Thursday, 1 July 2010

The 'Must-Love' Syndrome

Is perfection always wrong?
It may be just me, but I'm pretty sure most authors have felt this: Sitting back in the chair, a smile playing at your lips, and sighing, "Oh, (MC), how I love you. You're perfect just the way you are." And then... "Uh-oh."
It's the Must-Love Syndrome, which goes hand-in-hand with the Flawless Main Character Epidemic.
There's tons of advice on this subject, and the consensus seems to be this - give your characters flaws, but make them likeable. Lovable, even, but not hate-able. And we, as authors, are content to give our lovelies a characteristic of always being thirty seconds late, and continue on with the perfection. Heck, if we're really devoted, we'll make the character be thirty seconds late at an important point of the novel, letting down a significant other/sibling/child. But then, of course, they'll apologize and try to fix it. (perfectly, of course, so that the reader immediately forgives them. Of course, the other characters in the book will overreact unjustly, forcing even more sympathy on our poor, 'non-perfect' MC.)
Most serious authors will combat Flawless MC Epidemic, often with serious flaws - sometimes our characters will just show this flaw off themselves. (Rarely do books appear on the shelves with flawless main characters, or worse, a flawless cast of characters.) But in adding the flaw, we submit to the Must-Love Syndrome. We want others to love our characters as well, and will even offer free candy to anyone who'll compliment our characters. Say he's dreamy and I'll give you a tootsie-roll. Pretty please?
It's probably my naivety as an unpublished author, but I don't really think that's wrong. In fact, I think it's extremely difficult to carry off MCs who are positively dislikeable. (Not that it can't be done by the skilled: Madame Bovary, which I'm reading, does an excellent job of this. Wuthering Hights, also, is filled to the brim with unlikeable characters.)
The principles are simple. We understand them. A lot of authors intrinsically know how to display our characters in a fair, realistic light.
But then...
one of them appears.
Is it...?
Can it be....?
Yes. It's the perfect character. The one that is perfect. Not contrived, not shining in fake glory. Honestly honest perfection.
What then?
Do we force flaws upon that character?
Do we highlight their perfection?
Do we ignore their unlikely perfection and hope no one notices they're flawless?
Here's were the FMCE and the Must-Love Syndrome come into conflict. Obviously perfect characters aren't loved, at least, not as much. The characters we swoon over and say 'he's so PERFECT' are often actually very flawed characters. For Example:
Jacob is overly-possesive
Sirius Black took little care of his safety or the safety of others
Jack Sparrow is a philanderer
Batman is a little obsessed with work
Link is sometimes frustratingly silent.
(These are my swoon characters - is that weird? a little?)
My latest MS is in this conflict. My two main characters - hero and heroine - are both fairly perfect people. And their 'flaws' and 'mistakes' are even perfect(ish). Willing to risk themselves in impossible situations, noble sacrifice, etc. etc. And yet... it's honest. It's really who they are. And the rest of the story is filled with flawed characters. Authors, you know some things can be changed, but you also know that some characters cannot be - not without lying to the story. (non-authors will totally roll their eyes if you tell them this, and then stuff you in garbage cans. Seriously, don't try it.)
I've read about 'perfect' characters whom I've loved. Characters who made mistakes, but mistakes that only made me love them more. Characters who, by definition, are 'flawless.' Ender, for example, is pretty flawless. Tavi, in the Codex Alera, is as close to a perfect leader as you can get. Colonel Brandon is an awfully good character, as both Ada Clare and John Jarndyce in Bleak House are about as good-natured and mistake-less as humanly possible.
Where does that leave us?
Both sides of the case are valid: Perfect characters are unrealistic and unrelatable. But sometimes perfect characters just appear. And are perfect. And in those cases, they can be relatable - they can be real. Sometimes, they do belong in the novel.
Authors, what do you think?
Have you ever had a character who was perfect, and that's just how they were?
Have you ever had a character who was perfect, but in the end, it turned out they needed flaws to make the story real? *I've had this too*
Do you think perfection is a never-do, a do-with-caution, or a just-be-honest-to-the-character?
(Yup, I used traffic light colors for those three. MWAHAHAHA, I'm making you notice my not-so-cleverness!! :D)
Where does the line lie? Is there a problem with no faults, or is the problem with excessive virtues? Is perfect character one who never stops successfully questing for goodness, or is a perfect character one that has that goodness already attained?
Published/Agented authors: Am I just a sadly illusioned young'un who needs to be slapped into reality?
If this is a horribly obvious/'duh' post, I apologize, my brain is still a bit fevered. (HA, that's my excuse! nahnahnahnahnaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahnah!)
(P.S. Penny for your thoughts: Is non-perfect the same thing as flawed? Which is better in a main character, in your opinion?)
(P.P.S. Sorry for being so snarky with all the mwahahahas and nahnahnahs. I really missed you guys. *tear*)


Anonymous said...

You have definitely made me think. I like realistic fiction, when I can relate to the characters trying to be perfect, but their flaws end up being the elements resolving the conflict or solving the mystery. Whiney characters get to me. I'm pushing myself through a novel where the narrator appears so weak to me. It's irritating but the suspense keeps me reading! The story itself can balance the characters if carefully written.

Marsha Sigman said...

This is actually a tough question. I think your characters have to be real to be believable and we are all flawed. I am late quite a bit, and I can be impatient, and sometimes even...moody.(gasp)
But I think I am completely

So thats how I try to create my characters, I am not trying to make you love them for their flaws or lack of them but in spite of them. I hope that makes sense.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good questions. I have a tendency to make my characters Suzy Sunshines. I have to really watch this or they become annoying. I've often ended up deleting entire chapters and rewriting from where they got annoying and made them more realistic.

I prefer reading about people I can relate to - and that is definitely not a perfect person! :)

Lisa Gail Green said...

Wow, an interesting topic! I think the key is to throw the book at them (no pun intended). If they're practically perfect then put them in a situation that tests even that perfection and see how they react. Everyone has an achilles heel. Most of us more than others. But to learn to rise above it. The harder the struggle the better we love them for it. That's my two cents!

Anonymous said...

This is a very thought-provoking post -- and you've posed some great questions. Personally, I tend to like terribly smart characters, and many of them are seemingly perfect. However, I do believe that even really great characters need some flaws to be wholly believable.

But like you, I have troubles making my characters flawed. One way to do it -- and at the same time further the plot -- is to let them make their own mistakes. And live and learn from those. :)

Clara said...

Hm good question! But I can't give so many flaws to evry single character of my book. Just the main ones. Giving flaws = showing off their struggles =)

Lisa said...

a perfect character = annoying = flaw.

For example, ambitious can be a good quality. But, when taken too far, it can be bad, bad, bad.

As long as the character is real, and sympathetic, and think it's okay. Sympathetic is the key, not perfect, in my opinion! I've struggled with this, too.

Janet Johnson said...

I think "perfect" is our own idea and different for everyone. I don't know all the characters you mentioned, but take Col. Brandon. He did have flaws, and he was trying to make up for past mistakes.

In most cases, I think the flaws are there, but perhaps we admire those particular flaws, so we don't see them.

Just thoughts. Good questions!

Missed Periods said...

Funny. This just came up in my writers group. One of the members said that we tend to protect our characters too much- meaning not exposing their flaws. That really mades sense to me.