I was reading an old Writer’s Digest the other day, and I came across this excerpt from On Writing Romance by Leigh Michael. The title of the article in Writer’s Digest was “Create the (Im)Perfect Heroic Couple,” and the author is giving tips. The first tip, I liked, about using the characters’ imperfections to show depth. “In order to be real, your characters have to be imperfect,” the author writes, and it’s true in all types of writing. Perfect people are boring, or preachy, or both, and more than likely are going to cause the reader to set the book down.
The tip that tripped me up was #2: Steer Clear of Mean. “Heroes and heroines are unfailing kind to those who are less powerful than they are,” Leigh writes. “… Heroes and heroines don’t kick the dog no matter how angry they are. And every last one of them has an honorary degree in how to get along with a kid while raising him to be a genius.
“Heroes and heroines don’t gossip, and they don’t generally take delight in the troubles of others, even when it’s the Other Woman and she deserves it.
“They’re rude only to each other, and even then, they’re not hateful or vicious. Wisecracks and smart remarks are acceptable; cruel taunts are another thing entirely.
“Heroes and heroines don’t lie, but they are allowed to be tight-fisted with the truth. The hero, in particular, can be deliberately misleading if his motive in not telling all the facts is to protect the heroine.”
Now, to be fair, the author is writing about romance books. Otherwise, I would have been seriously disappointed that this appeared in Writer’s Digest. Still, while this probably holds true for some of the more fluffy romance novels, I know I’ve read a couple of thicker novels of this genre where the hero or heroines skim the line of meanness, though they aren’t downright cruel.
However, I have to say that this does not apply to other genres. While I don’t believe the main character should be inherently evil, everyone has that balance of good and bad inside of themselves, and the more you can show, the more real your characters will seem. Every characters needs to have their flaws, and some of those flaws could be something like a tendency towards biting sarcasm that can hurt someone’s feelings. Why not? You meet those people in real life. In my opinion, you shouldn’t just have the minor characters, or even the best friend, be mean or show those harsher flaws. Everyone in their life has wished to take back something they’ve said (and if they say otherwise, they’re a liar), and often times it’s because it was “mean” or cruel. Why can’t this happen in a book?
Having one of the “heroes” of a book be somewhat evil obviously makes some stories sell. Though I have yet to read it, a friend described the girl from “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” as being just plain evil. That’s an international best seller, and though I know there’s more to the book than that (I went to the movie in theaters this past weekend; while I know it’s almost always a mistake to go to a movie before I read the book, my husband and I were bored) it is a large part of the book.
So, to sum up my opinion, the failing of many a character is their flawlessness. Blemishes to a character’s character are what make them real.