I’ll admit right up front here that I like messed up characters. I like them to be one step away from imploding. I want to skirt the line between competence and falling apart into a blubbering mess. I believe it makes the characters more interesting. Kicking butt is all fine and dandy, and in some ways, the hero/heroine should do so, at least in the genre of Urban Fantasy. But, I find it more interesting when characters have flaws, are tormented by them, and when these flaws put their success in jeopardy, at least when it comes to story. Sure, all kinds of paranormal badassery can impede the MC, and should as far as that goes. The fantasy elements of UF would be rather boring if they didn’t. However, I want the MC’s own issues to be as much of a problem as the non-human ones. In essence, they need to be fucked up.
The trick of course is to not be so over-the-top that readers lose sympathy or believability in the character. You can’t have a “Woe is me” character and maintain sympathy. You can’t have some issue that is so overwhelming that the reader won’t believe any normal person, or even a kick-ass person can overcome it. For example, if you have an alcoholic or drug-addicted character, you can’t have them in a state of intoxication all of the time, or nobody will believe they could be successful against the villains. You can however, have them struggle with it, binge on it, and otherwise have it interfere with their ability to succeed. Struggle is the key. Readers like to see characters struggle. They want reasons to root for the character’s success. So, while you can have a character who has some serious issues, it’s important to make sure they don’t drown out the character’s strengths. We have to believe they can overcome their obstacles as well as want them to.
Having a messed up character also gives the writer a bit more freedom to really torment them. Often, a person’s strengths are such that they allow them to skate by just enough to survive, but to reach any lasting success or happiness down the road, they have to be pummeled down to the point that they realize they really are messed up and have to deal with their issues. As a writer, I find this rather enjoyable (not sure if this says anything about my personality, but there you go). As a reader, I like it when I get to ride that rollercoaster of emotions swinging from, “Come on, you can do it!” to, “Oh my god, how could you do that?” It’s that fine line between cheering and giving up on the character as hopeless.
In my upcoming novel, Deadworld, my heroine, Jackie, likes to think she has it all together, but in fact, she doesn’t at all. Because this is a series, I also get the bonus of pushing character arcs across more than one book, because in real life, serious issues don’t get resolved in a matter of days or weeks. People have their ups and downs, highs and lows, and the hope is, that gradually they will achieve success in the end. And just like real life, overcoming issues for a character, is not a one-stop shopping sort of affair. Those issues that screw them up are always waiting, behind closed doors, in the dark alleys, or under the covers, to rear their ugly heads and bite the character in the ass. It’s fun stuff. And I hope readers will feel the same with Deadworld.