illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily, sketching the designs of Valentino and Emilio Pucci, among others. Upon returning to the States, she continued free-lancing for Fairchild Publications, covering all of New England, in addition to offering copywriting and illustration services to a select group of clients.


Polly Iyer said...

Thanks for having me today, Aaron et al. This was an illuminating post for me and called my attention to something I guess readers can expect: a mixed-up, tortured-by-the-past character. And I'm so normal. :-)

Ellis Vidler said...

Interesting, Polly. I think we all like seeing people who overcome or somehow come out on top of bad situations, and characters with big problems are no exception. Keep up the good work and keep those damaged heroes coming!

Polly Iyer said...

Thanks, Ellis. Normal people are so boring. Then what's normal, I ask?

E. B. Davis said...

We identify with broken, tortured characters, Polly, or else we are thankful we aren't as bad off as they are! Janet Evanovich said in an interview that she creates characters that are in sorry shape to make readers feel better about themselves. If the characters can win, then maybe the readers can win, too. I like the sentiment. Besides, don't we all hate perfect people?

Polly Iyer said...

I'd probably hate a perfect person if I ever met one, Elaine. So far I haven't, and I've lived a long time. I've met some who think they're perfect though. Thanks for stopping by.

Laurie Boris said...

I love a broken, flawed, human character. I want to root for him or her to move toward redemption. I tend not to like or trust fictional characters who are too perfect. Makes me wonder what they're hiding. Or what the author is not telling us. Excellent post, Polly.

Polly Iyer said...

Thanks, Laurie. Obviously, I feel the same way. It's easy to fall in love with someone who needs to be loved. Thanks so much for commenting.

Unknown said...

Great post Polly. I'm liking the sound of so many of your novels :)

Polly Iyer said...

Thanks, Ellie. And all of them have just been reduced to $2.99. :-)

Jackie Wegr said...

Well said, Polly Iyer. Damaged and flawed characters sell because I think we are each flawed in some way so we can relate to a character who must overcome obstacles to achieve a mission, whatever it may be.

Jackie Weger
No Perfect Secret

Polly Iyer said...

I agree, Jackie. We want readers to root for our characters, and the more damaged they are, the more we root. Perfection is boring anyway. Thanks for posting.

P.C. Zick said...

I know the flaws I create in my characters come from somewhere deep within me, and it can be cathartic to write about those things. Or they are flaws I've seen in friends and I want to examine them in more detail. Either way, I write my stories so they come out the way I'd like the outcome to be in real life!

Polly Iyer said...

Interesting, Patricia. I think if we write flawed people, we have to understand those flaws and part of doing that is to be in the shoes of our characters, not just report them from outside in. Could we write flawed characters realistically if we didn't know how it felt to be them? I sometimes have ambiguous endings, because I don't think life always works out the way we want.