Thursday, November 17, 2011

Perfect Characters

I finished the book I was reading on the tube the other day, and looked through the list of back-up books I have on my e-reader. These are mostly things like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, books that I feel I may read one day if I have nothing else to do, though sometimes staring at a blank wall seems easier than clicking on War and Peace.

This particular day, I chose The (unabridged) Count of Monte Cristo in French. I’ve been reading this book for approximately five and a half years, and I am nearly halfway through. I read an abridged English version in high school, and really liked it, but got confused following all the different names and thought it might be less confusing in unabridged form. Then I found a French copy in the library and thought, what the heck, let’s go all the way and read it unabridged and in its original French. I am determined to finish it some time in the next decade.

This book comes in four volumes, by the way, and has a number of verbs that I’m not quite sure of. (HA! I’ve just realised that my e-reader has a French dictionary in it, that always comes up when I touch the screen wrong in an English book.  WHY did I not think of this BEFORE?)

Anyway, I’m currently at a bit where one of the characters is showing the Count of Monte Cristo around his house, and the Count knows everything about everything. This, in my opinion, is plainly impossible. The Count (for those who have not read the book or seen the movie) spent many years in a prison and then a few years on the outside and then took off on his mission as an Angel of Revenge. True, he had a very smart next-door prisoner who taught him many things, but there are only so many things you can teach through a small hole in a cell wall. In-depth knowledge of every painter who ever lived, and the ability to identify their paintings on sight, is not one of these things.

Please correct me if the Count ever spent several years completing a doctorate in art history at the Sorbonne.

On the other hand, perhaps the Count is actually a robot from the future with Wikipedia downloaded into his head.

The Count has elements of the Perfect Character. He knows all, he has an endless supply of money and he is Always Exactly On Time. Perfect Characters are difficult, because they’re not believable. I think the Count works (just – ignore my Wikipedia pokes) because, by this point in the story, he has become the mysterious outsider (so you no longer need to identify with him) and the reader is invested enough in the story to keep reading. There’s something kind of awesome about perfection, and if you hit it just at that line between unbelievable and okay-I-guess-that’s-possible-maybe you get an irresistible character.

Perfection is attractive when you’re writing a character. You want them to be the best they can be, so you keep adding character traits and skills and killer dress sense, but you end up with a flat, boring character who can do no wrong and carry no plot. Character flaws and weaknesses build tension, and if your character hasn’t got any you can’t move forward. People don’t tend to identify with perfect characters, either. Your perfect character just becomes annoying.

Superman has Kryptonite and a secret identity to hide. The Count of Monte Cristo has his need for revenge (and a secret identity to hide). For those of you still powering forward on NaNoWriMo, do you have any perfect characters you need to bring down a notch or four? Flawed characters make for fun writing.

Good luck everyone!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great post! I LOVE the movie of this book, but never read it. I think there may have been way more detail and scenes in the book than in the movie (though isn't that usually the case?), but what you are saying totally makes sense. no way he could come out knowing everything about everything the way he does. good observation. and yes, perfect characters are not fun and boring and I don't want to read about one, cause damn it NOBODY IS PERFECT!!!! (Which totally contradicts the other famous expression, practice makes perfect...)

    Anyway, it's the character's flaws that make them interesting. Like someone who tries to act perfect and thinks they're perfect but is crumbling to pieces behind closed doors? Much more interesting and intense because you are just waiting for that person to EXPLODE and then watch how he/she tries to put the pieces of their life back together.

    sorry for the deleted comment. i had way too many typos. lol (Prob still do. it's late and i'm tired.)

  3. Thank you! Yes, the book goes into lots and lots of detail, as old epics tend to do. I was reading a dinner party scene for about a year, I think (this being my back-up book), and finally moved past that and into the show-people-round-the-house scene, which set me off on the he-knows-tooo-much thing.

    When I first started writing I tended to give my characters too many good qualities and abilities, and they could get out of absolutely any situation. Way too boring.

    I love seeing characters who seem perfect on the outside (though knowing everything about obscure artwork seems like going a bit too far) but, like you say, are about to explode. I guess the key is showing the dichotomy - everyone can relate to trying to act one way when you're feeling the opposite, but very few people can relate to absolute perfection.

    Hmm, just thinking, if you can't see into their heads, perfect characters tends to be evil e.g. perfect cheerleaders and I guess the Count of Monte Cristo when he starts on his revenge spree (the first part of the book is told from his point of view, but then it changes to the point of view of other random people).


what do you think?