I dislike perfect characters. I’m sure you’ve encountered them in stories you’ve read over the years. Those characters who are two-dimensional, always make the right decisions and the right times, who never make mistakes even when doing something they’ve never done before.
I find them to be frustrating. Encountering them breaks my immersion in a story. It makes me wonder if the writer ever met a real person.
Characters need to have flaws, scars (both physical and emotional), make bad choices, do stupid things. Well, not too stupid. There’s also the problem that writers can make their characters too stupid, too ridiculous. To use a television program as an example, The Walking Dead is guilty of this. In the later seasons, years after the initial zombie apocalypse, why do characters on the show still wander off into the woods in the middle of the night by themselves? Or try to walk over the rotting wooden floor of an abandon house when they know the basement is full of walkers? I understand the writers are trying to create tension and drama, but when characters do really stupid things I lose sympathy for them and start rooting for the walkers.
So I guess it really comes down to writing realistic characters. When I create a protagonist for one of my stories, I usually don’t know who they are when I begin writing. I have a general idea of who they are, what they look like, but their personality and other traits develop as I write the story. The first draft is a “get to know you” situation. But on the subsequent drafts I try to understand their motivations, what they want, what they need. I also try to compare them to people I know in real life. If I’m writing a female character I think about the women in my life and think about how they would act and react to events in my stories. If it’s a male character, gay character, immigrant…same thing. I look at the people in my life who are somewhat similar to the character and borrow traits.
The one thing I try to ensure is that the characters are believable, that they come across as real people. I think it helps that I try not to focus on what I, myself, would do. If I base character traits on myself then my characters would end up being too predictable. And probably boring. But also ridiculously handsome (just kidding!).
The trick is that I pay attention to the people around me. I watch how they act and react to things. It’s similar to how I keep my character dialogue fresh and realistic. I listen to conversations around me. If I’m sitting in a restaurant then I may eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in the next booth. If I’m at a party then I’ll hang on the edge of a group of people talking and simply listen to the ebb and flow of their words. While I’m at it, I also watch their body language, how they react to a revelation or a dropped secret. I note their facial expressions, how they stand, what they do with their hands. All that goes into the character maker in my head for future reference.
It’s also helpful to remember that everyone we know is flawed in some way. We all have fears and phobias, obsessions, likes and dislikes, and we’re all guilty of making bad decisions and doing stupid things. It’s what makes us human, and that humanity should be apparent in our characters. Perfection is boring. That’s why I’m not a fan of Superman. Superman is calm, cool, and collected. I’m more partial to Batman. Batman is emotional. He reacts without thinking, then regrets his decisions. He makes mistakes. He often does the wrong thing for the right reason.
There was a series of sci-fi books I read when I was younger that sums this up. The series focuses on a character referred to as the Stainless Steel Rat and was written by Harry Harrison. Basically, the Rat is a rogue who has a bunch of comical adventures in space. The first few books I read were fun and silly. But by the time I got to the third one I was getting burned out. The problem was the Rat. The guy always made the right decision, always got out of trouble at the last minute, without fail. He was always one step ahead of everyone else. Always. Even when he gets caught doing something illegal it ends up working out in his favor. This took all the tension out of the stories. Without any risk there’s no fun. I understand these are supposed to be light-hearted stories, but there still has to be some mistakes, some bad judgement.
I think that our characters deserve to be flawed. Not only does it make them seem real, but it also adds some quality to our stories. In fact, I feel it’s the little mistakes that make the difference. What I mean is, have a character bump their shin on a coffee table, or splash some hot coffee on their hand when filling their cup. It doesn’t have to be a key component to the story, but it shows they’re real. I like to do little things like this. I’ve had characters bite their tongues while eating, or drop ashes from their cigarette on their sleeve, or even stub their toe.
These actions aren’t usually pertinent to the overall story, but they help to build my character, make them real. In the course of an average day you probably end up with a paper cut or a new bruise, or maybe you bump your head getting out of the car or have your hairbrush get caught in a knot while getting ready for work. It’s the flaws and imperfections of everyday life that, when added to a story, help the reader to suspend their disbelief and connect with your protagonist.
Our characters should be just as flawed as we are.