I want to preface this by saying that writing is hard. Writing characters is even harder. The formula for creating the “perfect” character doesn’t exist and, to be quite frank, thank goodness. Perfect is boring.
While I don’t agree with the way the “Mary Sue” character archetype has been weaponized by fanboys—thanks patriarchy—there is validity to the idea that characters who are innately good or skilled at everything they do/say/touch are not interesting. Consider the lack of decent Superman adaptations. There is very little nuance to a character that is virtually indestructible and incorruptible.
Perfecting the imperfect hero sounds like an oxymoron. Especially considering I started this article by saying perfect is boring. But bear with me here. While perfect characters are without a doubt very dull, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to perfect an imperfect hero. What is an imperfect hero? An imperfect hero is the antithesis of Princess Aurora in Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty.
No shade to Aurora, but let’s face it, the girl doesn’t have much going for her in terms of character development. Sleeping Beauty may be the titular character, but the movie is less about her—the Disney princess with the least amount of screentime—and more about villainous Maleficent and the overall aesthetic of the film, which was largely based on Eyvind Earle’s atmospheric art. What we do know about Aurora is that she’s pretty, likes to sing, and like most Disney heroines, animals love her. Furthermore, she’s docile with her fairy guardians when they tell her she needs to return to the palace rather than meet up with Philip. At least Cinderella cried when her stepmother forbade her from attending the ball.
Suffice it to say, while I don’t hate Aurora, I don’t find her interesting. I also don’t find her to be a compelling heroine in that nothing she does is particularly heroic. An imperfect hero is someone with character flaws, who makes tough choices, who grapples with their responsibility or their pride or their self-doubt, and through it all ultimately does the right thing. Creating those types of characters is a tall order.
There were many, many flaws to the final season of Game of Thrones. Arya Stark (spoiler warning) killing the Night King was not one of them. Yet the backlash from a significant (male) population of the fanbase was as loud as it was wrong. They decried her as a “Mary Sue” character when, over the course of eight seasons, Arya Stark proved she was anything but. Her own hubris at the end of season five cost Arya her eyesight, which she eventually regained amid a series of humbling and terrifying tasks during season six. Arya had depth as a character—vulnerability, rage, precision, humility, hubris, kindness, cunning, and cruelty. All of these facets were developed throughout the series as the character grew before our eyes. She was a hero, albeit an imperfect one, which made the death of the Night King at her hands all the more exhilarating to watch.
Obviously, not every book is going to give readers the same amount of time to get to know a character as well as a seven-book series by George R.R. Martin. However, if the writing is good enough, there is no reason you can’t pack as much character development into one book that Martin packed into five. Consider Tolkein’s characterization of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Yes, Bilbo Baggins returns in The Lord of the Rings series, but by the time he appears in LOTR, he is already a fully realized character.
Over the course of The Hobbit, Bilbo goes from comfortable and settled in the shire with no interest in adventure, to a brave and capable leader. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey and yet Baggins has moments of cowardice and selfishness along the way. The complexity of emotions and choices Tolkein thrusts upon Baggins over the course of his adventure in The Hobbit fundamentally changes him from the character he was at the start of the book. Bilbo Baggins is a hero that doesn’t always act heroic.
Another one of my favorite examples of a perfectly imperfect heroine is Emma Woodhouse. The titular character of Jane Austen’s Emma is selfish, spoiled, haughty, and overbearing. Throughout the novel, Austen highlight’s Emma’s flaws while still maintaining an air of general likability about her. She does this by illustrating Emma’s genuine care for her father and her well meaning, yet misguided, friendship with Harriet. Emma is a young, frivolous girl who is overconfident in her own thoughts and opinions.
However, she is ultimately willing to admit and learn from her mistakes. Emma is humbled after insulting Miss Bates and grounded by the self-realization of her true affection for Mr. Knightley. I mentioned once on Three Houses, One Podcast that I struggle with Emma. She is not my favorite Austen heroine, but she is—in my opinion—Austen’s riskiest and most challenging heroine. It’s that challenge and the razor’s edge of unlikability that Emma walks, which I believe make her Austen’s best heroine.
But how do you, as a writer, go about crafting your own imperfect characters? First, take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back or whatever other encouragement you may need, because this process is not going to happen overnight.
Below are a few ways that you can add more depth to your heroes.
Giving your hero one or more character flaws is an easy way to humanize them. Oftentimes, heroes are placed on a pedestal. Infallible characters are boring (sorry Superman). By giving your hero a character flaw such as arrogance (Tony Stark), laziness (Harry Potter) or stubbornness (Elizabeth Bennett) you are making your hero more relatable to your audience. Let’s face it, we all have flaws. Flaws are part of what makes us human and interesting and give us the capacity to grow. Don’t you want the same for your characters?
Another easy way to add depth to your characters is to give them a weakness. I’ve been firing a lot of shots at Superman here, but without Kryptonite, his character is too powerful. Kryptonite makes Superman vulnerable, which opens up myriad opportunities for adversaries to truly challenge him. However, not all weaknesses have to be a radioactive space element. Other weaknesses that can add layers of complexity to a character include greed, fear or selfishness to name a few. There are endless possibilities when it comes to creating a weakness for your character.
We all make mistakes. It’s part of what makes us human, part of growing up. Making mistakes, admitting you’re wrong, and learning from your mistakes is challenging. It also makes for fantastic internal conflict for your characters! The perfect hero doesn’t make mistakes. The imperfect hero makes a dozen and uses those experiences to do better, to complete the quest, and help others. So if you want to perfect the imperfect hero, make them make some mistakes!
Listen, like I said at the top, writing is hard. Crafting dynamic, complex heroes is even harder. The more time you spend with your characters and really get into their heads to understand their thoughts, motivations, weaknesses, and flaws, the better the end result will be.