The Not-So-Perfect Character

It was a dark and stormy night.

Okay, not stormy, but dark.  All shades of dark, actually, when I read the last words on Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth.  I won’t lie to you, this isn’t a book for the casual reader.  It has zombies–the Unconsecrated–who roam the land and feed off the flesh of living humans. 

I started at 8:00pm while my youngest wept his way through Harry and the Hendersons.  I closed the back cover shortly after midnight and flicked off the basement light to make my way upstairs.

Immediately, I was plunged into total blackness.  The tiny orange rectangle outlining the light switch did nothing but beckon me to flip it back on.  Instantly, the hairs on the back of my neck fluffed up like a German Shepard’s scruff. 

Reality is that Miss Ryan’s book wasn’t scary at all while I read it.  Not one iota.  Nor do I believe in zombies in any way shape or form.  And truly, if they are as shufflingly slow as they are portrayed across media in general and this book in particular, I had nothing to fear.  Even if they were real.  Sheesh, I could outwalk them on a good day. 

And yet, this knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to sprint up the stair to my DH slumbering in bed.  Rather than give in to it, I forced myself to walk up each step.  It didn’t help that the night was cloudy with no moon or stars spilling through the windows.  The pitch black played right into my zombie induced imagination.  A feat worthy of noting since I am not easily spooked.

Which makes me believe that Miss Ryan did something right.  Even after closing the pages of her book, her characters stayed with me.  And not just the Unconsecrated.  While brushing my teeth (safely in the bathroom with DH between me and the zombies), I couldn’t let go of the MC. 

She was an anomaly to me.  At times brave, yet selfish.  She was motivated by the haunting memories of her beloved mother’s childhood stories.  Even as death and desctruction ripped through the tiny band of survivors, she pushed on.  Even when love…well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling the book. 

I don’t even know if I like Mary.  Yet she was so well fleshed out: such a contradiction of actions, so truly a teen in distress living for herself and something bigger than herself all at once.  She was real.  More real than the zombies who followed me upstairs.  More real because she wasn’t perfect.

Most of the time I like the MC’s of my favorite books.  Nay, I love them.  Not so with Mary.  Instead, I felt a deep connection with her and her drive to believe, to hope, to dream.  Her ability to push forward against insurmountable odds.  Her strength in motivating others to follow.

We would not be friends in real life, me and this Mary.  She is far too selfish.  And yet, I would respect her and her ability to throw herself in the middle of a dark and stormy night.  Zombies be damned.

As a reader, have you ever run across a character you don’t like, but connect with anyway?  What makes a good character?

As a writer, have you ever written an MC you don’t like?  If so, why?  And more importantly, how?  How do you pen an entire novel about a character you would not invite to your slumber party?

And for everyone: what value is there in not glamming up the MC? 

I, for one, get tired of the cliched characters.  The beautiful.  The smart.  The perfect size six and the uber-buff surfer dude in a suit.  The MC’s that are more wonderful than I will ever be who just seem a little down on their luck for the sake of a story. 

Whether Miss Ryan intended for Mary to be a bit selfish or not, it worked.  The companion book now calls to me from my night stand.

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20 responses to “The Not-So-Perfect Character

  1. It is interesting that you ask that question, because my protag was written to be a guy who is conflicted and does some bad things but isn’t himself bad. Some readers (the eighth grade boys) have identified with him, other readers (women in their thirties) have said, “that Jack is really a bad guy” and haven’t even noticed his good side. It is like a Rorschach test of the reader, what they see in a complex protag.

    • Layinda,

      It is a difficult balance. To make it to the eighth grade boys we have to make it through the thirty-year-old women!

      Good point: It is like a Rorschach test. Everyone sees things differently. We just need the right agent, editor and readers to all see something similarly compelling to buy the book.

      Your story sounds interesting.

  2. I can’t think of any fave characters who I don’t actually like. Hmmm. Well, I certainly wouldn’t be inviting Hercule Poirot to any of my slumber parties, but I do still like him 🙂

    • LOL, Jemi.

      I’ve never really run up against this before, and it was odd. As a whole, she was very well fleshed out. Very real. Much more so than a lot of characters because of her contradictions. It’s so hard to explain. Maybe I connected to her spitit more than her personality. Does that make sense to anyone but me?

  3. I just finished “Gone With the Wind,” and Scarlett O’Hara is my new favorite character who I love to hate. Sure, she has courage and grit, but I can’t stand her selfishness and greed and hypocrisy. But in some ways, I feel like I connect with her, because I recognize her selfishness and vanity in myself. I don’t act on it the way she does, because living a righteous and virtuous life is my highest priority. But those selfish tendencies are still there under the surface, so in a twisted way, I simultaneously hate her and understand her.

    • LaChelle,

      Great example. And now, I have to really examine why I connect with, but dislike, Mary so much. Self-reflection is never fun : )

      Maybe the best characters are the ones we dislike just a little because they make us look at ourselves differently. This is something I don’t do with the random, perfect character. When the MC is too good, there is no comparison. They are not within our reach. However, a character that highlights some pretty serious flaws in ourselves may be much more valuable to the impact of the story.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting with your insight.

  4. I have one romantic suspense manuscript sitting on a shelf — I think it has a decent plot, and I like the men, but the main character is wimpy and I don’t like her (and no, I don’t have a clue why I wrote a whole manuscript that way — maybe we should call it practice writing). Someday I might go back to it and give this gal a little gumption.

    • LOL, Patricia.

      Gumption is a pretty necessary character trait when it comes to suspense! Best luck with reviving your “practice” MC in the future.

      I have an MC that I love. She’s cute and funny and has some pretty serious self-esteem issues. But I think she’s just lets life happen. And that I definitely don’t approve of. Needless to say, the story is getting a facelift to accomodate her new personality trait of actually making choices. Bad ones, mostly, in the messed-up-preteen kind of way.

      You’ve inspired me to consider her a little more seriously.

  5. I wrote an unlikable mc in a short story one time. On critters and in my personal life, it was one of my most “talked about” stories. No one liked the mc, but to my dismay, this too often equaled “not a good story.” She stuck with people, but because no one liked her, the story got the same label as her: not good.

    • Barbara,

      Did it get published? My father-in-law always says it doesn’t matter what people say, just that they are talking. Maybe there is a tweak or two that you do to change the perception?

      • The story is currently in pieces in a folder. Nothing I did to the character made her actions in the story excusable, so I pretty much scrapped it and kept a few bits that interested me. Maybe someday I’ll incorporate them into something else. ^_^

      • Ah, that can be frustrating. On the other hand, maybe she can pop up in another story for a different purpose. That’s the great thing about writing. We can cut and paste fabulous ideas and characters into a story. I forget who said it, but I recently ran across this sentiment:

        There are no great story ideas, just lots of snippets that build on each other to create something magnificent.

  6. The protagonist of one of my favorite books of last year, The Demon’s Lexicon, is COMPLETELY unlikeable. Seriously kind of awful. And yet somehow the author has you kind of rooting for him, identifying with him, even feeling compassion for him. I have no idea how she did it, but as a study in creating a compelling anti-hero, it’s amazing. I recommend it to EVERYONE.

    All the better because there’s a REASON for him to be the way he is, as you discover during the course of the story. Brilliantly crafted. And also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And there’s a sequel coming in May.

    So there, you have to read it. 😀

    • Michelle,

      I can always count on you to point me in the right direction for a new Must-Have. I better get through my other two reads before I try to tackle this one. Not to mention that I’m still working on a huge project. And am trying to pin down a new manuscript this month!

      This MC sounds totally ghoulish and one I would love to read.

  7. I’m having a hard time recalling a character that I didn’t like, but that I connected with. Maybe Eric from the Chronicles of Amber series. He was one of the nine princes to a kingdom that all worlds were mere shadows to, but I think the only reason I connected to him was, because in a moment of frail retrospection, he said something honorable which somehow gave him more of a humanistic quality that contrasted with his actions. Almost as if I said, “huh, he has a heart after all.”

    Otherwise, I’m noticing a trend in a lot of books toward making the MC the exact opposite of perfect. They are OVER fragile’izing them. Overly clumsy, overly plain, overly boring. Too good to be true doesn’t make a great MC for readers to connect with, but neither does the exact opposite. There’s got to be a mix.

    • Totally agree, Void. Like everything, balance is the key. I have no interest in a total namby pamby with no good traits. Maybe that’s why I connected with Mary. She was as real as my daughter with all the heart and eye-roll…

  8. I think it’s important to have a character that readers can relate to on some level, for sure.
    Generally I love the characters I read about. Sometimes they may be a little obtuse, but can’t we all 😉 I think a slumber party with all of them at once would be awesome. Woo hoo!

  9. I’m struggling with starting my next book because my MC starts off as an admirable person, a moral man. But he gets so wrapped up in doing what is right, he eventually does some incredibly disloyal and evil things. I’m struggling with it in part because I know what happens to him and part of me is afraid to try and write it. I’ve never done a character quite like this and I don’t know if I have it in me.

    • Victoria,

      It’s always hard to stretch yourself as a writer. And writing a character out of your character could be one of the most difficult things we do. Yet also satisfying. I wish you luck as you tinker with it.

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