Importance of a Fatal Flaw for mystery characters

Mysteries are all about complicated people solving complicated plots. We love characters with issues—even a Fatal Flaw–that make them vulnerable and real.  It’s why Spenser has his Code, why John Rebus hangs out in the Oxford Bar, why a 1000-year-old spirit lives inside Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Related: Book Review: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My favorite flaw

One of the best examples of a hero with a Fatal Flaw is the Harry Hole series by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Harry is a brilliant Oslo cop with addiction and alcoholism issues. Sometimes Harry’s drug use and alcoholism are in check, other times they send him into a death spiral. Every time, the reader is pulled into his self-destructive yet brilliant narrative. Will the good times last? Or will this be the disaster that ends Harry’s career/life/relationships?

Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz’s Fatal Flaw is that she’s an accomplished and habitual liar. The talent serves her well, except when it comes to her interpersonal relationships. Unable to commit, and unable to be truthful, her emotional life is often in a tailspin.

Related: Chapter 1, HAT DANCE: An Emilia Cruz Novel

Don’t make this fatal mistake

The trick to writing a character with a Fatal Flaw is making it part of their personality. The character has to be inbued with those traits. The Flaw isn’t a “once and done” thing.

I recently read a mystery novel which opened with the character doing something very much in keeping with the fatal flaw of Promiscuity. “Okay,” I thought. “This is promising.”

But the behavior/trait never came up again. In the rest of the book the character was more reserved, professional, and careful in her relationships.

The good start ended up gratuitous, as if the author threw it in to 1. Hook the reader with some spicy bait, or 2. Tried for a Fatal Flaw and assumed one scene was enough to get the message across. Either way the result was disappointing. The character was cardboard for the rest of the book and the opportunity for a zesty subplot was missed.

Related: Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

As I mentioned, Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole and his addiction issues have topped my Favorite Fatal Flaw chart for a long time. New favorites include Ernesto Mallo’s Inspector Lascano whose dreams of his dead wife invade his waking moments, and Estelle Ryan’s Dr. Genvieve Lenard who is a high functioning autistic savant.

What’s your favorite mystery character with a Fatal Flaw?

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I'm author Carmen Amato. I write mystery and suspense, including the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More

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