Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Perfectly Troublesome Characters

Creating characters is a lot like falling in love. You give her the hair you wished you had, and the dreamy eyes of that boy who was in your AP history class. You grant her confidence and a quirky little talent for correctly guessing people's favorite books. You love hanging out with her in your imagination because she's funny and smart and just so... perfect!

Whoa. Did someone say perfect?

It doesn't seem like that would be a problem because almost everyone wants to be perfect. But believe me, it's a BIG problem. Here's my top four reasons why perfect characters are trouble.


REASON NUMBER FOUR: It's hard to like "perfect" people.

Don't you just love trying to keep up with that "perfect" friend or neighbor? Keeping your yard, house, family, pets, car, job, toenails, social media, meals, fashion, all in great shape is stressful!

And then there's that bit of jealousy to deal with because no matter how hard you try, you can't be as perfect as you perceive that person to be. It's no surprise then, that perfect main characters aren't that lovable. Not only are they annoyingly successful at weathering every storm, but they make you wish you were just as capable.

For example, a neighbor of mine used to be convinced I was the perfect mom. She thought that not only was I good with my kids, but that I kept my house clean (Not!), and I also cooked a wholesome meal every night (Definitely not!). So one evening when a pizza delivery guy pulled into our driveway, she stood in her yard, her eyes wide. "But I've been dying of jealousy this whole last year," she said the next day. "I thought you were like the perfect cook!" When I admitted how often I didn't cook dinner, we both laughed hysterically. That whole bonding over takeout pizza thing - it's totally true!


REASON NUMBER THREE: Perfect people are mythical creatures.

Seriously, they don't exist. Perfection is like a puddle in the desert - it's an illusion.


You have an idea of what perfect looks like and set goals to reach it, but once you get there, you realize there are other flaws you hadn't thought about. You work to fix those, but still - THERE ARE FLAWS. No one is perfect because perfection is unobtainable.

Which brings us to....


REASON NUMBER TWO: Since no one is perfect, no one can connect with a perfect character.

When we read, we're looking to identify with the character. But the way we connect is not through the outer journey but through the inward journey. We read many books with a wide range of characters, settings, and plot lines. It's always a delight if you are a lot like one of the characters, or the story takes place in your home town. But, most of the time connection comes from emotion. When a character makes a mistake or looses her temper it resonates because we've made similar mistakes too.

When I was a kid, I strongly identified with Anne Shirley. I too, lived in a world of imagination. And just like Anne, I was full of good intentions, but that spark of imagination coupled with a bit of impulsiveness, landed me in quite a few mishaps.


Anne taught me that I could get into trouble, but still be a good person. If Anne had been a "perfect" girl, she would not resonate with so many readers and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES would not still be on bookstore shelves today - a hundred and eight years after its first printing.


THE NUMBER ONE REASON PERFECT CHARACTERS ARE TROUBLE:

Perfect characters have no internal story arc!

Oh, they can have adventures, but perfect characters don't grow from them. How can a character gain new knowledge if they don't have any lessons to learn? Perfect characters can experience pain and loss, but they handle it so well, readers struggle to empathize with them. Worst of all, this means the "AH HA!" moment never happens.



This is the powerful point in the story when the character has lost everything and finally digs down deep to challenge and defeat the flaw that has kept him from his goal. This is often the most resonant moment in a book and if it's not there, the reader can't experience the revelation and joy of overcoming personal obstacles. And really, isn't that emotional journey and insight the whole point of a story?




Creating rounded, flawed characters is hard work, but the rewards are worth the effort. Take time to study your favorite characters to see how they are flawed. Pay attention to the challenges they face and how they are forced to confront their flaws. You will likely find that you love these characters not because they are perfect, but because they are beautifully flawed.



1 comment:

  1. All true! No one wants a character that's perfect, or worse! SANCTIMONIOUS!! Because, well, a lot of people who believe they are perfect can come off as sanctimonious.

    Good thing I never got that Lady of Shalott scheme to work out, or I'd be exactly the person you would never wish to read about!

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