The perfect character
Let’s create the perfect character. Or rather, let’s not.
Perfect characters are one of the most annoying things to read about. What is the point of a story about someone who overcomes every problem in the blink of an eye? As soon as we realize that this certain character seems to be perfect, we already know how the story ends - that character will save the day - and perhaps even the whole planet - without even struggling once.
Characters like that are often referred to as Mary Sues or, for male characters, Gary Stues, even though a Mary Sue could be also male. I’m not really sure on why the name Gary Stue even exists as I only ever read it in terminology sections but never really saw it as a tag on a story, but we’re not here to talk about names but about the thing hiding behind those.
A Mary Sue is a character who doesn’t struggle with anything. They get dragged into a street fight but never fought in their entire life? Of course they’re going to be the one to beat their attacker. They’re on their first date? They’ll be the last one to feel insecure and of course they’ll end up in the perfect relationship. They are the perfect hero in every single situation they’re confronted with, they’re always saving the day.
What’s wrong with them is simple - they’re too perfect. When a character is too perfect, they begin to seem unrealistic. Good stories are often successful because their characters are relatable. They seem human and represent something the reader can identify with. But how can we create such a character that is perfect due to their imperfections?
The recipe is rather simple - just keep the character realistic. But how exactly can that be done? Realistic is nothing more than an empty phrase really. What makes us realistic, and what of that needs to go into a character for mere fiction?
To create a truly realistically appearing character, we need to look at our flaws, at all of the things we struggle with. The number one thing that makes us so human and that makes characters so relatable is emotions. We have so many of them, yet we sometimes manage to show the wrong ones. We unintentionally hurt our friends by taking our problems out on them, we let so many opportunities pass just because we’re afraid it’s just not the right time and listening to heroic music makes us feel like we’re the kings of the world. When creating a character we need to give them emotions. They need to be able to overreact and make wrong decisions based on their emotions. We need to allow them to potentially ruin the entire plot we imagined for them.
Almost nothing goes right when we attempt it for the first time. Look back at the very first story you ever wrote - I’m sure there are many things in there that you would’ve set up differently if you were to write that same story now. The characters you create need to make experiences as well. If you let them fight someone or something for the first time, there might be something like beginners’ luck on their side, but they won’t succeed against the world’s most mighty villain at first sight. They need to go through training and experience fails so that they can learn from their mistakes to become something greater than they were in the very beginning of the story.
This holds another vital step to creating a good character - letting them develop. Characters need to learn something throughout the story. Whether that is how to save the world or just how to see the world differently is entirely up to you, but they have to develop. Just look at yourself - you’re not the same person today as you were ten years ago. We all change, and your characters have to change as well.
However, changes and character development can be tricky. If a character changes too much throughout the story, they seem to be out of character in the end, and that’s something to avoid. They need to stay true to themselves, but also grow.
Every character needs their basic values. Some might value truth and honesty, while others see the great misery brings. Every character can value what you want them to, but it needs to match. A villain who doesn’t want to hurt anyone is tricky to get right, as well as a hero who finds pleasure through killing and making people suffer. There are so many characters out there that can inspire you to create your very own ones.
When letting a character develop, it is often useful to let them keep the values they impersonated during the first scenes. It is enough to just change one or two things about them, to have them realize that they pictured a certain thing completely wrong. Let them learn from mistakes. A character who is very trustworthy might be betrayed and turn into someone who doesn’t trust anyone easily - that’s a change they would go through. However, there’s no need for them to change their entire set of likes and dislikes. Changes and character development are vital for realistic characters, but they shouldn’t be overdone. In the end, the character needs to be consistent - the personality you gifted them with in the beginning should always shine through the character they became in the end.
Character development however can be something very tricky to get right. Perhaps your story doesn’t need that much character development since it’s only describing a very short period of time in which nothing bad happens. So let’s look at a couple of things to remember when trying to make characters appear realistic in everyday situations.
As most (or practically all) creatures alive your characters will have basic needs. They might have to go to the bathroom every now and then, they will feel the need to shower after a while and they will also be hungry and thirsty throughout the day. Those are only some of the things you have to keep in mind. Characters also have instincts. They might feel watched when you have another character actually following them, they might have trouble falling asleep when it’s too quiet and they might also feel uncomfortable when they’re close to experiencing a dangerous situation. This comes all back to emotions, but it’s important to keep in mind that some emotions and feelings are subconscious. Integrating those helps your characters to seem more realistic and less like cardboard characters.
As a part of emotions and feelings, it’s also important to remember the unpleasant ones. Even if you don’t want to put your characters through those - it helps making them realistic when they also experience things they don’t feel good about. Hardly any person lives an entire day without experiencing something unpleasant, and your characters shouldn’t either.
Once you created that perfectly imperfect character with all their flaws and imperfections and all the mistakes they’ll make, it’s also important to put them into an environment that isn’t a paradise. If it’s not for influences from outside, no one will have a reason to change. Keeping the scenery realistic makes the characters seem much more realistic as well.
There are many variables on the way to creating characters, but the most important one is always to have consistent characters. Even though everyone goes through changes, nobody changes completely. Just think of people you haven’t heard of in a couple of years. They will have changed, but deep within them you will still find the person you once knew. Nobody gets rid of their entire personality, to a certain degree everyone stays true to themselves, and that’s what your characters should do as well.And always remember, no obstacle has to be overcome in an instance. It’s only realistic to struggle with things for a while until you get them right. Every mistake you make holds a lesson for you to learn, and dealing with the consequences of a mistake you made can change you for the better - and not only you, but also your characters.