J.N. Duncan Guest Post: Loving the broken character


Ed. note: We’ll have a review of J.N. Duncan’s Deadworld later this week. One of the stand-outs of the novel is the use of two main characters with deep flaws, and using their interactions to help the two grow. So, we were super excited when Jim agreed to write a post about love for the flawed heroes and heroines. With that, we’ll turn it over to him.

Deadworld by J.N. DuncanHello, everyone. Chelsea has kindly let me grab the spotlight today (thank you for letting me do so), and asked me to speak a bit on the broken character. What do I mean by broken? Simply this: a character who is emotionally in a place that does not allow them to have a healthy life. Of course, it doesn’t ever play out so simply, but we have to start somewhere, right?

In my debut, Deadworld, both the hero and heroine are what I would consider broken characters. The hero, Nick, is a vampire, plagued over the past century and a half by his nemesis, who has been playing out an excruciatingly long plan of vengeance, which has beaten Nick down to the point where he’s about to the point of throwing in the towel. He’s just kind of going through the motions, knowing he’s got no shot at this. Jackie, on the other hand, will go down swinging no matter what. She grew up in a household that drove her mother to suicide when she was twelve, and has never recovered, though she tries to live her life like she has. She fights off the bad guys, and everything else because it’s the only thing she knows how to do to keep that fragile shell of herself intact.

Sounds interesting, yes? Well, I hope it does anyway. Being a psych major in college, emotional issues are very intriguing to me: how they develop, why, in what ways they effect someone’s life, how they cope, and so on. It’s all fascinating stuff. I went into Deadworld with the idea of writing a very troubled main character, as much for the challenge as how interesting I found it to be as a writer. People with serious emotional issues aren’t always fun people to be around. There’s a lot of crazy-making behavior. The good stuff is easily drowned out by the instability. They can be difficult people to like, let alone love. As a writer, this kind of character can be problematic, because generating sympathy can be difficult.

Then again, that’s kind of the beauty of the broken character. Are they redeemable? Do you even want them to get redeemed? It makes for a grand emotional story arc or at least, I believe it does, especially if one hopes to get anywhere close to the other end of the extreme, where things are happy and stable in the end. It’s a story all by itself. As a reader, I love things on an epic scale. King’s “Dark Tower” series is one of my all time faves. I like things to unfold over time, get interfered with, set back, turned around, misdirected, until finally, after a heroic journey, things reach a satisfying conclusion. With the broken character you have a very broad canvas to work with because you are starting so far over to one side. Some readers like this dark side more than others, which is fine either way, mind you. Everyone is entitled and should be respected for their particular tastes in reading. I will say that I believe that the darker you can push your story, the brighter things will appear in the end. But how dark is dark?

For example, Jackie does not have a good self-image. You might go so far as to say she’s terrified of herself. She grew up in a house where women were not just undervalued, but denigrated. She saw things happen to her mother that no child should ever have to see. Her greatest fear is that, deep down, she’s becoming this woman she both loved and despised, that felt so miserable about life, herself, and her ability to control it, that she ended her life. In the story, one of the ways this plays out is through alcohol and casual relationships. She binge drinks and sleeps with whatever cute guy happens to be available. She wants a relationship, but is terrified to truly make herself available for one, so she doesn’t. She tunes out and goes through the motions, and feels none the better for it. At one point in the book, it reaches a particularly dark moment, where things look their bleakest. It’s a crisis moment, necessary to open her eyes to the realities of her life. Now, getting drunk and sleeping around is not an endearing quality really. On the surface, it may make her seem like, well, a slut. I’ve had a couple of reviews point out this fact as one of the reasons they don’t like Jackie.

The Vengeful Dead by J.N. Duncan (Deadworld #2)

The Vengeful Dead by J.N. Duncan (Deadworld #2) is tentatively set to release in Oct. 2011

And therein lies the danger of writing the broken character. They’re difficult to love because they are generally self-destructive. They don’t behave in ways conducive to likeability. You want to slap them upside the head and yell at them for acting in such personally stupid ways. In addition to that, emotional issues are not typically resolved short term. Deadworld takes place over the course of about a two week’s time. Is Jackie fixed by the end? No, not in this book. Does she realize how messed up her life is and the fact she needs to do something about it? Yes, because I also believe in hope, and I think any story, no matter how desperate and down it might be, should always offer the hope that things will get better, that life can be good again. And while I may have a lot of fun dragging Jackie through the muck of her life, I want readers to root for her and want to see her make it out on the other side as a whole person in the end.

It’s a very fine line between broken and sympathetic. In another recent example, one can look at Stacia Kane’s Downside books (VBC review of Unholy Ghosts). Her main character is a drug addict, hooked on a narcotic to help her cope with her life, and effected by the consequences of those actions. Stacia got some flak for writing a drug-addicted heroine. She is however, a very interesting character, and it’s fun to see not only the trouble she gets into because of her issues, but how she might ultimately resolve it all.

All characters have flaws, some clearly more problematic than others. Perfect characters make for dull reading. Some readers are going to find some flaws too much to take, whether it’s drugs or casual sex or violence or what have you. As a writer, I can only hope that the story I wanted to tell doesn’t cross the line for too many readers. There’s not a lot of ‘happiness going on in my story because the main characters are starting in such a dark place in their lives. The trick for me as the writer though is to give you enough to latch on to in order to see what might become of them, and get you to want them to reach that point. Based on reviews so far, I’ve achieved that with some readers and missed the mark with others. That’s the nature of the game.

So, I’ll put it to you the readers (and writers) out there perusing this blog. What books have you read that had a “broken” character you really wanted to root for? What books crossed the line to unsympathetic? And finally, do you have any particular lines that can’t be crossed, that will make you put the book down and say, “there’s no way I can like that character.”

9 Responses to “J.N. Duncan Guest Post: Loving the broken character”

  1. Catherine says:

    My favorite ‘broken’ character is Heathcliff from “Wuthering Heights”. My heart aches every time I read it. More recently though I’ve fallen in love with Zsadist from the BDB Series. “Ruined. Not Broken.” is how his brother describes him. I cannot help but root for them to find happiness and healing.

  2. Hey, Jim,
    Great post. These characters sound fascinating. I *love* broken heroines in particular. 🙂

    Maybe that’s the reason I loved LOST so much–almost every main character in that show was broken. I have never felt for a character as much as I did at the end of the third season when (SPOILER!!!!!–seriously, do not read the rest of this paragraph if you plan to have a DVD marathon!) we realized that we weren’t being shown a flashback of a broken Jack; we were seeing him devastated and hopeless in present time.

    I don’t want to hang out with broken people in real life–they can drain you by making you feel as if you need to help them and you’re a bad friend if you can’t. But I love knowing them within the world of a book, where I have the power to turn the page and put them aside for the time being, where the characters have no expectations of me.

  3. J.N. Duncan says:

    Lol, totally agree, Chris. They aren’t really people you want around in real life. Much as you may love them, they are too emotionally draining. Far easier to deal with on the page. If you decide to check out Jackie/Nick in Deadworld, I hope you enjoy their story.

  4. Melinda says:

    Really interesting, thought-provoking post. I’m a sucker for broken characters. One that leaps to mind in the main character of TWISTED by Laurie Halse Anderson (who has created many beautifully broken characters). He was messed up to the point of considering suicide, but I was so rooting for him

  5. Karen says:

    Even though you already mentioned it, I would have to go with Chess but I would add Terrible to that.
    Great post!
    I have to be honest and say I don’t always like or sympathize with a broken character but when it’s done right as in Stacia Kane’s series it can pay off big time. I do always hold out hope for some sort of redemption though, if not necessarily and HEA.
    I’ll have to investigate Deadworld.

  6. Broken character with redeeming qualities that comes to mind for me would have to be Damon from The Vampire Diaries, both the books and the show… He is the ultimate “bad boy” and has so many issues that he continues to fascinate me no matter how many other characters I come across in books…

    The line that can’t be crossed for me is a character who commits rape and then suddenly becomes “the white hat” character of the piece, the two do not mesh for me!

    Deadworld is waiting on my Kindle, need to get cracking reading sooner than later! Especially since my first name is Jackie!

  7. J.N. Duncan says:

    Karen and Jackie, I hope you enjoy the story. And Jackie, I pray you can’t relate to the character. lol. If characters could come to life I would be in serious trouble.

  8. Kristin says:

    Awesome post!! I know this one’s been mentioned, but Chess Putnam from Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghost series was the first one to pop into my mind. At first I wasn’t sure I could get on board with her, but as her story progressed, and her past came into focus, as well as her inner turmoil, I found myself more and more drawn to her, and also able to identify with her to a certain point.

    Very thought provoking post! Nicely done!

  9. Mandy says:

    I don’t know if you’d consider her “broken” or not… But Sin from Larissa Ione’s Demonica series is one of my favorite heroines. She starts out kind of lost and damaged. But she is so strong…

    I don’t mind when the female character sleeps around at first. Almost all of the heroes we love do it. (BDB- hello! lol) It’s reality- some women enjoy sex and sleeping around.

    I don’t think I’ve seen a character that was beyond redeeming in my eyes. I guess if they were extremely cruel at some point – I’d find it hard to give them a comeback from that.

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