A Perfect Grasp of Storytelling

I don’t know who started the whole “characters need flaws” concept of writing, but whoever it was did a disservice to the writing industry. People keep saying that perfect characters are boring, but the way I see it, there are no perfect characters, only writers with an imperfect grasp of storytelling.

A story begins when the normal world becomes unbalanced. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the normal world of Colorado became unbalanced when a deadly disease decimated the population. In More Deaths Than One, the normal world of the main character became unbalanced when he found out the mother he buried twenty years before is dead again. In Daughter Am I, the world of the main character became unbalanced when she learned that the grandparents she’d been told had died before she was born had just now been murdered. In Light Bringer, the world becomes unbalanced in a variety of ways, each POV character experiences his or her imbalance, and the nearing of an unknown planet literally unbalances the earth.

A story continues with the characters’ efforts to restore the balance. These efforts result in a worsening of the balance, either in a ripple effect of actions, such as when Jeremy King decided to do anything he could to leave Colorado in A Spark or Heavenly Fire or when everything the character learns deepens the mystery, such as Bob Stark’s search for himself in More Deaths Than One.

A story ends when the balance is restored, a new balance is attained, or the world remains out of kilter. My books all fall in the middle category — things never go back to where they were, but the characters and their world do establish a new balance.

Without this unbalance, there is no story, and within this unbalance, characters change.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about perfect character vs. imperfect understanding of storytelling.

If you create a perfect character — a gorgeous woman with a stunning figure, perfect hair, smart, successful, athletic, kind, talented, knows how to do everything, has no addictions — that is merely the beginning. It is what authors do with such a flawless character that shows their writing skills. For example, if the character always remains the same perfect character in balance with her world, it is not the character’s fault that her perfection is boring. It is the writer’s fault for not unbalancing the character’s world.

A gorgeous, intelligent woman who can do anything is only spectacular in the presence of lesser beings. What happens if she is thrown into a world of people exactly like her? What would she do to preserve her self-image of being extraordinary when all of a sudden she is ordinary? How would she reestablish the balance in her world? For example, a high school cheerleader/student body president/valedictorian goes to an ivy league university and discovers she is just one of many such achievers. Or a stunning and talented young woman enters a beauty pageant, expecting to win the crown and scholarship and a boost to her career, and finds out that she isn’t anything special. Or a perfect human being ends up in a robotic world of perfection. How would she prove that her perfection was natural, that she was a human and not a robot?

Sounds to me as if in the write hands, such a flawless character would be . . . perfect.

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60 Responses to “A Perfect Grasp of Storytelling”

  1. mickeyhoffman Says:

    Your concept, “A gorgeous, intelligent woman who can do anything is only spectacular in the presence of lesser beings. What happens if she is thrown into a world of people exactly like her?” interests me.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    The Doc Savage pulp stories basically had Doc as the man of bronze who is both physically and intellectually superior to other men. Interestingly, he had a relative, Patricia Savage who was a woman of bronze and physically and intellectually superior to other women. I think their only weakness was the fear of being alone.

    I agree that something has to go wrong or be wrong for you to have a story.

  3. bottledworder Says:

    I loved what you said and the way you said it. That was perfect. Now having said that, I do have a response. Whether you say characters need flaws in a story or whether you say an unbalanced world restored to balance makes a story, aren’t you just *describing* two different ways that stories can be told? I mean flawed characters going through an otherwise balanced world could make a story just as a perfect character going through an unbalanced world could make a story or there could be a million other ways in which a story could happen, couldn’t it?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Something has to happen to start a story. If nothing happens, there is no story. It’s that simple. But yes, there are as many ways to create a story as there are writers.

  4. rami ungar the writer Says:

    While I do agree that characters tend to have their worlds unbalanced and that brings changes, I think some of the “perfect” characters you described above sound very flawed or baggage-laden; for example the perfect student and the beauty queen sound like they’ve never experienced real hardship or trials in their life, meaning they’ve never had a real chance to build some character, which means they are imperfect characters. Also, changing does not mean the characters will become perfect; instead they’ll just become better. After all, they may be characters in stories, but these characters are human beings, and humans are imperfect by nature. That’s why imperfect characters are the ones most often used in stories. I certainly enjoy using them.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      My point basically is that there are no perfect characters for the very reason you say. This blog was written to counter the current belief that writers need to give their characters flaws. Flaws happen even in the most perfect characters. It is what a writer does with his or her characters that matter.

      • rami ungar the writer Says:

        true. it’s not what flaws the character has, it’s what the character does and how the character changes that’s important.

      • rami ungar the writer Says:

        actually now that i think about it, there was a story i read a while back, a book series where the character was brilliant but had an inferiority complex. the author made him seem so dull though, never changing or thinking about himself. it just annoyed the heck out of me and i stopped reading.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Kind of proves the point about an imperfect grasp of storytelling. If the author had a better grasp of storytelling he or she would have not annoyed the heck out of you but would have kept your interest. (A character with an inferiority complex who never changes his self-concept would be utterly dull.)

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            funny, his other series was really good. i felt really sad that it had to end, because the twists and turns kept shocking, confounding, and intriguing me the more I read.

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            Since apparently he did have a good grasp of storytelling, maybe he was trying for an effect that fell flat? Or maybe trying for a different demographic?

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            i’m not sure; i haven’t read any interviews with the guy. all i know is, his 9-volume vampire series was much better than his 20-volume detective series, and the differences are amazing.

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            That makes sense — a change of genre would change a writer’s style. I used to really like a particular science fiction writer — I thought she was brilliant — and now she writes mediocre mysteries.

          • rami ungar the writer Says:

            such a waste of talent. makes me glad anne rice switched back to writing regular horror instead of proselytizing for Christianity.

  5. unwindingthoughts Says:

    Awesome, Awesome, Awesome…what a great point. Thank you so much for the different perspective.

  6. vanbraman Says:

    I like the final line of your post: “Sounds to me as if in the write hands, such a flawless character would be . . . perfect.”
    A nice play on words and so true. You can have great characters, but if you don’t tell a story they don’t come to life. And, who wants to read about lifeless characters?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you. I liked the wordplay, too. As for characters — yes, it’s all about making them come to life. So often when writers purposely give their characters flaws, they characters turn out to be lifeless caricatures. I wanted to offer a different perspective.

  7. paulworthingtonjr Says:

    I like this post. I believe characters should have flaws, and the major ones, just like in the real world, should be uncovered a little at a time. Unlike so many stories written today where the character flaws are forced down our throats. Great observation and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  8. Julia Koslowsky Says:

    Thank you for this. You’ve changed my perspective on “perfect” and “imperfect” characters, particularly my own :) now I have an idea of how to get my story to flow and still make my character flawed, but not boring or overly-flawed.

  9. krissnp Says:

    Fairy tale books people out grow fast.

  10. Beep Club Says:

    I suppose storytelling is more than an art form than scientific law, which the writing industry can’t seem to grasp. But I suppose you could be right that a ‘perfect’ character (which many people call a ‘Mary Sue’) could work best depending on her surroundings.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Quite frankly, I don’t think there are any perfect characters, which is why I dislike the whole “flawed character” aspect of writing — a character who is real will automatically have flaws. Authors don’t have to artificially attach flaws to the character. They only have to make the character real.

  11. wandt Says:

    Nice thought,
    If man, who is perfect and extraordinary in his place, is placed in where everybody is perfect and extraordinary, he is no longer extraordinary.
    You can’t call something white if there is no black.
    Do I get you?

  12. cartoonmick Says:

    I would love to be a writer / author, and I’m envious of those who succeed at it.

    My creative world is limited to cartooning, which I enjoy very much (see my blog), but this is a bit restricted when compared to the written word in creating a large story..

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Hmmm. Interesting. I would have thought cartooning, especially graphic novel, would be less restrictive when creating a large story since you can tell the story with both words and pictures. I envy people who can draw. I am tone deaf when it comes to drawing and art.

  13. lythyDawn Says:

    Very interesting and a good point. I love when people describe stuff I’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to quite put into words. It gives another dimension to the way I’m telling/going to tell my own stories. Hurray!

  14. beasleygreen Says:

    I like the idea of an unbalanced person negotiating a balanced world and unbalancing that world with his lack of mental equilibrium, thus unbalancing the worlds of the other relatively balanced people in that world, yet not knowing it; until of course the penultimate act when he his character arc brings him to the threshold of this realisation, the impact of which sends him crazy – this being the trigger required to jolt him into balance, or just go on a big killing spree, it really depends on the genre… Someone once told me about an old French (I think) fairytale about a perfect princess who had a perfect prince and lived in a perfect kingdom. One morning her subjects’ world as shattered when they find out the princess had killed herself. She left a letter behind saying that she could no longer go on because she was bored shitless… I really like your post by the way ;-)

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      And I like your comment. What a great story your idea would make!

      The fairy tale is a good example of the use of a perfect character. You can just see the whole perfect kingdom crumbling after the loss of their kingpin. (Princesspin?)

  15. preestineart Says:

    very nice I have never looked at story writing this way

  16. richardlevesqueauthor Says:

    Good points, although I think Aristotle would probably disagree with you on the need for character flaws. I don’t expect he’s blogging much, though. I think the example you used about the perfect woman surrounded by other perfect women is a good one and would work well. The problem is that in most writers’ hands, the “perfect” character doesn’t get such an interesting challenge.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      If, as you say, that in most writers’ hands, the “perfect” character doesn’t get such an interesting challenge, you prove my point that there are no perfect characters, only imperfect storytellers. And adding flaws to such characters in the hands of such writers only makes things worse.

      I’ll let you know if Aristotle leaves a comment. :)

  17. susielindau Says:

    You make such a great point! I am rewriting my first book and am trying to keep all of this in mind. My main character is flawed, but after reading your article, I just got an idea to take it one step further! Thanks for that!
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  18. thehonestlifeblog Says:

    Amazing post! I wish more people would realize this. Maybe then books, movies, and even music would possibly have more originality instead of the same stuff over and over. Definitely going to be following you! Great article!

    http://thehonestlifeblog.wordpress.com/

  19. geminye Says:

    I agree that many writers will add a character flaw merely for the purposes of fulfilling some aspect of a writing “forumula.” If the flaw doesn’t arise from the character themselves, as you pointed out, then they are artificial and are only a flat plot device.

    But, when a character flaw arises naturally from the character themselves, the flaw can add an additional layer or texture to the story. As the stakes rise and the character are forced to make a decision or take an action, the character flaw works against them, often resulting in failure, further raising the stakes.

    If you have a character that does not change or grow, then your story is completely plot driven (i.e., most Hollywood, carbon copy films) and the reader will feel the story is flat. But, if you have well-rounded characters that feel and grow, then, as you said, they will inherently have flaws they must work through in order to reach a resolution of character and story.

    Great post! Thank you!

  20. OneWeekToCrazy Says:

    That’s very very true…great article! There are so many ways to make a character interesting…

    Cheers,
    Courtney Hosny

  21. Spanghews Says:

    I’m not sure I agree. A “perfect” character will be flawed and its flaws will hence be its seeming perfection or strive for perfection. Also, a “perfect” character is a poor and ill-slip of an author’s hand; for nothing is perfection and perfection doesn’t exist, and creating a “perfect” character is a vain and rather weak-willed attempt (in my eyes, this is) to form something irrefutable that it loses its credibility. I am one who loves a good old flawed character. Someone who has been written as perfect is a glorified representation of a human’s intrinsic need to satisfy an absolute, lionised exquisiteness. Is it not, therefore, more talented of an author to write a character so bereft of sublimity and so saturated in flaws, that we neglect the latter and adore them wholeheartedly for whatever they may be? For the actions they take? Sympathy is a main weapon authors can use to distort faults, or impose perfection in a very distorted way. It’s all a matter of personal preference, at the end of the day!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      My point is that there are no perfect characters, only imperfect writers. A so-called perfect character would have inherent flaws, and if the character remains constantly perfect and boring, then the writer hasn’t done his or her job. Any character can be brought to life under a masterful hand.

      • Spanghews Says:

        I agree wholeheartedly. A character, despite seeming alive and breathing; making their own decisions throughout a narrative, is only superficially a person of their own free will. It’s odd, to think an author can create a person to seem so tangible and yet to be entirely governed by someone else!

      • Spanghews Says:

        I completely agree. It is far more talented of a writer to create a character saturated in flaws, yet we are able to offer them sympathy and somehow, beneath such imperfections we can even perceive a shadow of ourselves! (I may have already replied, but my little netbook is struggling on the brink of a breakdown!!)

  22. groovyscone Says:

    That was a fascinating article, I’m an aspiring writer myself, and would appreciate any feedback, kindly check out my blog,

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      If you really want feedback, I’d suggest reading books about writing to learn the basics of writing and storytelling in general and dialogue specifically. Too many adverbs and adjectives spoil the story, and dialogue written phonetically to show an accent is hard to follow.

  23. L. Palmer Says:

    It’s easy to compartmentalize plot and character as separate entities/elements. I think your point brings all of these together in a unified way, which will make it more natural than “the woman was an absolute wreck and became perfect”

  24. Yulia Says:

    yeah yeah … agree… interesting character will make the story become more interesting and well.. what I think kids will like it more… both my boys love story telling, they even started to make it them selves :) Nice post, thank you for sharing.

  25. backpackerina Says:

    LOVE the ending! Enough said.

  26. amaya ellman Says:

    Unusual post, Bertram. But, you raise interesting questions and it has prompted emotion in me.
    Whether I agree is another matter.
    I’m confused why you think flaws in a character can lead to boredom. Have you ever read Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh?
    As for the concept of a perfect, beautiful woman being dropped into a pool of “lesser beings” and questioning how to survive the ordinariness of it all – that translated to me as the fear and uncertainty of a person with low self esteem trying to make sense of a world that has too readily accepted its own flaws.
    For me, characters with believable flaws are real; characters without any are fake.

    A passionately flawed writer.

  27. shadowoperator Says:

    Though I haven’t read the books you are drawing your examples from, I don’t think that’s necessary in order to understand your excellent essay. Good job! I found it very clear and well-written, not something one can always assume one will find around. And I can see how it applies both to traditional comedy and traditional tragedy: in both cases, there’s a beginning situation, a development of some sort which unbalances things, and finally something or someone who comes along and restores order. I really like the way you write (Kathy Bertone recommended you to me, and I’m very glad she did).

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you! (And thank you, Kathy.) Your application of balance to traditionl comedy and tragedy is spot-on. Even in tragedy the balance would be restored, wouldn’t it? Just not to the benefit of the protagonist perhaps.


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