Monday, January 30, 2017

Striving for Imperfection

I read a lot of books in 2016 (at least compared to my usual level of reading), and something started to become clear: Current fiction has a lot of ‘perfect’ characters. Most of the time the perfection is represented in appearance—piercing green or blue eyes, framed by a perfectly shaped face, topped with a mop of soft locks that are always perfectly tousled. The male protagonist has abs that could be used as a washboard, completed with that enviable ‘V’ just above the belt, and is over six feet tall. The female is dainty with kissable pouty lips, and she fits perfectly into the nook of her lead male’s arms. And she’s made even more ‘perfect’ through her obliviousness to the fact that every man wants her.

“But wait. These ‘perfects’ are humanized by their character flaws. Right?”

Umm, maybe. The thing is, many times their flaws are also pretty perfect—at least for the sake of the story. They are often assigned to the character for the sole reason of supporting the plot. There needs to be conflict, so our perfect male is too arrogant. There needs to be tension, so our perfect female is too trusting. It reminds me of that ridiculous question during job interviews. You know the one I’m talking about:

“What’s your biggest weakness?”

Of course you’re going to respond with a perfect flaw. The one that doesn’t actually make you look bad. “I’m very dedicated to my work and have difficulty shutting it off at the end of the day.” Or, “I can sometimes be a perfectionist.” I feel like that’s what we’re often getting these days with characters. It’s like we readers asked this same question and were given the sugar-coated perfect answer in return.

As a reader, I’m sort of becoming exhausted by all the perfection. Why? Well, mainly it’s predictable. One of the things I love about reading is getting lost in the story and having it take me somewhere unexpected. It’s as though the writing community has assumed the majority of readers can only care about one certain type of character so that’s what we get. My other fear is that it’s a result of writers who are so focused on churning out book after book as quick as possible they don’t take the time to let new characters develop. They just recycle the old ones—give them a new name and new hair color and no one will notice, right?

I’ve started to avoid certain books where I know there is a high probability of excessive perfection. And to be clear, Im not just talking about romance novels where good-looking characters are practically a prerequisite. Perfection popped its pretty little head up across all the genres I read last year (and in both traditional and indie published). I did stumble on the occasional book where perfection was presented in some form but not dwelled upon. For example, the ‘perfect’ features weren’t mentioned every time the two primary characters saw or thought of each other. It saved the book for me a bit because it gave me the freedom to forget and picture the characters as average as I liked.

As a writer, it has me thinking. I’m not immune to wanting to write about dreamy characters. Marcus from both Kingston’s Project and Kingston’s Promise is my version of hot, hot, HOT. Although, I did try to avoid talking about it every moment his name appeared on the page (thanks to my beta readers for helping to keep me in check on this!). His primary flaw is his vulnerability to his father’s disinterest. My female protagonist from those same books, Sarah, is good looking but isn’t a knock-out. Her primary character flaw is that she holds on to guilt like it’s a life raft. I know these flaws aren’t unique, and I’ll admit they do benefit my plot to an extent. But I wasn’t thinking about the annoyance of perfection and the attractiveness of imperfection back then like I am now. And, yes, I do understand that many times it’s the flaws that actually drive the plot. I’m not saying flaw assignments should neglect the plot completely. I guess I’d just like to see more depth.

My recent frustrations have pushed me to want to do better in creating imperfect characters. I view it as a challenge in many ways. It’s sometimes easy to become invested in characters who are attractive or have predictable flaws, but I like the thrill of trying to make the reader root for the love interest who doesn’t look like he just stepped off the center pages of an underwear advertisement. I also like the challenge of representing a more diverse set of characters in my books. Humans are complex by nature. Many of our flaws are similar and predictable, but many more are unique and subtle. Some of the books I’ve enjoyed the most this past year had characters who were very average or very complex and unique.

Last week in my critique group we spent a little time talking about villains. Someone commented that the most realistic villains tend to have one redeeming quality. It was a serendipitous conversation given my recent thoughts on perfection. A perfectly evil villain can be just as annoying as a perfectly perfect hero. I don’t exactly have a villain in my current WIP, but Grandpa is pretty darn close. When I drafted out his character profile, I did give him an opposite viewpoint (I won’t call it redeeming because I’m not sure yet if he will earn redemption). My plan was to slowly reveal that side of his character later in the story but not give it away entirely. I still don’t plan to give it all away, but after last night’s discussion I realize it might be better to start introducing it sooner in the story. If I don’t, I may end up stripping him of his shot at redemption without intention because readers may not see him as realistic.

So that’s my writing challenge for this year—creating imperfect characters my readers will love better than any perfect character I could give them.

Who’s with me?



Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I feel like this is true for books, but not TV. I mean, sure people are good looking on television, but great TV characters are flawed (and we love them anyway). Look at the anti-heros. Don Draper. Frank Gallagher. Tony Soprano. Raymond Reddington. And we root for them despite their flaws. However, it's seems to be gender dependent as well. Anti-heroines don't seem to fare as well. I'm trying to think of some badass women with amoral tendencies that we overlook...and I can't.

Brenda St John Brown said...

I read a lot of romance and the "perfect" hero in book after book drives me insane. Like you, I like the "hot" guy as much as the next person, but I like the real, flawed character more.

Carrie Beckort said...

Very true. I couldn't come up with a female one either.

Carrie Beckort said...


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