On Flawed Characters and Imperfect Endings, or Lessons Learned From “The Big Sleep”.

One of my early reviewers of The Bad Shepherd critiqued that most of the main character’s mistakes were because of flaws in his personality that he might otherwise have avoided. Said another way, Bo Fochs didn’t learn his lessons. In many ways that was true and but it was also intentional. I wanted to create a imperfect hero that often times failed because of himself. Crime fiction is a genre about deeply flawed characters, people who are put into terrible situations and react, sometimes dangerously, sometimes violently but almost always in ways that skirt the law or norms of society.

Bo Fochs is a character that was struggling with his demons and sometimes those demons got the better of him. Also, much like a real person, Bo doesn’t always learn his lessons. There are times in the story when the reader can predict the consequences of the choice Fochs is going to make, likely, the character does too and yet he chooses that course of action regardless. One of the fundamental parts of his personality is that when he sets a course, he follows it through regardless of the consequences. He does this because its what he believes to be right and he holds those values above everything else, even his career, his relationships or his reputation.

I can appreciate how that might be frustrating for a reader. If you’re emotionally invested in the character, you want to see him grow and improve, to not make the same mistake at the end of the book as he did in the beginning. You want to see him win. But, in real life that’s not always the case. Bo’s failures also support one of the major themes of this series, which is how deeply flawed and often senseless the drug war was in the 1980s and remains today. Bo is, in many ways, an allegory for the broader fight against gangs, drugs and street crime. Often times, good people are forced into bad situations and must do questionable things for what they believe is the greater good. Further, when victories are won, they are usually costly, even pyrrhic ones.

When I was writing The Bad Shepherd, I was thinking a lot of Raymond Chandler’s, The Big Sleep. The book is somewhat notorious in crime fiction for having left a murder unsolved. When asked who killed the chauffeur, Chandler once said, “I don’t know, do you?” My theory has always been that Chandler never edited the book heavily himself and simply left a plot hole, but I believe that over time that ending has come to represent  one of the fundamental truths of crime fiction, which is that sometimes the case (in whole or in part) goes unsolved. It represents the mistakes that add an essential realism to the world of the story.

Bo Fochs lives in a dirty world and he is an imperfect knight. But I believe that it is those flaws that make him a more believable, more relatable character. There are two books planned following The Bad Shepherd, and in those we will explore his character in more depth. If you’ve read The Bad Shepherd you know that he will go to almost any length to do what he thinks is right, but how far is too far and does he have a limit? Join me in the next one and find out.

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