Flawed Characters and The Girl On The Train
Paula Hawkins' bestselling thriller can teach us a lot about writing flawed characters. Here's how.
With all the hype about this mystery thriller by Paula Hawkins and the author now releasing a new book, I finally got around to picking up a copy. I'm over a hundred pages in now and enjoying it immensely - but the more I read the more I find myself thinking about the concept of flawed characters. Hawkins writes skillfully, capturing the rough edges and blemishes of each of her characters perfectly. So, what exactly is a flawed character, how can you write one, and what can they contribute to your story? These are all questions which I'm going to talk about in today's post, with reference to Hawkins' infamous thriller.
I've talked about this topic before on this blog: flawed characters make for the most interesting to read and the easiest to relate to. After all, real people have flaws. Nobody is perfect, and our characters shouldn't be either. But today, I'm going to relate these ideas specifically to the Mystery and Thriller genres and show you how you can use them in your own novel just like one of the greats.
So, what is a flawed character and why have one in a mystery novel?
A flawed character is exactly what it sounds like: a character who is deeply, often intrinsically flawed. Of course, all characters are flawed but these guys often have very deep or overwhelming flaws that have a big impact on their morality and thus the plot. In many ways they might be deeply unlikable - and yet they are still often our protagonist. Why?
Well, a character this flawed often drives the plot in different ways to a typical protagonist. They might be less moral than others and so not take issue with courses of action that less selfish characters avoid. They might spend too much time on their own vices and so leave the right thing until it is almost too late. In a mystery novel this can be used to great effect - there are so many opportunities when exploring realistic crimes in fiction for a character to show more shades of grey than black and white morals. It's probably for this reason that I'm sure you've read at least one crime novel where the hard-bitten detective turns to drink or smoking or both.
Hawkins however, takes this one step further. Rachel is not just any flawed character: she is our narrator. The reader relies on her to tell us what is happening. Everything we know or believe about events and other characters is told through her (at least until Hawkins begins adding multiple points of view but we'll get to that later). But Rachel is so flawed that she is an unreliable narrator. Not only is she deeply biased about past events and the people around her (making it incredibly difficult for the reader to decide who to trust and who to believe) but she also has a few vices of her own. Rachel is a drunk. A black-out drunk. Her memories are confused and jumbled and often non-existent even when it is incredibly important that she remember. Indeed, Rachel might be the only witness to something terrible, if only she could remember what.
This is part of what has made The Girl On The Train so popular. Hawkins doesn't just use a flawed character to contribute to the tension, her entire source of conflict arises from the fact that Rachel is so flawed. And the more we realise that the other point of view characters are incredibly flawed too, the more we gain this sense of enigma that is so important in contemporary mystery novels: we never to know what to think because the narrators never tell us. We're forced to join them in their quest for answers in Megan's murder because not only do we have none of the answers but seemingly, none of the characters do either.
How does Hawkins write flawed characters?
Hawkins' strength in writing flawed characters is that she writes in the first person convincingly and consistently, placing us firmly in the heads of these people we cannot trust. The characters might not be telling us the full truth but never does her writing deviate from their truth. This is incredibly important when writing any character - everything you tell must come from them, not you - but it is even more significant with flawed characters because their function is to make truth and lie harder to tell apart. If the reader is constantly interrupted by authorial intrusion, this effect will be lost to us. In order for you to write an unreliable narrator as successfully as Hawkins does you must first know your character and your plot inside out and back to front. You need to know the objective truth of events in your novel, but also your character's voice: what they believe the truth to be and of course, why they believe this.