Rant Level: Medium
I’m not going to name names here or get too specific, but a while back I was reading a book where the main character, a teenage boy, wondering what made him so special to fight the forces of evil, and being told by another character just how good and kind and downright awesome he was, proven by the fact that even after someone being attacked, all he felt was pity for the person who tried to kill him. Annnnnnd I stopped reading.
Okay, I get it. He’s on the side of good. But does he really need to be the living embodiment of perfection, to the point where he’s so sickeningly sweet that I need insulin?
Perfect characters have always bugged me. I’m not talking about the ones that are super beautiful or super smart (although those kinds often overlap with this one). I mean the ones that are just so good and nice all the time and are never irrational or selfish or freaking human. Ever. They never hurt people or cause bad things to happen, except by accident, and of course if they did they would immediately jump to rectify the situation. And I hate them.
I see myself as impossibly imperfect. I do selfish things, on purpose, and I know they’re selfish, and I feel horribly guilty afterward, even if it’s nothing truly bad (like skipping a party because I’m feeling asocial). So, knowing all these imperfections I have, and realizing that, come on, at least most of the world is flawed like me, it bothers me to read about characters who are so. frigging. perfect. There’s nothing to relate to! I suppose they have “ideals” to aspire to, but that doesn’t make them a character. It makes them an unachievable dream.
Too often these days I’m seeing characters that fall into this trope—and worse, they seem to be popping up in YA as morality lessons for why you must always be good so good things will happen to you. I think those are really dangerous lessons to teach kids. One does not equal the other, the same way evil doesn’t always lead to bad things happening (just look at banks for a good example of this). And you know what? Sometimes you do have to be tough and mean or otherwise people will walk all over you, not instantly become your friend because you’re the paragon of niceness.
I know the satisfaction of reading books comes from seeing a world that has some sort of order to it, where evil is punished and the star-crossed lovers are happy and together forever. But there has to be struggle, there has to be sacrifice, there has to be growth. If a character doesn’t come out of a book different—not just traumatized by events, but actually and significantly changed—then the story was just a plot, the characters just tools. With a perfect character, there’s nowhere to go but down.
All right, maybe the rant level was more “high” than “medium”. Whatever. What do you think of perfect characters? What about flawed ones?