Nobody’s Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator presents Holly Golightly as an almost perfect person. He acknowledges at times that she may have some flaws but he also seems to remember an idealized version of the character and he’s reluctant to pass judgment on her faults or even to acknowledge them as such. Author Truman Capote knows better and it is because of his grasp of Holly’s character (and of the narrator, whom we only know as “Fred,” the name Holly gives him) that we’re able to see Holly for everything she is: a truly imperfect person. Yet we think of her as a person, not as a character, because those very flaws combine with the romanticized remembrance of her by “Fred” to create a truly three-dimensional person. Holly might be the person who lives across the hall or the woman we spot window-shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Faults and all, we tend to like Holly and we enjoy “Fred’s” fond portrait of her. So why is it that when we write characters, we’re reluctant to make them flawed? We might drop in a little something imperfect, more so if we’re writing a “bad guy,” but in general, we seem to try to keep them closer to perfect than to imperfect. Is it because we created them and we want the best for them? Is it because we’re reluctant to add characteristics that interfere with our plans for the story?

Imperfect characters hold the greatest potential for making mistakes. It’s their poor choices, their shady backgrounds, and their inherent flaws that create the potential for disaster. This threat of their worlds crashing in around them because of who they are not only makes their stories fun to write but endears them to readers. Flaws allow readers to identify and bond with your characters.

Nobody's Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Good Guys

“The protagonist… cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve and he must come out at the end… a more admirable human being than when he went in.” –Maxwell Anderson

Ask an actor and he’s likely to tell you that playing the bad guy is more fun than playing the hero. That might be because so many traditional heroes are so milquetoast. Sure there are fascinating antiheroes (like Batman, Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara and Severus Snape) but the most interesting characters—protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters and even minor characters—are the ones who are imperfect and are not usually at the center of the story.

Here are a few easy ways you can rattle your protagonist’s closet skeletons:

  • Make a small change in the character’s background, even if it has no immediate effect on the story. Think of the nature of your character. If one thing had gone differently in her life, how would it change her nature? For example, let’s say she’s a nurturing woman who acts as a mother figure to everyone around her. Now imagine this: her mother passed away when she was a small child. Would she still be nurturing, perhaps trying to fulfill a void in her own life? Would she become self-sufficient and unable to comprehend those who can’t do the same for themselves? Making one different decision or having one alternate outcome to a situation can make a world of difference in your character’s personality.
  • Make a change in the surroundings. Maybe the character fits too well with the world around him. Does your hero work in an office building? What’s it like? Is it bright and airy with lots of open space or is it a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm? Change the setting and watch the effect it has on your character. Maybe he didn’t realize how much he valued freedom over stability until you took away his office window.
  • Bring in a character who sees everyone as the opposite of what they’re trying to project. For example, a therapist, bartender, or childhood friend might see that the hero is always looking for something to do not because he is creative but because he fears boredom. If confronted with this fact, how might the hero react?

Bad Guys

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not ‘characters.’ A ‘character’ is a caricature.” –Ernest Hemingway

Antagonists are more often given the juicy backgrounds, the flaws and the faults but just as often they may be a little too perfect in their roles. It’s easier to make the bad guy the opposite of everything ours hero stands for. It’s no fun to have a bad guy without a chink in the armor for our hero to exploit.

Everyone is the hero of his own story. Our antagonists are no different. They believe they’re doing what is best for someone or some purpose, even if it’s only for themselves. Here are a few questions that might help round out your bad guys:

  • What are his weaknesses? Does he share any with the protagonist?
  • What are the antagonist’s redeeming qualities? Again, does he share any of these with the protagonist?
  • What tempts him and how susceptible is he to temptation? Can one temptation cause him to weaken or let down his guard? For example, if the hero is a beautiful woman, could the villain become distracted by that fact? And for that matter, would your hero exploit that weakness?
  • How does the antagonist change over the course of the story? The antagonist takes a journey, same as the protagonist. At what points do their courses intersect and how do they compare in their responses to similar situations?

Showing the Reader

“Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.” –Barnaby Conrad

It can be tough to convey these flaws without infringing on the story, especially in the case of a first person narrator, but it is possible. Your protagonist might not be as smart as you are, for one thing, and while he shows us what’s going on around him, we might pick up things he’s not seeing but that you are making a point to show us. Maybe your character uses alcohol or drugs and doesn’t relay things accurately. Readers will be able to determine this (and it can add some surprises later in the story). An unreliable narrator is a good example of a flawed character.

Characters will also view each other differently. What you might see as a good trait in your character—generosity, for example—another character (or a reader) might see as a flaw—he gives so much away that he has nothing for himself. Use other characters to help put shades of gray onto your protagonist or antagonist. For example, your hero might be having a conversation with her best friend when she mentions the villain. The best friend could relay some information or an opinion that adds depth to the villain. There are more points of view in your story than the one you’re using for storytelling.

It’s fine for characters to idealize each other, so long as the author and the reader know that what lies beneath isn’t always perfection, like the earlier example of the narrator in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Allow your characters to be neither all-good nor all-bad. Allow them to make the worst possible choice (for example, it would be “good” for the married character not to have an affair but is it good for the story?). Allow yourself to have fun creating the most well-rounded characters you can and to use them to tell the “perfect” story.

Note: The exercise accompanying this article is a mini-bio sheet designed as a companion to our Character Development Worksheet. The CDW already has lots of opportunities to make your characters less than perfect (scars, childhood traumas, manners, etc.). The mini-bio will help you tweak existing characters or go further in-depth as you create new ones.

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