Why Your Characters Should Have Flaws

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Image by Ian Sane via Flickr Creative Commons
Image by Ian Sane via Flickr Creative Commons

 

If you’ve hung around the writing world for long, you’ve surely heard of the Mary Sue. Mary Sue is the character that is stunningly beautiful, everyone loves her, and she can do no wrong. She has the looks, the lovers, the life. Her brother, Marty Stu or Gary Stu, is equally as flawless. And if you are a denizen of the writing world, you know that the Toxic Twins should be eternally prohibited from entering your fiction under any circumstances. There are a few very practical reasons why, and another very good reason: Fictional perfect people harm real imperfect people. Here’s why:

1. They don’t seem real.

I don’t care if you’re writing about fairies in a land that never existed: As long as your reader is reading, they should be able to forget that the world in the story isn’t real. That means that a couple things in your story must be true to life. One of those things is that people have flaws.

There is no one in the universe that doesn’t have failures and character flaws. Even if your main character is an intelligent mouse, if it has personhood, it’s imperfect.

2. They’re predictable.

Perfect characters will always do the perfect thing. If you’ve seen the Lone Ranger or the old Batman cartoons, you know exactly what I’m talking about. They have no personal development, no inner conflict, and no mistakes to fix. You might not always know exactly how they’ll do the perfect thing and the perfect time, but you are 100% sure that that’s what they’ll do. Characters with no flaws means no surprises, and no surprises might mean no reason to keep reading.

One of the beauties of both life and storytelling is that it’s complex and intricate. All of the little details of our emotions build up into incredible events and problems to solve. Make your story as complex and interesting as real life: add flaws.

3. They’re not relatable.

Sometimes authors create a perfect character because they want everyone to automatically like them. Unfortunately, that is rarely how it works. People don’t feel what a character feels unless they can imagine being them. No one can imagine what it’s like being a perfect person because such a person does not exist. People love reading about characters struggling with the same things they are because they understand those struggles.

Other writers write about perfect people because that’s what they want their life to be like. They want to take every obstacle like a hero and come out victorious and glamorous on the other side. They dream of everyone noticing them and thinking they’re amazing. Honestly, the way you imagine that ideal is probably only interesting to you. If you base how interesting your story is on an idealistic fantasy, it’s not going to match someone else’s idealistic fantasy, so it loses its value. Your struggles to become your ideals is something everyone understands. If you share your struggles, difficult experiences, and personal growth through fiction, there will be lots of people who know exactly how all of those things feel.

Plus one more very good reason:

You are not a perfect person. No one you know is a perfect person. That does not make you less worth knowing than an imaginary perfect person. If fictional people have to be perfect to be worth reading about, you are devaluing imperfect people. If only perfect people can be heroes, what are you and I? It’s like plastering heavily-edited images of models everywhere and acting like that’s the only kind of beauty that exists.

Real people love to see heroes who are like them and the people they love. Flaws make characters attractive. When you show flawed characters in your fiction, you’re telling people that they can overcome their grief, win their battles, or find their happily ever after just like the characters in their story. You’re telling them that they can be successful in spite of everything, and that’s exactly what people want and need to feel.

Who is your favorite flawed fictional character?

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