HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Here’s a holiday gift for you—according to some article I read, it’s better if you don’t work to hard to find the perfect present for someone. Half the time they won’t agree that it’s perfect, and the other half of the time they’d be thrilled with whatever you give them. So—no pressure! And as the wonderful Lucy Kerr says, that “no pressure about perfect” philosophy applies to fiction as well.
There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect these days. Thanks to social media, with its endless array of filters and likes, fashion blogs, and HGTV, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that our entire life should be carefully curated and Instagram-ready. Happily, when it comes to fiction, the heroines we love the most are far from perfect. They’re flawed people with complicated backstories and lives full of conflict.
When it comes to stories, perfect people are perfectly boring. Maybe it’s because fiction is more sustained – when you read a book, you’re spending several hours and hundreds of pages with the protagonist. When you get hooked on a TV series, even a 13-episode season is a significant investment of time.
And while perfection is attractive in small doses, we’re all—particularly women—aware of our own shortcomings. It can come as tremendous relief to spend time with someone who has flaws of their own—whether it’s a best friend who doesn’t judge our yoga pants because she wore her pajamas to preschool drop-off, or a fictional person who has a caffeine addiction and speaks before she thinks. (I’m looking at you, Lorelei Gilmore.)
Those faults make people relatable. In TIME OF DEATH, Frankie Stapleton is no saint. She’s been engaged—three times. She bailed on her family’s struggling hardware store twelve years ago, and barely makes it back home for Christmas each year. She’s an adrenaline-chasing, commitment phobic smart aleck. And despite all of this, we root for her. Why? Because she’s a dedicated, compassionate ER nurse who fights for her patients, and does what’s right instead of what’s easy, like coming home to help her younger sister through a high-risk pregnancy instead of taking a well-earned vacation. She has flaws, but she also has depth—and heart.
Most importantly, she’s trying to do better. She is, in fact, a lot like us. A heroine we can relate to, even when their lives are very different than our own, even when they make mistakes, is a heroine we care about. A random collection of flaws, though, is no more appealing than perfection. We want those flaws to have a deeper meaning: to reveal character, to show the effects of the past.
In Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith’s drive to be a top surgeon isn’t simply because she liked to play Operation as a child—it’s rooted in her strained relationship with her mother. Knowing that, and all the baggage that comes with it, help us to understand why Meredith acts as she does, particularly in her “dark and twisty” phase.
In Frankie’s case, her father’s death when she was eight transformed her into a person who thrives on risk and change—and ultimately led to her leaving her hometown as soon as possible. But it’s also part of what prompts her to investigate Clem Jensen’s death. A rich backstory not only gives a character depth, it makes their motivations compelling and believable.
As a reader, the stories I love best are the ones I can lose myself in, regardless of the genre. The characters I love are the ones who feel like real people. Exasperating at times, perhaps, but someone who I understand, who entertains me, who goes on a journey even if they stay in one place. That’s what I tried to do with Frankie, and I hope my readers enjoy spending time with her.
Who are some of your favorite flawed heroines (or heroes)? What do you love about them?
HANK: Oh, great question! Kinsey Millhone, definitely, although the little wadded up black dress and pickle sandwiches are not flaws. But she’s doing the best she can, and is present for all of it. And that’s the best any of us can hope for. What about you, Femmes?
Lucy Kerr is the pen name of Erica O'Rourke, an award-winning author of young adult fiction. Her debut adult mystery, TIME OF DEATH, launched with Crooked Lane Books on December 13, 2016. Lucy lives outside Chicago with her family, her cat, and many, many piles of books. She likes strong coffee, rainy days, old buildings, and fresh-baked cookies -- but she likes telling stories best of all.
TIME OF DEATH: It’s been twelve years since ER nurse Frankie Stapleton fled her hometown, but with her sister’s pregnancy taking a dangerous turn and a string of failed relationships in Chicago hanging over her, Frankie is back–and hoping to put the past behind her.
Within minutes of arriving at Stillwater General Hospital however, she ends up saving a man’s life, only to have him turn up dead hours later—and the hospital blames Frankie. With her career–and future–on life support, Frankie must catch a killer, clear her name, and heal the wounds of her past.