Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Even Superman has flaws - no character should be perfect

Superman had everything going for him - faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Bullets ricocheted off his muscular physique like harmless grains of sand.  He could bend steel in his bare hands, he had powerful x-ray vision that see through anything, and he had a disguise which no one could penetrate.

Wait, scratch that.  He couldn't see through everything - lead was impenetrable to him. So, of course, once the bad guys caught on to that, lead-lined everything became the fashion.  And just let a little bit of kryptonite come onto the scene (a substance only found on Superman's planet of origin, Krypton, but luckily some of which made it into our universe along with the Baby of Steel), and Superman goes down for the count.  So, what does that prove?  That Superman, although a superhero, is not perfect.

Which is a good thing.  'Cause it's really hard to feel something or care about someone who's perfect, who can make everything happen with a simple wave of the hand, the right word, or the right blow.  How can you sympathize with someone like that, get into him, want to know him?  We're not perfect, as people, and we don't want our heroes to be either.  Even the ones with the amazing supernatural powers, such as the vampires, the werewolves, and the shifters. We want to know that there's a chance that they won't succeed, even if in the back of your mind you think they will, cause that's called conflict, and that's what writing is all about.

Your character can be the greatest person that ever was, but you want to make him imperfect.  Make  him human, give us a reason to care what happens to him. (For the purpose of this article, I'm using the male pronoun, but it goes for females as well, I just find it easier to use him rather than he/she). Backgrounds are good for that - tragedies in the past that hang over your hero's head like a dark cloud and come out to haunt him at the most inopportune times.  Here's a great one - the hero falls in love with the villain!  If that isn't a perfect conflict of interests, I don't know what is, and it produces lots of wiggle room and you can just watch the angst meter rise as he debates with himself just what to do - to love or not to love, to kill or not to kill, whatever the case might be.

It  may be nice to read about or watch the perfect hero for a while, but it does get old. So do something to mar that perfection, even if he isn't a superhero but just the perfect guy.  Make him a slob - have him throw his dirty socks in unfortunate locations, forget important occasions, or kick the dog (but not too hard, he's imperfect, he's not really mean). Have fun with the flaws.  In my Silver Flash series that I just started, I have a really cute guy who's really dense, and I find myself tickled at his denseness, even if his ex doesn't.  If  you're having fun with it, chances are better that your readers will have fun too.

There's a name for characters, particularly in fanfiction, that are just too perfect for words, one you truly wish to avoid - the Mary Sue/Gary Stu.  They're too good to be true, everyone loves them, everything they touch is golden, and they can do no wrong.  Ugh.  What they really are is manifestations of our own psyche translated to the written word - what we would be if we could be.  Ourselves as characters in our own dramas.  No one likes a Gary Stu.

The only exception that I can think of to this rule is Lt. Commander Steve McGarrett of Hawaii 5-0, played by the extremely sexy Alex O'Loughlin, late of Moonlight.  I've seen every episode of this series so far, and I'm here to tell you this - there is nothing that this man can't do or doesn't know.  Last night's episode begins with an important witness to a murder trial who is being pursued by bad guys sent by the murderer in question. Steve and Danno are split up at the beginning of the episode, because Danno's ex-wife and child are carjacked, and he has to deal with that, so Steve and Chin are searching for the witness, who is fleeing from professional killers. When they find her, Chin takes her back to safety, while Steve works on apprehending the hired hitmen. When he does get one, the guy has a punctured lung, and Steve has to perform an emergency procedure or he'll die!  Wow, whatta guy!

Are you gonna argue with that?  I know I'm not! Let him be perfect, it works for me!

Two things I particularly loved about this episode and about this oh so perfect man: While he's going after the two armed killers, he takes time out to talk to Danno on his cell phone and give him advice about how to deal with the situation he's in, with his ex and her new husband and all!  And I loved something that Chin said to the witness as they split up, Steve rushing out into the jungle to track down her would-be killers:  "Some guys, they're just born without a fear gene."

Yes, Steve is a Gary Stu, but I don't mind cause he's gorgeous.  As I said, he's the one exception to the rule.  Otherwise, they're just annoying and unrealistic.  And let's not forget the obverse rule - even villains have something good about them.  If you write your bad guy as all bad, that's gonna get real old too.  Writers have picked up on that whole sexy villain thing, and good and bad are on a more even playing field now, which is good. Villains need their humanity too, they're not all bad.  No one is.  It's that whole grey area thing.

In conclusion, a good character has to be multi-layered, like a real person.  You want them to appear to be as real as possible, so readers can relate. The nice thing is that different people will relate to different characters for their own reasons - it's called variety, and it works.  We don't all have to cheer for the same person, and it's okay to like someone that others hate.  It just makes it fun.

Now for the questions - tell me about characters you think are too perfect, and why that annoys you - good or bad.  Or tell me about the characters whose very flaws endears them to you - who are they and what are their human flaws?  I'd love to hear them!


  1. Dr. Temprance Brennan. I love her. Yes, she's annoying and it' hard to imagine a real person could get through life quite that clueless, but still. I like the juxtaposition of her tough side to her naive side. It works for me.

    Also, your theory is like the English language. There's always an exception that proves the rule. Your Hawaii five-o one is a good exception. I wonder...when he finally breaks, and can they really continue the series indefinitely if he doesn't? how hard will he crash? I bet it's spectacular.

  2. I've never seen Bones, so what I know of her is from the books, but she's quite interesting in those. I think they've tweaked her for the show though.

    You're right - it will have to be spectacular. So far, he's done everything perfectly. A situation arises calling for esoteric knowledge of something, say a chemical equation, mixing things out of what's on hand - Steve knows it and he's on it! How will he break? I suspect it will have to do with his mother's murder, as we delve more into that.

    Thanks for your comment, and for stopping by, Jaime!