Sylvie Bessette, Flawed Heroine of ‘Disfigured’
I am deep into the writing of the second book in my Phantom of the Opera series, ‘Disfigured’, and my heroine, Sylvie Bessette, is in hot water as usual. Even I have to admit that she can be irritating at times. But it isn’t her fault, really; because she is a Flawed Character. Where would literature be without Flawed Characters? I remember Agatha Christie was a master at creating this sort of character – except that often in her case, the imperfect narrator telling the story turns out to be the Murderer. And you never see it coming!
Sylvie is a good person, by any measure. But she does have her faults. I have to say she seems real to me sometimes, even though she sprang from my imagination. It is a commonplace thing that oftentimes the characters we writers invent take on lives of their own, so to speak. We write them, but they seem to be telling us what they would do, say, or think in any given situation. Sylvie is definitely that sort of character for me. Sometimes I long to grab her and shake her until all the pins fall out of her chignon!
One of Sylvie’s flaws (and she has several) is a tendency to be a bit of a doormat. She puts up with a lot from Erik, the Phantom, because she loves him. He is by turns kind and cruel to her. He has a good excuse for this behavior; he is, after all, barely civilized, and gradually falling into a kind of madness he cannot control. But Sylvie ought to know better. Why doesn’t she throw a plate at him, yell, “I quit!” and leave? Why indeed?
The answer lies in Sylvie’s past. She was an only child, born to loving parents, but her father died when Sylvie was still a child. When she was still quite young, about 22 in fact, she was swept off her feet by a handsome, dashing young French officer. After a whirlwind courtship, they married. Very soon after the wedding, Sylvie had cause to regret her hasty actions. Once they were married, her husband stopped making any effort to conceal the fact that he was a drunkard and wastrel. Even worse, when he had taken too much to drink he became violent and sometimes hit and pushed her. Perhaps because she was so young, and embarrassed and humiliated by her crashing mistake, it took her a year to work up the courage to leave her abusive husband and divorce him. Erik’s occasional unkind treatment of her seems like nothing compared with what her former husband did.
Sylvie returned home, only to spend the next two years of her life caring for her mother who was dying of cancer. By the time ‘Disfigured’ begins, all these misfortunes are behind her. She is a buoyant, optimistic soul at heart, and is excited about building a life for herself alone. Never will she marry again. She is done with love, or so she thinks. But the thing is, Sylvie is alone.
Perhaps it is another character flaw, for it leads Sylvie into danger, but what she longs for more than anything is to forge connections with people – to have friends, to have people she can take care of, cook for, nourish. In spite of her conviction never to marry again, the need to belong, to be a part of a family, to share with others, drives her, pushes her. And it drives her to almost instantly violate a very big rule laid down for her by the Opera Ghost. When she begins delivering meals to him, she is not to try and see him. She is to leave and go home. But what does Sylvie do? Within a week, she is lying in wait for him, desperate to meet her elusive client and forge a connection between them. And it takes a while, but she eventually succeeds, probably because Erik just gives up trying to keep her at arm’s length. Did I mention Sylvie is also quite stubborn?
Happily, when I created Sylvie, I did so with a purpose. When Sylvie meets Erik, she wants nothing more than to take care of him, nourish him, help him. And as I said in my book, if anyone needed to be loved and cared for, it was Erik. Fate (in the guise of myself, the writer) creates Sylvie and propels her into the Phantom’s dark and lonely world. And oddly, she is happy to go.