Perfect characters are boring and tiresome and make for boring and tiresome stories. The worst are the characters conceived as the author’s fantasy of their ‘perfect’ self. It’s a trap many fall into on the quest to produce a first novel – the furtive but futile attempt to weave a credible story around a ‘me as I wish I could be’ character. A few writers manage to avoid this phase altogether, some go through it as a learning experience but many end up mired in the endless effort to showcase themselves as they want the world to see them. The ‘perfect me’ character pops up in workshops, critique groups and self published books. Worst of all, it was clearly evident in my first novel.
What defines the ‘me as I wish I could be’ trap is when the protagonist skates through the story without making any poor choices or bad decisions. All the adverse events that happen are plot points, not opportunities for character development. The character remains unchanged and unscathed, never responsible for their actions because all the bad stuff is fortuitous. And, of course, the ‘me as I wish I could be’ character never, ever suffers from self inflicted wounds. Even when tragic events occur, the character bravely soldiers through with their internal angst and martyrdom spotlighted as substitutes for conflict. Their emotions are appropriately felt, and everyone but the villain loves them. They are essentially flawless with only a few faux faults thrown in as enduring personality quirks.
A tell-tale sign of the ‘me as I wish I could be’ novel is a specific and abrupt change in point of view with the sole purpose of conveying something wonderful about the ‘me’ character.
Leslie laughed delightedly, unaware that Don was staring at her twinkling blue eyes, and her long mane of golden blonde hair, wondering why a woman like her didn’t have a date that night.
Most are written in the third person because if the first person perspective was used the peripheral characters wouldn’t be able to express all their glowing impressions of the protagonist. The third person POV conveniently allows the narrator to jump quickly back to the ‘perfect me’ character after secondary players reveal their love or admiration or jealousy. For the reader though, it’s like getting stuck talking to the conversation hog at a party; the bonehead who can’t allow the topic to drift too far beyond their universe, at every possible tangent reeling the focus back to their impressions or experiences.
The ‘perfect me’ story reveals itself in the settings, too. Fabulous houses that don’t have to be paid for, great jobs that require little or no work, beautiful clothes magically gifted to them, and wonderful, caring friends effortlessly acquired, and just as easily replaced when necessary.
Tom did all the heavy lifting while his co-workers loafed around. It was great for his weight training, and when they delivered the afternoon route of beer to the topless bars, he became popular with all the dancers which made him the envy of his friends.
As writers we’re all prone to a bit of narcissistic behavior. Why else would we think anyone gives a hoot about the story we want to tell? But, while personal experience can be a powerful tool, the writer should allow their slant on themselves to be wholly human, not a cleansed version of how we secretly wish everyone viewed us. The beautifully coiffed, well proportioned, appropriately behaved central character who sails through the story without ever making a mistake is a shallow and superficial companion for the reader. It’s the equivalent of getting stuck with that boneheaded drone at a party.