Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Imperfection : The New Perfection

Imperfection is actually the new perfection. The smudge of Imperfection in characters adds an unexplainable and undefinable appeal.

Characters in books mirror real life people. We all have our own individual idiosyncrasies, flaws, shortcomings and insecurities. So it’s nothing unusual if characters reflects these traits. Actually this quality (Imperfection) makes a character more real. Readers find it easy to identify with someone who is imperfect. Someone who makes mistakes, is swayed by emotions, is prone to mood swings, is more real  than a character who is calm and unruffled and who never makes mistakes. Though we look upto perfect people,  they do give us a temporary sense of insecurity.  We feel small in front of them. We may even secretly and subtly resent their perfection and larger than life image. But it’s the imperfect characters we bond with. In their presence we revel in our own imperfections.

Have you all noticed that more and more often our protagonists lead imperfect lives. As the story unfolds, these imperfect characters leading imperfect lives try to resolve the conflict by tackling their own personal imperfections first.

Aristotle called it Hamartia, which was seen as a character flaw. This character flaw can be a limitation, a problem, a phobia, or a deficiency present in a character who is otherwise quite normal. The character flaw may be a violent temper that may turn out to affect the character’s actions, abilities, or interactions with other characters. Sometimes it can be a simple personality defect which only has effect on the character’s motives and social interaction and nothing else.

Flaws or imperfection add depth and humanity to the characters in a narrative. For eg the mayor with a penchant for gambling, the hero with claustrophobia, the heroine with an alcohol problem. One of the most famous example is ‘ Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ 

Character flaws can be slotted into three categories.

Minor Flaws make the characters memorable in readers minds, these give the character individuality, but other than that do not affect the story in any way. They can be a scar, an accent, biting the lower lip, twirling the moustache, a girl constantly flinging her hair back. A protagonist can have several minor flaws, each having no effect on the plot.

Major Flaws are noticeable and important. They affect the individual physically, mentally, emotionally, morally or spiritually. Major flaws are not necessarily negative : they can be rigid religious beliefs or a strict adherence to a certain lifestyle. Major flaws like: greed, blindness, deafness, lust, often hamper and restrict the character in one way or the other. The major flaw is important for the character’s personal development and the story. Heroes and heroines must overcome their own major flaws either partially or completely, either temporarily or permanently, at some point in the story, very often by the climax, by sheer determination or skill to be able to solve the larger problem at hand. For a villain his major flaw is frequently the cause of his downfall. The protagonist’s major flaw defines the core problem, the entire journey to remedy this problem forms the firm backbone of the story, sometimes prodding the plot forward.

The last flaw is the Tragic Flaw, it’s the cause of the character’s downfall and eventual death. Tragic Flaw arises out of the character’s misplaced trust in another character, an excessive amount of curiousity that sucks him into problems, pride that plunges him into a world of loneliness. The fall that often arises out of the Tragic Flaw occurs at the beginning of a story.

Do you like perfect characters? Or Imperfection is the new perfection for you? What kind of character flaws do your characters have?


  1. Sometimes we love our characters SO much we don't want anything to be wrong with them. It took me years to give my MC's serious flaws along with serious problems. =)

  2. Great Post! You always have something interesting to say. Just discovered your blog few days back.

  3. Anne...though I too love my characters, I don't hesitate to give them flaws as it makes them believable, and I feel perfect characters are a big turn off.

  4. Good Post, Rachna, it really made me think.

    I found the three kinds of flaws intriguing, suggesting different types of fiction: Tragic flaws, of course, suggest a tragic tale, where the reader keeps hoping the protagonist WON'T do what you know they will probably do, to their downfall. Minor flaws suggest to me a humorous tale, with character foibles that endear them to us as readers. And then, of course, are all the between flaws, from mildly major to just short of tragic.

    I myself, like to read about flawed characters, because they seem human, and they give promise to the rest of us, that a flawed person can solve their challenges, whatever they are. Whereas "perfect" characters feel unbelievable. And if a character isn't believable, it's hard to care about him/her.

  5. Elizabeth, you hit the nail on the head, minor flaws add an element of humor, these characters and their idiosyncrasies are remembered for a long time.
    And when flawed characters solve their problems it acts as an encouragment to the rest of us that we too can overcome our problems.

  6. Rachna,
    I really like all of the examples you have given us! Yes I agree with Imperfections being one of the things that allow us to bond with the characters Like a birthmark, or a certain vocabulary, a word that a character always repeats. An emotional imperfection often drives a character closer to what they want. It should not just be our protagonist who has flaws, but the other characters too. Without flaws true character can not be revealed, which is equivalent to integrity. What does your character do when know one is looking? Which is different than character. Character alone has filters. Some characters seem to be skipping through the poppies with no obstacles at all, as if there lives have been photoshoped!
    Those are the characters I forget about when I close the book. Because in real life we have layers and layers like an onion, it is impossible to explain the extreme depth of our lives in a sentence or even a paragraph and have it stand still for us. We as people are constantly changing, and with change natural life conflict is apparent. We like to read about character that reflect real human life. I know you have already said some of these things as I’m rambling on. Okay back to painting.