Character Flawlessness: Avoiding the Perfection Trap
Everyone writes for different reasons. Most of us write because, quite frankly, it’s a compulsion. We’d cease to feel alive if we didn’t. A lot of people, including me, also write as a form of self expression and to satisfy an inner need to experience things outside our little bubble.
For many, this need to venture outside their own lives leads to the creation of characters who possess everything the writer wishes they had. This includes everything from rockin’, gym bunny bodies to high-paying dream careers and billionaire-esque lifestyles.
On the surface, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’m a big fan of slipping into a story that allows me to live the high life for a while. Who doesn’t want to put themselves in the shoes of a gorgeous billionaire? Or, perhaps better yet, into the shoes of the hot, tight-bodied young thing said delectable bag-o’-money-man sets the crosshairs of his heart upon?
No, this isn’t the only type of story I want to read, but it can certainly be an enjoyable one if done well. It’s a trope, after all, and as I’ve said a million times… tropes are there for a reason. Because they work.
But guess what, folks? The old adage is true: you can have too much of a good thing.
It’s so tempting to make your main characters flawless and perfect. The spitting image of faultlessness and purity, both in mind, body, and soul. However, you’re doing yourself, your readers, and your characters a disservice when you do.
Why, you ask? I mean, who doesn’t want to slip into the mind of someone who has everything, wants for nothing, and is envied the world over? Quite frankly… pretty much everyone, whether they realize it or not. Yes, as I said before, there is something charming and fantastic about vicariously experiencing wonders and wishes you might never find in your own life, but when there isn’t a chink in that armor of perfection, your brain rebels and refuses to believe.
How many times have you, as a reader, found yourself rolling your eyes while reading a scene where, say, the main character walks into the room and every single head turns? People are drooling, stumbling over themselves, stuttering and worthless to do more than grovel at the feet of utter enviability. People of every sexuality—including ace and aro, apparently—can’t help but fall instantly and madly in love because the character is just that jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Yeah, I can guess we’ve all been there, done that, have the eye strain and awkward discomfort to prove it.
You see, to truly relate to a character, they have to feel human to us. And perfection? That ain’t human. Sure, there are some beautiful creatures out there who inevitably stop traffic and turn heads, but not a single one of them is so stinkin’ drop dead that every soul on earth yearns to get into their pants. It just isn’t a reality, so when you make your character that way, it comes across more uncomfortable than enviable.
If you want your readers to connect with your characters, make them human. Sure, they can be hot as Hades, successful in their career, and/or wildly famous but don’t have every single side character lusting after them. Spare a few interactions where the other person simply responds to them as a person rather than stumbles over their own words because they’re so intimidated by your character’s beauty and status in life they can’t possibly function properly.
That gets old, fast. Trust me.
So, how can you accomplish this without changing the entire dynamic of your story? Easy peasy. First, do as I said above… pay attention to how side characters and extras respond to your characters. Don’t have every single interaction focused on displaying how everyone wants to either be your MC or, at the very least, get into your MC’s perfect pants.
Second, give your characters some flaws. Anything to make them more human and therefore relatable to those of us who are. (My guess is, a good, solid 100% of your reader base will be human…) No, you don’t have to turn them into a raving, murdering lunatic or make them kick puppies (in fact, I suggest you not do this. Please and thank you.) But you can give them a bad habit, like biting their nails, leaving the toilet seat up, or never answering their phone. Or maybe they have OCD, are recovering from depression, or have a low self esteem and say sorry entirely too often.
Third, give your characters some quirks. Sometimes these can overlap a bit with the concept of "flaws" if they happen to be, ah, annoying quirks? But hey... double whammy! Nothing wrong there. Quirks are often just little ticks or traits that not only make your character unique and distinctive, but can serve a dual purpose by making them feel human, too. For example, maybe your MC has an irrational fear of bugs, can recite lines from books or movies from memory (and does so... frequently), or has an obsession with something obscure like ink pens or silly hats. Maybe they're a craft beer snob or have a collection of empty wine bottles, rare stamps, or Star Wars figurines.
It doesn’t matter what you choose, and in fact, you can always give them more than one. In the end, having your characters struggle with or obsess over something—something their love interest or friends have to “overlook” or “love them because/despite of”—makes them believable. It knocks them down to a level the rest of us can understand, thus allowing a further investment in their story and providing the ability for the reader to put themselves into your characters’ shoes.
Just remember… most people read fiction to escape for a while into someone else’s world. It’s hard to do that if the person’s head you’re in isn’t a realistic and plausible space.
Until next time,