Appeal of the flawed character – Lizzie Enfield

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Lizzie Enfield explores why authors shouldn’t just stick with likeable characters and why it’s ok for characters to be less than perfect. ♥

My latest novel Living With It examines the fallout between a group of friends after the teenage daughter of one gets measles and infects the young baby of another. The baby, Iris, becomes profoundly deaf as a result. The title refers to having to live with the consequences of decisions which come back to haunt and life not turning out the way people had hoped.

All of the characters in the book are far from perfect; Isobel, whose decision not to have her children vaccinated has dreadful repercussions, is a little too smug in her desire to be a perfect parent. Ben, a failed actor and frustrated school teacher, is angry with the world and furious that his baby daughter is now deaf. Isobel’s husband, Eric, is annoyingly unsupportive of either his wife or Ben, his oldest friend, and Iris’s mother, Maggie, appears a little too detached from everything that is going on.

Yet, each character has good reason for being as they are, things in their past which influence the way they behave as well as individual redeeming qualities.

‘Nobody is perfect and the reader’s sympathies are divided and change as the story and back-stories unfold.’

The issue at the heart of the novel is the MMR controversy, which resulted in large numbers of children not being vaccinated and led to numerous measles outbreaks but I did not want my opinions to weigh too heavily on the novel or for readers to lose sympathy with the characters. Rather, I wanted to show, as far as was possible, the human side of a debate, to disturb any notions of “right” and “wrong” and make people think about what actually motivates us in making certain choices.

And I wanted to create drama in order to make people want to keep reading. One of the best ways to do this is to create conflict; show people disagreeing with each other, dramatise their differences, pit them against each other and disrupt the status quo. It also helps if the characters themselves have some sort of internal conflict going on.

In Living With It, the main characters are fairly torn apart by the situation in which they find themselves. Isobel is consumed with guilt over what happened but still convinced she did the right thing by her own children. Eric is torn between his loyalty to his wife and to his oldest friend, Ben. Ben vacillates between trying to focus on his own family and wanting to take his anger out on Isobel. While Maggie, who is a relative newcomer to the group, resents Ben’s long-standing close connections and feels like an outsider.

Nobody is perfect and the reader’s sympathies are divided and change as the story and back-stories unfold. I didn’t want just to offer equal but opposing views but also to throw the reader off balance and make them question the motives of characters they may previously have trusted. So, while at times you may have huge sympathy for each of the four main protagonists at others they may infuriate you, just as real people do!

The flaws of the characters mean they are not always likeable but exposing their weaknesses, extremes and contradictions and watching how they deal with the drama unfolding in their midst makes for a more compelling and dramatic story.

Lizzie Enfield is a journalist and regular contributor to national newspapers and magazines, has written three novels and had short stories broadcast on Radio Four and published in various magazines. She has taught for the Arvon Foundation and at various universities and colleges.

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