Thursday, June 29, 2017

Editor's Notes #33: The Perfect Character

Mary Sue cartoons property of MissLunaRose at deviantart.com

Readers love to fall in love with your characters. If a character is created interestingly enough, they love to love them, and they love to hate them. I think it's a tremendous compliment to an author when the reader puts the book down, saying something unintelligible through gritted teeth ("arrrrrggggghhhh" will do nicely) because the character is so complex that they relate to them. They get angry with/at them, and can't forget them just because the book is closed.

You do, however, want to avoid having your readers hate the character because they simply hate how you've created him. Creating the perfect character doesn't necessarily mean that the character should BE perfect. In fact, that kind of thinking will backfire in a big, big way more often than not.

Think of real life: the "perfect" man or woman . . . we think of someone who always says yes to us, or fulfills our every desire, acquiescing to our whims. But in reality, someone like that would bore us because he has no spine, no personality, no chutzpah at all—which translates into bland, no give and take, and nothing adventurous to explore and discover. There is no challenge for growth or new ideas when someone is always in agreement with you.

Some of my favorite YouTube videos come from Terrible Writing Advice, and this one about "Mary Sue" (aka The Perfect Character) is a hoot:




Be cautious of the pitfalls of creating a character too perfect/cliché. Your readers will cease being your readers after a while. Characters become caricatures, and your reader will not only be pulled out of the story again and again by things like, What? Perfect grades, chiseled abs, AND he feeds the homeless and is the football captain, too?

When our kids were little, we used to read to them all the time (big surprise there). Most children can comprehend at a higher age level than their own reading level—they may be reading Little House in the Big Woods on their own but are able to completely understand The Hobbit when it's read aloud to them. So when our boys were six and eight, I think, we were reading the Hardy Boys books to them. The first book thrilled them. The second book was great. The third, not so much, and by the fourth book, the shine had completely worn off. Even at their young ages, our kids wondered why the boys were never in school or had jobs but had an endless supply of money and gas for their motorcycles. They always had the exact skills needed ("Frank, an amateur gymnast, was able to flip back and upward onto the water wheel at the mill . . ."), and the last straw for them was when the brothers needed to pick up some broken glass as evidence, and Frank just so happened to have a folded piece of cheesecloth in his wallet. I'll never forget our oldest saying, "Really? Cheesecloth? Who carries cheesecloth with them anywhere?"

Lesson to be learned: if your character has no flaws, your reader will begin to despise the very character you want them to love and connect with.

28 comments:

  1. Not sure what you were talking about in paragraph six. I mean, who doesn't carry cheesecloth with them at all times?

    I never read any of the Hardy Boys books (although I was aware of them), which is odd, considering I read almost anything I could get my hands on when I was a child. I did read one of the Power Boys novels (the first one, as I recently learned) published in the 1960s by Whitman. I think the Power Boys were a Hardy Boys knock-off.

    Anyway, I don't think I've ever written a "perfect" character. Some who tried to be, and some who thought they were, yes...

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    1. When I was young, I remember worrying that I would run out of books to read at our local library because I read such a large number of books each week. Nancy Drew books were among some of my favorites, but I don't recall her being nearly as always-perfect as Frank and Joe Hardy. Our boys preferred the Redwall series as their go-to books, whether reading them or listening to the audio of them on car trips. Much more complex and certainly no perfect characters anywhere.

      I've never heard of the Power Boys. Then again, I hadn't heard of the Boxcar Children until I was an adult, either.

      As far as paragraph six . . . I would be more inclined to carry cheesecake with me than cheesecloth.

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    2. The Power Boys series only ran for six books, I believe. Too much already out there, I suspect... plus they weren't all that good.

      Uhhh... When you say "cheesecake," I'm hoping you mean the food rather than sexy pin-up pictures.

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    3. Ha! The food, of course. I've never heard the term applied to pin-ups, but nope, nope, and nope again on that.

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    4. Webster defines that kind of "cheesecake" as "photography displaying especially female comeliness and shapeliness." If it's a photo or drawing of a man (usually with his shirt off), it's called "beefcake."

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    5. I guess I really do learn something new every time I run into you. I knew what "beefcake" was but had no idea there was a female equivalent! Thank you for today's lesson.

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    6. I learn something new every time I run into him, too.

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  2. So to conclude create a character with flaws that everyone will relate to, yes? Sounds good to me. Thanks for sharing and greetings!

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    1. Hey, thanks for the visit and comment! Yes, basically create a character as real as the people we know in day-to-day life. I think we all want to believe we're not the only ones with flaws.

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  3. The video is great. I always carry cheesecloth. I tuck it into my bra with my cash and ID. Everything gets a little sweaty, but so what?

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. My bank has a sign near the tellers' windows each summer, stating that they will not accept "damp paper money." I guess everyone has to have standards, right?

      If you have cheesecloth in your bra, make sure you use equal amounts on both sides.

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  4. I guess the Hardy Boys were kind of perfect. I was gullible - I still read them.
    I laugh when people ask me if either of my two main characters is me. Are you kidding? Both of those dudes are messed up.

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    1. I never thought anything of it when I read Nancy Drew, but I'm willing to bet I'd think differently if I were to pick one up now. I still think they were a great way for our kids to start reading more complex chapter books.

      Isn't that funny how everyone thinks an author's characters are somehow based on himself? Good thing you don't write about demented serial killers.

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    2. Every so often, I'd post a fictional story on my blog, and there'd always be at least one person who'd ask if the main character was supposed to be me, even if the character in question was a real creep.

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    3. That's hilarious and awful at the same time.

      Once, I had a friend photoshop my head onto one of those "People of WalMart" photos . . . it was a morbidly obese gal in a Wonder Woman outfit, complete with matching purse and mile-high hair. Someone I didn't know very well asked me where I found such a killer outfit, lol. I really wasn't sure how to answer.

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  5. This is a timely post since I need to consider my protag's flaws as I trudge along the CampNaNo pathway...

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    1. I admire your fortitude in doing CampNaNo! I hope at least you get s'mores out of the deal. ;)

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  6. My characters have no flaws unless you count overconfidence, self esteem issues, general psychoses, and megalomania. And that is just one of them. Hahahahahaha I hate perfect characters that has everything go in their favor.

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    1. Haha! Not to mention literal backstabbers.

      Not a flaw-free zone, your books.

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    2. Duct tape and cheesecloth two necessities of life. I also watched several episodes of the Terrible Writing advice OMG that is so freakin' funny, especially Mary Sue.

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    3. Isn't it, though? I don't binge watch TV shows; I binge watch videos like Terrible Writing Advice.

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  7. Fun fact: I DO carry cheesecloth with me, because I use it to strain hops when I'm brewing beer. It's my super power. If you disagree with me, that means you're the villain, and I must best you effortlessly.

    Holy crap! That Mary Sue video is hilarious. And hits on way too many things I've seen in the blogosphere from beginner writers still figuring out that people don't want to read stories about the Superman version of themselves who can never be wrong and/or defeated.

    So I wonder, then... if this is wrong (and it IS wrong), why are those awful billionaire romance stories so successful and beloved by lonely cat-ladies? "Jack Harper is a drop dead gorgeous, well hung, billionaire playboy who flies around in a helicopter. Annibel Plainface is a completely average girl with no self esteem who dresses like the Amish. That's until she becomes Jack's personal secretary. Jack, despite being literally perfect and having women fall at his feet constantly, is SMITTEN, and has made it his life's goal to WED this boring, average-looking frump."

    I mean, that sounds funny, but you know that stories almost exactly like this exist. En masse. And they're wildly successful. And women think they're great. So I just wonder, why do these things get such a pass, and yet if that same Jack Harper character was a knight who kills everything in his path, then he'd get panned?

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    1. If you're carrying cheesecloth for purposes of beer brewing, then that's a totally legit reason, and it may encourage me to make a cross-country trip to see if you're telling the truth. For research purposes, of course.

      The Terrible Writing Advice videos really are hilarious, and I figured you might appreciate the superior drawing skills as well. I love the smiles that look like half a wheel of cheese.

      Things like "the perfect character" fall under the "it's funny because it's true" category, which is both funny and sad, because despite how many articles there are out there that STRONGLY discourage that type of writing, people still do it. WHY? How can they not know it's wronger than wrong?

      I've read the billionaire romance-type stories before and was just as dumbfounded as you were. The premise basically tells us that a person who is so beyond rich and powerful—and who needs absolutely nothing from anyone—is suddenly wants to change his entire lifestyle so completely that he's obsessed and unable to function until he wins over the type of person he never noticed, ever, over all the years of his playboy lifestyle. No wonder so many women delude themselves into thinking they can change the person they're insistent on falling for.

      I've met the Jack Harper types over the years, and I should probably be ashamed to say this, but I delight in pretending to forget their names and petty things like that, just to remind them that they're only the center of their own world.

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  8. Hi Lynda,

    Ah yes indeed, I wholeheartedly agree with your good self. A character a bit too perfect, or "pawfect", as a certain dog states, will, no doubt, leave the reader rather aggravated.

    I like to that the reader feels apart of the character's story and cares about the character.

    Thank you kindly for your thoughtful comment on my last post.

    Gary

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    1. Great to see you back in action again, Gary! I agree, we want to care about the character, and if they're too perfect, no one can relate.

      Thanks for the visit!

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  9. Of course you know I'm all about imperfect characters, as we've discussed this many times lol but great post on it! Even though, I probably shouldn't be agreeing with you for growth's sake! :P LOL

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    1. I think if you agree with me, that means you're growing all over the place. Agreeing with me is almost always a good thing, because I agree with you on just about 100% of everything, and disagreeing with me would be kind of like disagreeing with yourself.

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