Deb Erika favors flaws. Big ones.

Erika MarksLiterature is filled with characters who are so dynamic, so fascinating, that they only need a single name. Scarlett. Holden. Huck.

Then there are the characters at the other end of the spectrum, whose understated demeanor might cause them to slip through the binding, if not for the depth of their humanity. For me, I have always been fond of characters who are flawed. Not just quirky or odd, but deeply, deeply flawed.

For that reason, one of my favorite characters in literature has to be Quoyle from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

For those of you who’ve read this vast and remarkable book, you know that at first pass Quoyle isn’t much to write home about. (An early description of him claims: “Head like shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back.”) And soon the reader realizes he’s got far bigger problems than his unfortunate appearance. His unfaithful wife has perished in a car accident and left him to care for their two daughters, Sunshine and Bunny. Reeling from the loss, Quoyle decides to move his daughters to his ancestral home on the coast of Newfoundland.

There’s no question that Quoyle isn’t the flashiest character ever to hit the page. Far from it, he’s unabashedly dismal in his personal pain and bereft of self-worth but it is that rawness that compelled me and kept me riveted through his journey. He is flesh and bone. He is lumbering. He is an open wound. He is a father who stumbles. And his love and devotion for his daughters, though often overshadowed by his own fears and compulsions, is so apparent when it surfaces, and so close to the skin, it broke my heart wide open. He observes and he worries. He pines far too long for a woman who was one great big train wreck. He struggles to connect to coworkers and to family, but when he falls for a neighbor, his tenderness is as vital as his anguish.

But most of all, Quoyle grows. He proves that everyone has something to propel them forward, even in the bleakest of environments and circumstances. He is hope. And as a writer, I long to create characters like Quoyle, characters who find their way under a reader’s skin and refuse to come out, characters who can’t and won’t apologize for their own simplicity, crippling though it may be.

How about you all? Do you also connect with characters who struggle to connect themselves?

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24 thoughts on “Deb Erika favors flaws. Big ones.

    • Hi Kathy, then you and I are definitely on the same page here (that pun was in honor of my dad’s 73rd birthday today–he is the king of puns!:)). Frankly, it was hard picking just one out of the many but Quoyle came right to mind which I think is the mark of a truly favored character.

  1. I love the flaws, too — much more interesting than perfection. The flaws are the barbs that dig into my brain and won’t let go. Not always comfortable, but so very compelling.

    I haven’t read The Shipping News yet*, but it’s in my TBR pile. Guess I’ll have to dive in one of these days, because Quoyle sounds like just my cup of tea.

    *Dang. I reeeally need to find more time to read.

    • Linda, you’ll love it. It truly is a somewhat magical reading experience. It sneaks up on you (or at least did for me)–the writing is just so remarkable, so unique for its time that you find yourself so taken with these characters and their circumstances. I truly savored it.

  2. This week is becoming such a lesson in books I must read. Anne, Quoyle. The thing about loving books is it feels like such a frustrating effort sometimes… I’ll never have read everything I want to!

    And yes, flawed characters get under our skin because they are so real. As a writer of nonfiction, I marvel at a novelists ability to create such characters, and communicate their flaws without saying: “HERE ARE THEIR FLAWS!!!”

  3. Wow, that brought back lots of memories! I never thought about how much I connected to the flawed character until I read your description and analysis. I loved Quoyle and just wanted to make things right for him. (Deb Rachel and Deb Linda, mark the book for winter reading. I just wanted to be under a blanket with a fire when I was reading it!)

    • Oh, that’s one of my favorite ways to read! Especially if you add a cup of hot cocoa to the mix. Maybe with just a hint of Kahlua in it. Mmmm. *starts making Winter Reading list*

    • I felt exactly the same way! I think I didn’t read it for a long time because it is one of my mother’s favorite books and she and I have very differing tastes so I was gob-smacked to find myself so swept up in it, so quickly and so completely.

      But agreed on the timing…Now that I think about it, I too read it in the middle of winter.

  4. I haven’t read THE SHIPPING NEWS (but now I want to!) — and I agree, characters who struggle to connect are definitely more interesting.

    • Oh, Julia, you’ll appreciate it, I really think you will. So much of it reminded me of the Maine landscape, that wintry starkness that I think is quite rich in beauty and makes for such a compelling backdrop to a family struggling to swim through the bleakness of their own lives.

  5. Quoyle is such a great character. I re-read The Shipping News last year – the first time I’d really been struck by her writing, but since literature has evolved, that is no longer as shocking as it used to be. But Quoyle is still so great and sad and loveable.

    I’ve taken to saying that I write books about people who get lost and then find their way again, and that’s exactly the kind of book I read.

    Does that mean we’ll get to see some flawed, broken people in Little Gale Gumbo? Can’t wait!

    • Eleanor, I love that: “people who get lost and then find their way again” Exactly. Perhaps there is nothing more universal than the journey of the self–and nothing more satisfying to a reader (and a writer) than seeing that journey at its fullest. Someone who begins with such apparent need for change, whether it is lifestyle, attitude, relationships, etc, and sees that change through, coming out on the other side, not necessarily fully repaired, but clearly better for it.

      And oh yes, Little Gale Gumbo is FLUSH with flawed characters. How did you ever guess? 😉

  6. Interesting. I read The Shipping News ages ago. I liked it at the time and probably could have given a decent description of the book, but never would have come up with Quoyle’s name, nor would I ever have thought of him as a favorite character of all time. But reading your post, I definitely remember his appeal. But then, as I always say, publishing is such a subjective business. Or as my dad says, that’s what makes horse racing. 😉

    • Hello Michelle!

      So true-and I think it is revealing to learn what characters get under each of our skins. It can say a great deal about what we seek in our stories, as readers and writers. I also think a character’s appeal (or lack of) can be a direct result of where we are in our lives. Would I find Holden Caulfield as compelling at forty? Perhaps, and that’s not to say every teenager (especially now) would automatically connect with him either, but I do think characters–and books–resonate depending on where we are in our lives. Again, as you say, it’s a subjective business, and so many factors contribute to our ability to connect with a character or a story.

      • I also read it years ago, and this post makes me want to revisit it! I’m sure I used to own it, but I can’t find it on my shelves anywhere — I cut my book collection nearly in half when I moved from Albuquerque to Chicago. Oh well, off to the library!

        • Oh, the book cut–I know it well! Although now I think I finally have one indisputable plus that e-books have over hard copies. You’ll never need to agonize over paring down for moves…

  7. Hello Michelle!

    So true-and I think it is revealing to learn what characters get under each of our skins. It can say a great deal about what we seek in our stories, as readers and writers. I also think a character’s appeal (or lack of) can be direct result of where we are in our lives. Would I find Holden Caulfield as compelling at forty? Perhaps, and that’s not to say every teenager (especially now) would automatically connect with his either, but I do think characters–and books–resonate depending on where we are in our lives. Again, as you say, it’s a subjective business, and so many factors contribute to our ability to connect with a character or a story.

  8. Most humans need to grow at some point in their lives – that’s where the interesting stories are, right? Who wants to read about Mr. Perfect? Boring. The romantic in me wants my heroes flawed and even tortured, the moreso the better. So I’m totally with you on this, Erika.

    I haven’t read The Shipping News, but keep hearing a lot about it, so it’s time I put it on my toppling TBR pile.

    AND it’s set in Newfoundland – come on ladies, can we make this CANADA week?

    • Jen, I think that’s an important point; characters can’t be so flawed that we find them insufferable or hopeless and that’s sometimes harder than it seems. We can all relate to certain issues, such as self-worth, feelings of failure, of loss–the key is balancing that with a smidgen of hope, something the character–and we the reader–can latch on to, the promise that they will in fact grow toward a more positive place.

  9. Thank you, Erika, for sharing your draw to flawed characters, and for talking about THE SHIPPING NEWS. It’s always interesting to hear what draws others to certain characters, and especially to realize the different traits and aspects that clutch at us as readers. Thank you for this post. Looking forward to your GUMBO release soon. Congrats!

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