One of the most common mistakes among new writers is that they often make their protagonists perfect. They say the right things, they act impeccably and seem unruffled by anything and no matter what is thrown at them, they seem to be able to cope magnificently. And of course, they always win the day.
But of course, the reality is that none of us is perfect. We all have flaws and imperfections and very often we make mistakes. This is real life, so your protagonist also needs to reflect this, to a degree. Realism has to play a part in fiction.
Characters are so much different and realistic when they’re flawed. It’s what makes them so interesting and endearing. We see in them as reflections of ourselves. We might love the fact that the hero is shy. We might empathise if your main character is a weak leader or perhaps is vulnerable and frail. These are recognisable traits.
Characters don’t especially have to be nice, either. They have off days, just like real people. They’re human, after all. That means they can show incredible weakness sometimes. They can make huge mistakes, ones that may have devastating effects for others. Characters can sometimes be immature. Some characters can be abrasive or blunt and at first they might not appear likable, yet as the story develops they redeem themselves.
Main characters often lie, cheat, pass the blame and will do anything to get what they want, and because of this, they end up hurting others. But we can empathise with this kind of weakness; we’ve all hurt people we love one way or another.
The best characters are those who are flawed. And that’s why we remember them. They stand out, they’re different, they make us sit up and pay attention. There are no rules that say we have to like them all the time. That doesn’t mean you have to make your protagonists really horrid, but rather they should have faults and blemishes, and that’s why we remember them. Don’t go too far with the imperfections that you accidentally make your main character a stereotype.Nice characters don’t lie or cheat or hurt others or say the wrong thing. Nice characters don’t have any flaws. They’re perfect in every way. Does that sound like your protagonist? If it does, then it’s just not real.
Readers want good characters, not necessarily nice ones. That’s the difference. ‘Good’ has different meanings here – a good character means one that is well rounded, has foibles, makes mistakes, but possesses some morals and does, ultimately, want to do the right thing.
The other thing that is noticeable with some main characters is that writers often make them indestructible – because they’re so damn perfect. That might work for Hollywood, but not for fiction. In movies, the hero gets shot, run over, set on fire and falls from a ten story building and gets up without a scratch and saves the day. This is stereotypical rubbish. It doesn’t represent reality.
Your main characters will get hurt; they will feel pain and will get their arse kicked at some point during the story. Because no one is that perfect.
So, why can’t you have perfect characters?
If characters are nice, flawless and the epitome of perfection, then not only will they be unrealistic, they won’t cause any conflict with other characters, and every story needs all manner of conflicts. This means they will appear flat and uninspiring and the reader won’t be interested in them, they won’t be able to relate to them, certainly not enough to provoke any emotion or empathy.
If your character is so perfect, how will he or she grow and develop throughout the story? That’s why there is always a character arc – it shows how the character changes and develops throughout the story. If your character is perfect already, then a character arc is impossible.
‘Perfect’ characters simply don’t create conflict, tension or drama, which is what every story needs. There’s no point in a protagonist if they’re flawless.
There is no such thing as nice, flawless characters in fiction. Everyone has flaws. Everyone has made mistakes. Every one of us is different and imperfect. That’s what gives us character and dimension.
Characters should be:
- Flawed or have negative qualities – Perhaps vulnerable, shy, immature, or maybe aggressive, impatient or ignorant. Everyone is different.
- Weak in some areas and strong in others.
- Interesting and colourful.
- Not necessarily perfectly beautiful or handsome.
- Mortal – they feel pain, they hurt, they can break bones, they bleed and ultimately they can die.
Should your main characters be flawless? Absolutely not. You’re not, so why should they?
Next week: How can you improve your writing if you don't know what your weaknesses are?