Your Protagonist is Perfect and You Should Feel Bad

I recall as a young writer the greatest and, at times, only flaw in my protagonists was in their lack of flaws. Just as readers and viewers tire of 2-dimensional villains, so do they bore of porcelain-faced protagonists, especially those seemingly unaware of their perfections.

Why Do We Make Our Characters Flawed?

As writers, we dwell in the fantastical – scenes rich in colors and overflowing with conversations between characters ripe with potential. But at any given moment we can take a step too far into the fantastical, where characters cease to be characters and instead become potpurri – something quite beautiful but which begins to stink if you give it a real wiff.

Often, it’s in our characters’ flaws that a story emerges. Just as a scream queen has a knack for searching the house for a killer, so are we distinctly aware that without some amount of stupidity, there’s no story to be told (note however, the scream queen’s true flaw is in her curiosity or deft refusal to accept the help of others). As writers we’re keenly aware of the potential pitfalls of any decision our characters make. Thus, it’s our responsibility to make sure they mess up. Throw in a proverbial banana to slip on, if you will.

Meanwhile, as lovely as it may be to write in a perfect version of ourselves – around which a fictional world revolves – it’s important we instill flaws. A bit of humanity, if you will.

Of course, it’s possible for a character to be too flawed to function, but we’ll cover that at another time.

Finding (And Stamping Out) Perfect Characters

So how do we identify if a character’s become a caricature of a human being? Well, it really boils down to 3 things:

  • Appearances
  • Dialogue
  • Decisions

Or, A.D.D.

Appearances*

If you’re spending paragraph after paragraph about your character’s hair waving in a gentle summer breeze or how they modestly blush while covering their dimples before slyly glancing up with eyes blue like sapphires, then you have a character who shits roses and smells it, too. While there’s nothing wrong with having an attractive character, it’s painful reading about someone’s beauty. Reconsider character descriptions and question whether such descriptions contribute to your story or induce vomiting. While it may be necessary to take time to give a vivid description of your characters, don’t be impatient; sprinkle bits here and there, like an old man throwing bread crumbs in a lake (okay, that was kind of a weird metaphor), and be mindful of realism, even in fantasy (unless, I guess, you’re writing about a siren or something that’s supposed be unnaturally beautiful).

Physical flaws can help readers remember your characters, too.

* Appearances include having a character who’s rich, has an awesome car, perfect grades and other things that make their lives perfect.

Dialogue

Doing dialogue is no easy feat. Frankly, I struggle a lot with dialogue intended to move the story forward. But there’s a particular trait perfect characters have: their dialogue is too well-written. Next time you’re in a conversation (or eavesdropping), pay attention to the nuances of how you and others speak. I don’t just mean the ‘uhs,’ ‘ums,’ and ‘likes’ in our sentences, but the little habits that make an individual, well, an individual.

I have a friend who has a knack for hooks. He loves telling stories and knows perfectly how to plant a hook to get someone to say, “What happened?” so he can tell a story. One character may always focus on how a problem affects them, rather than the group. Maybe you have a character who is concise, and thus a little difficult to hold a conversation with. Or you have a character who is overly optimistic.

What I’m trying to get at is it’s these nuances, these characteristics we have in our dialogue that reflect our personalities and allow us to stand out. If we have a character who says the right thing all the time, then we don’t give other characters the opportunity to contribute to a conversation.

Every once in a while your character should trip over themselves too, such as by accidentally insulting someone or revealing too much or too little. Lastly, be mindful of a character’s vocabulary. You shouldn’t be whipping out a theasaurus in fear of a character sounding too simple.

Decisions

The third common indicator of a perfect character is their inability to do wrong. Remember when Harry Potter drank the Felix Felicis? The luck potion allowed him to be in the right place at the right time and to perfectly navigate a conversation intended to get Slughorn’s aid. This whole bit worked in Harry Potter because it was a rarity – at all other times Harry, Hermione, and Ron have to bumble around to find a solution to whatever problem they’re faced with, and that sometimes causes problems for the group (I’m looking at you Deathly Hallows).

Keeping in mind how we want our character to fail (but eventually stand victorious when the story’s over), we need to allow our character to make the wrong decisions. Such decisions usually stem from a character’s flaw(s).

Perhaps they’re too stubborn and refuse to help a friend after a silly argument; or they’re too scared of revealing their past and lose a love interest as a result; or they’re overly protective of their sibling and inadvertantly push them away. Such poor decisions can drive a story forward, acting as the rising action or climax.

In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew has a habit of putting others before Neverwhere by Neil Gaimanhimself, leading him to help an injured woman he finds in the streets. As a result, he’s thrust into a world beneath London known as Neverwhere, and a whole bunch of other stuff happens (it’s a good read with great characterization, I recommend it).

Other times, these flaws – which can and should appear in dialogue – are simply how we differentiate one character from another. And other times, it’s these flaws our characters must overcome in order to succeed in a story.

If you have difficulty finding a flaw in your character, ask yourself this: What is {so and so’s} flaws? I know, I know, I’m a smartass. But really, what are your character’s flaws? And how will those flaws come out in the story to ultimately bite them in the ass?

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