Monday, February 2, 2015

The problem with Perfection

The problem with perfection is that it's perfect. A flat white field is nothing but white. Unless you intent to call the painting snow on a snowy day, you're basically screwed.

The counterargument to that is "A blank slate has infinite possibilities," which is completely true to a dreamer, but not everyone who reads dreams. That's where we come in.

So with that in mind allow me to point out that imperfections are what make characters believable.

Years and years and years back, when I was knee-high to a grape, I read a story that talked about how beautiful the female main lead character was. Except, of course, for the crooked nose. I found that simple fact fascinating. There it was. Just that fast she was human instead of a goddess. I like an occasional goddess in a story, but not as a main romantic interest. (Yes, by the way, I KNOW that is a sexist example, but it's also the moment I had me a little epiphany. Also, I'm a guy. Also, I write HORROR and that means by my very nature my words will seldom be politically correct. Anyway...)

My point is this: That character became human with one sentence. I was young and to be honest I couldn't even tell you who wrote the book or what book it was, but I still remember that moment.

Characters who are perfect fail to interest me. I mean there are exceptions. Dudley Dooright is so perfect that he's delightfully flawed as a result. He is the exception, not the rule.

Hollywood and I'm sure a fair number of books have given us perfect characters and then had the very flawed heroes (or heroines, Jeffe. ;)  ) of the stories have to deal with them as the obstacle of true love. And you know what the result is? We love to hate Mr/Ms. Perfect and we automatically cheer on our hero/heroine. Because we can empathize with them. We are, as a rule, not perfect. We might be lucky to run across someone who feels we are perfect, but we are most assuredly running across the exception in those cases and not the rule.

DC Comics (back before they dropped their IQ and then forgot where they left it) had a great example in Superman. Superman basically had no flaws until the day they decided that he was too perfect and they gave him one in the form of Kryptonite. He started off ahead of the curve, but as time went on he went from "faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" to Faster than the speed of light, able to push planets out of orbit and able to fly through the sun without so much as a first degree burn. He was so perfect that he NEEDED a few flaws because nobody cared any more.

They also made him more interesting by adding flaws to Clark kent. He got nerdier. He got less macho. By the time Christopher Reeves portrayed him on the Silver Screen he was about as flawed as he could get and people watching ate it up. You could see, thanks to Reeve's acting abilities, how easily Clark could be overlooked while Superman got all the glory.

No one likes perfection. It works as an abstract, but it's the flaws that make everything memorable.

Too many flaws and you can also reach the level of disinterest. That cute guy/girl with the glasses is still cute. Heck, in some cases the glasses work to add to the overall package (Felicity Smoak on TV's ARROW comes to mind) but you throw in bad acne and the worst case of halitosis breath known to exist and suddenly cute has gone the way of the dodo bird.

That redhead with the moderately fiery temper might be considered feisty, right up until the first time a knife comes out and is aimed at your left eye for looking at the wrong person passing by. The Devil, as they say, is in the details.

The thing to remember is that flaws do not diminish a character or at least they don't have to. They personalize and make more human characters who might otherwise seem superhuman.

I recently had my agent suggest I go back to a work in progress and rewrite the beginning of the story. Not because the story was wrong, but because without adding in a scene that I had mentioned the main character was simply too dark. Listen, I write some dark stuff. In this case there's great deal of violence and the actions might be considered justified, but without adding in a few thousand words of background that justification is only intellectual. I added the words and the justification became personal. My first readers all said the improvement was immediate upon reading the second draft. Suddenly extreme acts of violence weren't a slaughter, they were revenge. Those deaths weren't the actions of a heartless bastard, but instead the reactions of a man with an axe that had just lost more than he could cope with.

Grateful to my agent on that one. Seriously. Sometimes we are too close to see the flaws.

the readers are NEVER too close to see the flaws. I'll do you one better, there are a lot of readers who actively look for them. Not just in the characters, either.

So at the end of this week WHAT ROUGH BEAST goes on sale. It's a signed limited chapbook. I' fairly certain it'll go fast. As of February 6th, this link will be active and not before. If you are interested, here's the place to look. White Noise Press. 


  1. You have that right. It is so easy to catch inconsistencies as a reader so the author really needs to make the reader care about the H/H.

    And, Feb 6th!!!