Ergh. Those people
We all knew those people in school. You know the ones. The ones that were perfect at everything. The ones who had learned everything there possibly was to know about every musical instrument by the time they were twelve, got themselves A grades in 100 exams, yet were also amazing at football, basketball, tennis and bareknuckle fighting. Teachers loved them, parents loved them. They were perfect.
And everyone you knew hated them, right?
Your DNA says ‘I hate you’
It’s weird, but we seem to be biologically engineered to hate people more successful than ourselves. I suppose it’s a survival trait. A cavemen who was happy to kill one bison/tiger/wild bowl of noodles and sit down to celebrate his achievement would soon run out of food for his family. A bison would have only gone so far, and instead of hunting for another one, he was sitting there going ‘oh yeah, I’ve done pretty well. I’m a good caveman.’ But if he saw another caveman who had three dead bison in his cave, and was jealous of him, he would go out and continue hunting and try to best him. He wouldn’t die of starvation, and by being competitive, he was reducing the risk of his family running out of food.
Also, your brain says ‘I hate you’
It’s not just our biology that makes it hard for us to identify with characters who have it all. At a dead basic, selfish level, what’s the point? If everything is going well for someone, why do they need us to care about them? It’s why none of us ever sit down and think, ‘God, I really hope Bill Gates is ok at the moment.’ It’s a waste of time to give compassion to someone who has no need of it (Yes, Bill Gates probably has problems too. Don’t dig too deep into the example). To be cruelly honest, if Mr or Miss perfect has a bad time, we’re probably going to think they deserved it.
The thing is, we identify with the characters we read about as though they are real people. If their marriage breaks down, we are sad for them, if they die, sometimes we go as far as to weep, and we are happy when they succeed. But because we think of them as real people, if they’re too good, our biology kicks in and the hate appears. And it’s very hard to care about someone you hate (although if I was a 1950’s comedian I would probably make a marriage joke right now).
Being in a story doesn’t count as a flaw
Which is why your characters need to have things wrong with them. You might think that the story, which practically by necessity must have bad things happening in it, will be enough to win our compassion. We’re a bit more fickle than that. Deep down, most readers know that the chances are, the main character of any novel will get what they want and will be fine at the end. We open a book knowing this, even if we know it at such a deep level that consciously this knowledge doesn’t register.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a cliché. Please shut up
A brilliant example of this is superheroes. By rights, they should be on the list of people we don’t care about. They are so much better than us, either physically or mentally. Why do we care? Because they still have problems. If you want to create a superhero, the easiest and most effective formula to use is to give them a superpower that requires the one thing that they don’t have. When Thor gets banished to Earth for his arrogance, it is only in becoming humble and willing to die that he gets his hammer back. A superhero is usually someone we can identify with because their power is the polar opposite of their normal character. Peter Parker becomes a loved and celebrated person, despite being a college nerd who people look down upon. What’s more, it is the struggle to cope with the responsibility they now have that gives them a weakness we can identify with.
Perfection = Dullness
As I said in We read stories because, without hard work, success is bland, it is the conquering of obstacles that makes us want to stick with a character until the end. But if that character has no flaws, the obstacles will seem very dull. In The Matrix, Neo’s flaw is that he is new and untrusting, and unable to live up to everyone’s expectations. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is the weakest, most unsuited person to the task of taking the ring to Mordor. He is surrounded by powerful warriors; the first time he sees the Ringwraiths, he drops his sword and runs away.
It’s all about balance
Flaws give characters more problems to deal with, and because we all like to see people overcome their problems, that makes them more appealing to us. But be careful not to go too far the other way; your characters still have to be likeable. A struggling alcoholic, addicted to prescription medicine, coping with the death of their parents by turning to crime, becoming arrogant, patronising and not listening is going to be a hard pill for us all to swallow. It is worth noticing in that list, that flaws can be huge (such as alcoholism or drug addiction), or they can be smaller character traits (such as not listening or being arrogant). As long as it gets in the way of characters forming perfect relationships with everyone they meet, and complicates the story, then you are on to a winner. Generally, a character’s flaws are what makes the story possible. In my book (which had better get published one day. Please?), Politics in Blood, the whole plot is based upon the fact that the antagonist plays on my protagonist’s arrogance. What should be an easy thing to walk away from is something she can’t resist, because of her pride.
Flaws make characters. They are more important than hair or eye colour or many other physical descriptions you may spend hours getting right, as they actually impact the story, unlike ‘My blue hair means I’m going to piss off the wrong people.’ Having said that, if a person’s hair colour is a focal point because they are vain, there’s your character flaw. Be careful not to overburden your character with flaws, or else they will become impossible for your reader to care about. Also, make sure that their flaws are ‘flaws’, not nasty traits. You probably want your MC to be likeable. Eating puppies isn’t a flaw, it’s an evil act. Paul ‘Fido Chomper’ Smith is not a character whose flaws will draw you into caring about him…
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