If you’ve been hanging around the blog for almost any amount of time, you realize that characterization is a bit thing with me. A well-written character can make a badly written story bearable, and a terribly written character can make even the most promising story a lump of lameness.
So let’s take a simple quiz. Don’t worry, it’s not difficult. And you don’t have to be a writer, or even a voracious reader, to answer.
The Situation: A young woman finds herself in Spain with no friends, no money, and some bad guys are after her.
You, the hypothetical writer, must insert one character into this Situation. I’ll make it super easy: you only have to choose between two:
Polly Perfect: Straight As since kindergarten, and same boyfriend since high school. She can do anything from flying planes (prop, jet, stealth) to disabling bombs, and speaks flawless Spanish (as well as French and Korean). Every problem she faces, she can easily solve. She is introduced in the first chapter of this hypothetical novel, and throughout the book she has no sticky situations, experiences no challenges, and at the novel’s end has experienced no growth, no change, and no bettering of herself.
Frances Flawed: Enjoys acting and science, but her math skills are terrible. She doesn’t speak Spanish, and can’t even read a plane’s operation manual, much less fly one. She has trouble staying in a relationship because of her commitment issues and hesitancy to trust anyone. She is introduced in the first chapter of this hypothetical novel, and throughout the book gains some confidence, grows as a result of challenge, and becomes a better person.
So…which do you choose?
If you want to create a story that has life, forward movement, and keeps readers involved, you will choose to write about Frances. Why, you ask?
Because a flawed character is a human character. Even if you are writing a story in which Frances is a one-horned, flying, purple people-eater, she still needs to be human. You’re writing for human readers, after all, and humans cannot often identify with a flawless character.
The reason readers feel connected to certain characters is because they see themselves, or aspects of themselves, in those characters. Only narcissists (and the genuine ones are rare) see themselves as perfect; most people cannot identify with a character that has no problems or character flaws.
In books–and often in real life–imperfections can pave the way for growth, realizations, and change within characters. A character that begins in chapter one already at the apex of perfection is dead in the water; readers do not want to read about Polly Perfect easily surmounting all of her obstacles and surpassing all of her goals. Not only is it not realistic, it’s completely obnoxious–no one likes a show off.
History and Connections
Not surprisingly, the Greek tradition contains the first reference to the concept of Hamartia, or the “tragic flaw.” This seems to refer more to a mistake or error in judgment than a moral issue, but often the two can become intertwined. Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece, for example, shows a lack of judgment (or possibly sanity), but is also a result of the man’s hubris (extreme haughtiness or arrogance).
Yet readers consistently care more about flawed characters. Not only because they see themselves reflected in those characters, but often because buried deep within a flaw can be the kernel of strength or knowledge that saves a character’s life, or makes the character who he or she is. What begins as a flaw can end as a saving grace.
A great example of this is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. At one point, the goddess Athena tells Percy that his fatal flaw is “personal loyalty”: he cares too much about those he considers his friends. To the goddess of wisdom and logic, it makes little sense to care too much about friends, especially when one has been deceived into friendship. But in the end it is Percy’s belief in himself and his love for his friends that leads him to victory.
Flaws are inherent in everyone, even in figments of our imagination. A perfect world would have little capacity for growth, and a perfect character withers on the reading vine. Flaws make characters unique, funny, strange, or evil. Flaws create both similarities and differences, and they make reading more fun. And who doesn’t want more of that?
This coming Sunday, June 27, is the second Do Nothing But Read Day. The idea came to creator Amanda in December of 2009, and has been gaining ground ever since. The rules are simple: do nothing but read. All day. I would, however, suggest eating, because all that reading you’ll be doing is bound to make you hungry.
I’ll be traveling back from visiting family that morning, but I fully intend to spend the afternoon and evening stuffing my face with words. Won’t you join me?
Have you ever read a story/novel in which there was a perfect character? Did it drive you crazy, or were you okay with it? Will you be doing anything but reading on June 27? What will you be reading?