“Perfect is boring.”
“Flaws make a character interesting.”
Chances are you’ve heard this tidbit of writing advice before. And on
the surface, it sounds, if you’ll pardon the pun, perfectly reasonable.
Real people aren’t paragons of virtue, and characters that feel real
There’s someone I hold up to
be perfect. And while many people around Him either called Him ‘Lord’
or demon-possessed, I suspect there were very few who called Him boring.
Now, it’d be horrifically unfair of me to imply that people who advise
you to give your characters flaws consider Jesus dull, because we’re not
using the word perfect the same the same way. By perfect, I mean that
Jesus is full of pure Goodness itself, but in the writing world ‘perfect
character’ has in some places become shorthand for someone who doesn’t
smoke, doesn’t chew, and doesn’t go with girls who do, thank you very
much, and is overall not that bad of a guy. Contrast that with the likes
of a Han Solo, and well, heh heh…
And ‘bad boys’ who ride
motorcycles and have Intriguing Pasts will nearly always win the heart
of the heroine over the good boy best friend sorts who…uh… don’t ride
motorcycles and don’t have Intriguing Pasts.
In short, by
turning the Good Guy into a list of is-nots and do-nots, we risk making
“Perfect is boring” a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But it needn’t be so.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not recommending you go and write characters
that don’t have flaws, or trying to flame people that dispense the
priceless writing wisdom that things generally don’t go well if you
try. I merely want to say that ‘good’ can be so much more than ‘not
bad’, and give a shout-out to some of my favorite fictional friends.
In his essay “A Piece of White Chalk”, G.K. Chesteron says,
And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious
morality, of Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the
chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue
is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is
a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell…”
Possible debates about color theory aside, I couldn’t put it better.
So, here, in no particular order, are but a few characters I think display that virtue can be a joyful, exciting thing:
- Bishop Myriel from Les Miserables.
In the eighth grade I was stubborn enough to attempt reading the
unabridged version of Les Mis, because I ‘didn’t believe in butchering
works of art.’ Confession time: I didn’t make it. But, before I threw
in the towel, I did read the extensive character sketch of the Bishop of
D- -, and what a character he was. Even before his famous deed with the
silver - more on that in a minute - Hugo brought him to life with his
almost quirky focus on charity, self-denial, and truth. Many times the
town ladies thought he ought to have a new…something or other, I think a
cushioned altar type thing…and raised the money to do so, only to have
him accept it yet promptly give all the funds to the poor. Once he
went up on a mountain to preach to thieves, despite much urging not to
do so because of the danger it would pose, and came down with a chest of
Enter Jean Valjean, a recently released
convict convict who looked like, well, a recently released convict. The
innkeeper and all of the townspeople refused him dinner and lodging, but
the bishop gave him both free of charge. And when Jean Valjean tried to
make off with the Myriel’s silverware in the middle of the night, the
bishop not only told the police that the silver was a gift but also
insisted he take the candle sticks as well. Whoa. This was the
turning point in Jean Valjean’s life, and Christian nonfiction author
Philip Yancey says on his website, “Frankly, I first truly understood
grace while reading the great novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.”
- Samwise Gamgee from The Lord Of The Rings.
Gardener, optimist, lover of fireworks, and one of the most loyal
friends in fantasy. From Frodo’s flight from the Shire to the fires of
Mount Doom, Sam was right there, even if Frodo thought he didn’t want
him to be. He had a hobbit’s humility and the courage to stand
unconditionally on the side of the good guys. The ring wouldn’t have
made it to Mordor without Frodo, but “Frodo wouldn’t have got far
- Hermione Granger from Harry Potter.
Armed with at least half a dozen books, Hermione fought tirelessly to
right the wrongs in the wizarding world, whether by starting a society
on behalf of house- elf rights or traipsing all over on a horcrux hunt
to help take down the darkest wizard of all time.
- Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia.
Lucy looked into a wardrobe and found a world. So, naturally, her
siblings assumed she was taking a game too far. But Lucy was always the
girl who knew what she saw. She knew Narnia was real and that Mr. Tumnus
was good and that the white witch was bad. And in Prince Caspian she
knew she saw Aslan, even though the others are skeptical. Her title was
“Queen Lucy the Valiant.”
-Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird.
Though he is neither the most spirited nor the most dynamic character
in the novel, his quiet and dignified yet unshakable pursuit of truth
and morality pervades it. In fact, this is one of the things Scout and
Jem learn about him: despite not playing football or emulating his
fellow fathers in similar pursuits, he was no dud.
I could go on and
on, but that pretty much exhausts my list of favorite characters that
people would recognize or not shun me for. (Anyone other Winnie the
Pooh fanatics out there?), and this post is getting long as it is.
let us attempt to walk in the footsteps of these famous works, and tell
the world that virtuous characters are a joy. Let us show that this
goodness we speak of is a quality, a state of having rather than not having. Let the cry ring out that perfect isn't -necessarily- boring!
Feel free to bring up your favorite virtuous characters in the comments!
- Miri Williams