Five Questions to Ask When Your Characters Are Too Good To Be True

by Catherine Matthews

It happens every day at every literary agency. A promising proposal comes in, agents start to read, and after a chapter or two there’s a huge problem staring them in the face. That problem has a name—the name of a main character who seems to have no problems of his or her own. It’s understandable. You’ve plotted and planned and written and revised. You’ve spent hundreds of pages with this character and thousands of hours thinking about them. By this point, they’re the coolest people you know (it’s okay, this secret will stay between you and us) and the thought of diminishing them in any way is genuinely upsetting. Why shouldn’t they be the smartest, the funniest, the sexiest, the most “together”—they’re the main character!

The paradox is that this is exactly why your main character can’t have everything. They need a spark, a reason for readers to root for them. A perfect character is a flat character, and no one relates to a flat character. Flaws give your characters dimensionality, makes them feel like real people instead of puppets moving mindlessly thoroughly the plot. Dimensionality transforms the perfect character into a likeable one. It adds complexity to darker characters by giving them motivations, and complexity is exactly what your reader hopes to find when they dig in to your story.

Think back to the books that you fell in love with at the very beginning of your journey to becoming an author. Think of the characters that inspired you, that made you laugh and cringe and cry as they stumbled their way to becoming better people. Their journeys weren’t smooth, their personalities needed polishing, and you loved them for it. Go on, think back…and while you’re doing that, I’ll share the moment that I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables.

It was Anne’s first day at her new school, and the popular Gilbert Blythe (whom she would go on to marry, so way to play the romance long game, L.M. Montgomery) called her “Carrots.” Anne was over-sensitive about her red hair and she had a temper, both flaws she was well aware of. That knowledge didn’t stop her from turning around and hitting Gilbert right over the head with her school slate, breaking it, before announcing that she was done with school and walking right out of there.

I loved Anne for her vulnerability and her impulsivity and, frankly, her ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach to confronting bullies. That’s the kind of moment you want for your readers. That’s the kind of connection you need your characters to inspire. So go ahead, make them messy. Put these questions to yourself and then answer in just a few paragraphs.

  1. What is your character most afraid to fail at? Why?
  2. What’s the most terrible thing that’s ever happened to your character and how did that event change them?
  3. What are three things your character wishes they could change about themselves?
  4. If your character could exchange places with a celebrity who they thought had the “perfect” life, who would they choose and why? How is that life different from their own?
  5. If your character could have any superpower, which would they choose and what would they use it for? Be specific.

Let your characters show their vulnerabilities to the people who chose your story because something about it promised to connect with them. When you follow through on that promise, your readers will fall just as hard for your main characters as you have.

Catherine is an assistant at Holloway Literary.