Perfect Characters are Boring

The Good Guys Must Be Flawed

by:

Diane Tibert

The main character – the hero – in the first novel-length story I wrote many years ago was perfect. He was strong, wise and handsome. He knew everything and controlled his emotions and temper like an ancient monk. All his friends loved him and would risk their lives for him. He was a master swordsman who had little trouble subduing a monster. A few times I had him struggle with a large beast, but truthfully, I was just toying with it, like a cat does a mouse, all the while knowing – as readers knew – he’d slay it and move on without a scratch to the next thing standing in his way.

The man was so perfect there was no room for improvement.

That was a huge problem.

For one thing, perfect people, or at least people we perceive to be perfect, are not loved by everyone. There’s always someone who wants to knock them off the pedestal and claim if for themselves. That person might be the hero’s friend. If the hero is perfect, he’ll spot this traitor before action is taken and eliminate the threat. No threat, no tension. No tension, no conflict. No conflict, no story.

Another thing I realised since creating Mr. Perfect was perfect characters are boring. Boring. I love cheering for the underdog and the underdog is never perfect. Think Forest Gump. The underdog often misplaces his car keys, thinks he knows where he’s going when he doesn’t or forgets to pick up his kids at school. All of this can lead to conflict which translates into a story.

An interesting flaw to give a character is one another character in the story praises. I’ve done this in my fantasy novel, Shadows in the Stone. The hero is always going on about honour and truth and expects these qualities from himself and everyone around him. Unbeknownst to him, his female counterpart is keeping secrets that could harm them both. She knows she can’t live up to his expectations. Eventually this creates a lot of conflict which will either destroy them both or bring them closer together.

Another important fact I’ve learnt since Mr. Perfect is characters must grow between the first and last page. How could a person grow in a positive way if they’re already perfect?

To accomplish this growth, the hero must be imperfect. He needs something to overcome. It needn’t be gigantic like changing his entire personality and going from an evil-doer to the best neighbour you’ll ever have. It can be as little as opening his eyes to the fact he’s neglected his family and spends too much time at work.

Slapping characters with flaws gives the author something to work with. As the hero strives to overcome whatever the plot throws at him, he can be literally tripped-up by his inability to properly tie his shoes. Perhaps he must overcome his fear of snakes to save Marion before the cave collapses or use his inhaler to continue the chase after the bad guys who kidnapped his daughter.

See where I’m going here? When you give a character flaws, you make them more interesting, more realistic.

The wonderfully flawed characters I’ve created since Mr. Perfect have made me laugh, cry, shake my head and root for them. Hopefully, they’ll make my readers do the same.

The flip side of this is beginning with Mr. Perfect and bringing him to his knees by delivering one horrific blow after another. After all is said and done, he’s changed drastically. Change for the bad is also growth just not the type I prefer to write about. I might even call that rot, not growth. Still, the character changes and that’s the journey readers want to learn about.

Whether characters improve or go down-hill, the important thing is the flaws they overcome or develop along the way.

-30-

Diane Lynn Tibert is freelance writer living in central Nova Scotia. Her current project, Shadows in the Stone, will be released later this year. In her spare time, she writes a genealogy column for several Atlantic Canada newspapers. Readers can follow her fiction writing on her Writer ~ Dreamer blog (http://dianetibert.com) and her genealogy ramblings on her Roots to the Past blog (http://rootstothepast.com).

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Thea is the author of several novels that she considers left of mainstream. You can find her on BN, Kobo, Sony, Apple

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9 thoughts on “Perfect Characters are Boring”

  1. Viv, I love that: start with broken people and let the story mend them. A tortured pass can provide fire for anger and lots of battles. These types of stories are much more interesting to read and write, as you said. Thanks for commenting.

    Yvonne, I agree. Characters who are too good to be true can often hide terrible pasts and motives.

    I guess we can say our characters should be perfectly flawed. :-)

  2. So true, not only in fiction but even in real life. Only in real life they appear ‘too good to be true’. I think that can translate into our reading as well. If a character is perfect we can see him as too good to be true.

  3. Excellent post, thank you Diane.
    I like to start with broken people and slowly let the story mend them a bit. Not entirely because then there’s an element of unreality.
    One of my favourite sci fi series was Farscape. The most intriguing character after John Creighton, the hero, was Xan, who was a priest and also a plant. She was blue and wonderful but she had her flaws, and her very flawed and violent past, and I loved her. When she achieved a kind of nirvana and withdrew from the rest of the crew, I saw how selfish her enlightenment experience made her and was relieved when she got off her arse and joined in with saving the day.
    In my best work (unreleased still) the hero is very damaged, both by family and by a very early marriage that proves to be torment for him. The story is his attempts to come to terms with this damage and what can’t be mended, he has to learn to live with it. This in turn leads to conflicts that have consquences for several books….
    I think perfect characters are boring to read and to write.
    Thank you both.

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