Monday, July 14, 2014

Flawed vs. Perfect Characters Pt. 1

Characters are an important part of stories. In fact, they are probably the most important part. Without good characters a story is missing something vital. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about character development and I've come to the conclusion that there are two extremes to avoid: perfect characters and characters with flaws that are condoned.

I'll start with perfect characters. I love the Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley, but they have a major flaw: perfect characters. If the character is a good one, he or she rarely, if ever, makes mistakes. Just look at Elsie. She is the standard of what a little girl should be, right? Lulu Raymond was really bad, until she reformed and became a Christian, at which point she was perfect. To be honest, this was pretty typical of child characters of the time. Look at Sara Crewe. She doesn't really have any serious character flaws to struggle against.

J. Grace Pennington had an excellent post about this subject awhile back. See, it's not that I'm against characters being good, not by a long shot, and I'll address that in more detail later. It's the unrealistic goodness that I don't like. It gives a false impression, and makes it impossible to relate to the characters. I never could relate to Elsie. I could relate to Lulu and her struggles with her temper, but it annoyed me when she reformed because she never did anything wrong again. Sure, I conquered my temper and don't really have much of a problem with it anymore, but that doesn't mean I don't struggle with sin in other areas anymore. I think good guys should be good, of course, but not perfect. Perfection in a human character is unrelatable, and makes for a flat, cardboard character.

Another aspect I thought of recently, actually what got me thinking about it again, was the perfect "love interest." A trap many authors fall into is creating a girl character and then making a perfect guy for her to marry. I admit, I did somewhat fall into this trap myself when writing Felix Walker. And my favorite character in The Hunger Games Trilogy is Peeta Mellark, who is pretty near perfect. I mean, he does lie to the Capitol, but overall he's really good. He's really nice, he loves Katniss unconditionally and is blind to her flaws, and he is incredibly selfless. He was willing to let himself get beaten for burning bread in order to give Katniss the bread that saved her life after her father died. Maybe there are people like that, but we can't teach our readers to expect that from real life. Things do change in regards to him in Mockingjay but that would be a major spoiler.

On the other hand, Jace in Ilyon Chronicles is far from perfect. He is constantly depressed because of his ryrik blood and sometimes has difficulty controlling his temper. But he's still a good person, and is always struggling against his nature and trying to protect others, namely Kyrin. The character who got me thinking about this subject again was Bardon in Donita K. Paul's Dragon Keeper Chronicles. He is a gentleman and a chivalrous knight, but he's not perfect. He can be infuriating with his principle quoting. Actually, he kind of reminds me of Ferus Olin from Jedi Quest and Last of the Jedi by Jude Watson, a character who was so focused on being perfectly by the book that he became stuck up.
Not that Bardon was all that stuck up, but still.

I think having a perfect character in such a role is a very bad idea. It prepares girls to expect perfection out of their future husband, which of course can never be attained. The key I discovered with Bardon is that he is a character in his own right. Sure, he entered the story to eventually marry Kale, but he still is his own character. He got the first 3/4 of DragonKnight to develop as an independent character, struggling against his nature and personal desires in order to do what is right, and it made the last books better for him to be a character in his own right.

Next week (hopefully), I will explore the opposite extreme: condoned character flaws

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