Are Your Characters Too Nice?

I want nicer character faults. Y’know, the kind that actually help people? Solid, pretty faults that sound great at job interviews.

Like “I can’t help but tip the waitress 30%.” 

Or maybe “I really love grading. I just can’t help going over every test three times.”

Or how about, “I am so excited about cleaning the narsty scum beneath cabinets. It’s a terrible fault, I know…”

Are you feeling it? Me either. Unfortunately, my faults fall along the lines of impatient. Unfeeling Closed off. Things that definitely slant negative, and definitely don’t flatter me.

It’s easy to want to make ourselves look good. We like to keep our pride intact. It’s even part of some marketing advice: get personal, but never too personal. Never ugly. Because then things get real, and when things get real, they get messy. And to be honest? There are plenty of tell-alls out there already. The abbreviation TMI exists for a reason.

Messy isn’t always great for real life. But messy is fantastic for characters. (Tweet This)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of making characters too likable. Call it the Cinderella Complex.

She’s too docile. She’s too kind. She cleans too much and saves too many animals. These flaws make it hard to relate to a character and also make them less realistic. No matter how kind or gentle, we all go through bad days and it’s important to show that by making the character really lose it once in a while. These character flaws  are also passive; they make a character less likely to act. And protagonists need to act to push the story forward.

What about the opposite? The Hercules Complex.

Yes, the Disney Hercules. He is too brave. Too heroic. He just can’t stop himself from saving the day and protecting everyone. This is also unrealistic. No matter how self-sacrificing, no one can keep up with that. Eventually, like Mr. Incredible says, the hero is just going to want the world to stay saved.  Also, like a Cinderella, a Hercules is too impossibly good for us ordinary humans to click with. The good news is a Hercules will push the plot forward; the bad news is that, unless they fail, they won’t learn anything along the way, and this makes for a flat character arc. Flat character arcs can work, but showing struggle can’t hurt. Even Jesus cried blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Solutions? Well, you could just rethink the whole character. However, that’s not always convenient and takes time away from writing. For a too-perfect character, try to flip their strengths into flaws. (Tweet This)

Docile and kind? Becomes a pushover who won’t stand up for herself or others when bad things happen.

Brave and self-sacrificing? Turns into a mountain of pride and a secret ambition to never need saving and never let anyone rescue him.

Sometimes, there is too much of a good thing. Sometimes, you really can’t afford to tip the waitress 30% (although as a former waitress, I still promote 20% if the service was decent). Sometimes looking over those tests three times or cleaning that scum takes away from time with your family or doing other tasks. Or sleeping.

Are there any other too-perfect character stereotypes? Please feel free to share!

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