Polly Perfect … Perfectly Boring?

Let’s talk characters today. More to the point, let’s talk about characters with serious personality flaws. The following text is an excerpt from a review of Condemned on BarnesandNoble.com:

“I also have a problem with the heroine making stupid choices especially when it drives apart her marriage. It reminds me of those insipid romance stories with all the simpering angst when you know they are going to end up together. I still think Kim made the wrong choice because she did not consider her husband nor her children. I understand about miracles however I don’t think we should take such HUGE risks and rely on miracles to see us through–rather self-centered.”  

Without giving away the plot to those who haven’t read Condemned, the main character (Kimberly Schaefer) does a series of things which end up driving a wedge between her husband and her. And then, in their worst moment, she does something of such extraordinary stupidity, selfishness, and recklessness that even some of my beta readers were messaging me with “WTF?!?!?!” Kim knows what she is doing is reckless and dangerous. She knows it’s stupid. Probably in the back of her mind, she even knows it’s excruciatingly selfish. 

This particular reader’s angst with the story – Kim’s reckless, selfish, stupid decisions and how she made them despite the risk to her life and her marriage and without considering her husband and children – is in fact a reaction to the most important facet of Kim’s personality. Recklessness is an intrinsic part of her personality – a flaw in so many ways; in others, an indication of her marvelous, unwonted fearlessness.

I wrote Kimberly’s character without fear myself, crafting her with rough edges and a stubborn streak. I presented her to the reading world with a lot trepidation about her reception. My own daughter, in fact, said “That Kimberly – I just wanted to smack her upside the head!” Yes! that is EXACTLY the reaction I was aiming for as a writer: creating a character that inspired emotion but not necessarily the emotions readers were expecting.

Let’s discuss:

As readers, what’s your take on a flawed main character – one, say, who does stupid things, makes stupid choices, and flamebroils her own life? Do you prefer Polly Perfect, who always does the right thing, knows the right thing, says the right thing? Or Mary-in-the-Middle, who may misspeak or misstep but not too tragically? Do the Commando Kimberlys, who charge ahead without thought or regard, ruin a story for you or make the facets of the character more believable?

Author’s Note: Please don’t take this post as arguing with a review. This is a discussion of readers’ reactions to flawed characters, and the review was used as an example of that reaction. This is not at all a discourse on whether or not the reviewer was mistaken or petty; I value all feedback, even those voicing negative opinions. 

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10 thoughts on “Polly Perfect … Perfectly Boring?

  1. Lauralynn Elliott says:

    Libby Fox, the main character in a trilogy I wrote, does some incredibly stupid, reckless things. She puts herself in danger trying to do something good. But isn’t that what people do? Crazy things sometimes? Books would be pretty boring if the characters were perfect, always doing the right thing. I like flawed characters.

  2. Zen says:

    Personally I would take your Mary-in-the-Middle and Commando Kimberly over Polly Perfect any day, as long as the former two aren’t overdone. There’s nothing more annoying than a character who can never do wrong.

    • Sharon says:

      that makes me insane, too, completely perfect characters. It is the one gripe I have with Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series – Richard just always seems to know the right things, see the right things, have the right things, and say and do the right things. No one’es that perfect! (and if he is, I want him!)

  3. Winter says:

    Kimberly’s character; I had that exact same reaction as your daughter. I wanted to slap her; shake her, and fear for her. These are the types of characters that have me reading until three in the morning on a Sunday night; when someone starts to be reckless that is when you cannot put down the book. If characters did not take that that plunge you will be going through the motions. When you read through and felt something really stupid with a character you know you have made a bond.

    • Sharon says:

      It’s kind of like watching Bridget Jones’ Diary – you know it’s going to be an incredibly stupid moment and you almost can’t bear to watch it. LOL

  4. gabrielablandy says:

    I think flawed characters can be extremely powerful. They are unpredictable, they certainly stick in your mind – and often, using a self-destructive hero, can be a great way to write a happy ending that no one expected. I’m reading Love Medicine at the moment by Louise Erdrich. On the jacket Toni Morrison writes: the beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being completely devastated by its power. The power comes from its chipped, scarred, badly flawed cast. They bare all, do what you least want them to do, but you love them all the more. No sickly sweet for me! Give me flawed any day of the week. Great post!

    • Sharon says:

      I love it when a flawed character finds redemption and change. Sometimes I think too many authors are too afraid of reader reactions to write a character that isn’t necessarily likable but who triumphs in spite of recklessness and selfishness. Thanks for commenting!

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