There are two things that every story has to have:
- A plot
- At least one character
The two are very interwoven. You need the character to carry the reader through the plot, but you need the plot so that the character isn’t just hanging out on their couch all day playing video games.
However, more than having an interesting plot, you need to have a character that the reader cares about.
A Mary-Sue is a character, male or female, who has no flaws that they have to cover come. In Christopher Pike’s YA series, The Last Vampire, the main character, Sita, is a Mary-Sue. She is this vampire who is just too smart and skilled for her own good.
Likewise, I would argue that Superman is a Mary-Sue. He has one weakness, which is that he cares too much about the girl, and he can’t hack kryptonite. I am bored to tears with that guy.
One reason this is boring as all get out is because the reader needs an element of relatability. No human is perfect, so having a perfect character alienates the reader in some way. When the reader can connect with the MC, then the reader is more likely to get sucked into their plight.
What a reader wants, whether they’re aware of it or not, is a character who evolves in some way. Thus, they need to have some form of character flaw that they work through to become a better person.
Consider Bridget Jones—golly I love that lady. I think just about every woman relates to her in some way, which is why those books did so amazingly, and why watching the movie is both my mom’s and my favorite lazy-day activity. She is hilarious because she’s real. And I don’t mean somewhat relatable, I mean real AF.
She has to overcome her views of self-worth in order to get the guy. What this inspires in all of us is that we too, us real AF women, can get the guy too if we can believe in ourselves.
The relatability in a story means that it takes the reader through the journey as if they were a part of it, and it helps to almost give them an option on how they too can get over their own character flaws.
I know, no pressure, right?
Of course this is in a vague sense. I mean, the princess who goes through all the ordeals that the villain can throw at her and waits until her perfect moment s o that she can escape—is not likely going to happen to the average person who needs to learn their own strengths to save themselves. However, it’s a reminder to their subconscious self that they have the power to take matters into their own hands.
A key element, then, is to ask yourself how your character evolves throughout the story.
The Flawed Character
There are several steps to this exercise, so hang tight.
Develop a character you don’t like and describe them having breakfast, or something mundane. This is just so you can really get into the character’s head.
This character doesn’t have to be completely of your own imagination. You can take someone you don’t like and write about them as well.
But as you develop this character, try to keep your prejudices out of it. Write it as if you’re setting this person up as your MC (because that is exactly what you’re doing).
The next step is to ask yourself what it is you don’t like about this character. What makes this character somewhat repugnant to you? Is it that they don’t have a family and are totally against having one? Is it that they don’t like puppies? Do they lack compassion? Are they completely boring? Are they a Mary-Sue? Are they constantly sickly because they have no regard for their health and do literally everything wrong in the world in order to look after themselves?
Go on, go crazy when deciding what it is you don’t like about them.
Now, ask yourself what it is that they could do to make them likable to you. Is it that they could get a dog? Is it that they could open their minds to something new and different like green eggs and ham? Is it that they could be passionate about something?
Now that you have your dislikable character, you’re going to write the story of how they become likable.
There are plenty of examples of curmudgeon characters who develop and become likable. Consider:
- Shrek, the ogre who wanted nothing to do with anyone, until he learns the value of friendship and companionship.
- Wilt, from Tom Sharp’s wonderful Wilt series, in which a very old-fashioned man is put in horrendous situations and all he wants to do is go back to being boring and thinking the world’s gone mad (my favorite is when his wife decides she wants to be liberated, gets swept up in the ‘60’s free love movement, and accidentally finds herself at an orgy)
- The Hound in Game of Thrones – now that guy is great to dislike. He just wants to do his own thing, he wants to do his job, and part of his job is to look scary. He seemingly doesn’t care about anyone, but at the same time he does, actually care. He offered to help Sansa, and later on grew attached to Arya. Both of these are character arcs.
What did you come up with? How did you find this exercise? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to email me about it.
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