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Character growth and "perfection"

I read a very highly acclaimed YA book yesterday, and it left me thinking--but sadly, not for the reasons I like a book to leave me thinking. It was well written, and well-paced, with a fascinating world... but it left me feeling a little hollow. Particularly in regards to the romance, which is something that's been especially praised in this book. If the book hadn't been so praised, I would just shrug and move on without another thought. But since it was, I found myself wanting to figure out why it didn't work for me as well as it had many other people.

There were a few minor details of plausibility and that sort of thing, but those are easy to dismiss if the book is otherwise totally engaging. And, in fact, I was totally engaged by the book until about halfway through, when there was this shift I felt but didn't stop to analyze at the time. And while there was plenty of spark in the romance, I was never engaged enough in it to really *squee*.

It was thinking about the romance that I started to figure it out. I've seen people remark that the love interest was what made the story for them, because they loved him so much. So I asked myself, did I feel that way about him? Nope. Because I didn't really believe he was real. Thinking about it, the character was about as close to perfect as a person could get. He does only one thing wrong in the main character's eyes throughout the book, which once it's explained is perfectly justifiable and it's hard to imagine how he could have done anything differently. And he has kind of a weak moment at the very end, but given his circumstances, again, perfectly understandable and he overcomes it quickly. He never made a true mistake and had to try to make up for it, or had to overcome any element of his personality in order to face the outer challenges of the story, or anything like that.

If I'm going to fall in love with a character, or get completely invested in that character as a love interest, I've got to feel that s/he's real. And perfection isn't real--or very interesting--to me. It's too... easy. I much prefer a romance where both partners have their flaws, and don't always know the exact right thing to say or do at any given time, but they care enough to keep trying anyway.

Once I figured that out, I realized my overall problem with the story was similar. I was totally engaged by the main character for the first half of the book because she had two major issues she was struggling with, parts of her personality that she didn't like and/or didn't know how to deal with.

And then, just before the halfway point, she deals with one of those issues. And just after the halfway point, she finds a way to accept the other. And suddenly we have a character who is reasonably happy with who she is, and goes through the second half of the story just being herself and getting through stuff because she knows how to get through stuff. There were plenty of external problems, but the internal struggle was pretty much gone. And with it went an important part of my stake in the story.

So I'm wondering--how do you all feel about this sort of thing? Do you find near-perfect characters intriguing or unreal? Do characters's internal issues (or lack thereof) affect your enjoyment of their external struggles?

Because I am kind of wondering just how weird I am. ;)


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 16th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
I know what book this is and I agree with you. We must chat about this sometime.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
I am so glad to know I am not the only person who noticed these things. I mean, I still enjoyed the book. It just wasn't 'wow, amazing, squee!' like I was hoping based on others' reactions.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
Yep, exactly how I felt.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
Well, I can guess what book you mean, and I'm somebody who did love the love interest. I've since had a few people protest that he was too perfect and too sensitive-male, which has got me thinking, okay, what was it about this book and character for ME? I was actually bored in the first part of the book; I felt like nothing was happening and the world-building too dense. I never really loved the MC.

But I actually think--well, in my case, anyway--that there were certain things about Love Interest Boy that reminded me of my own characters, and once I have gotten THAT in my head, I stop seeing quite what the author actually wrote, and I start pulling some of that character into my own headspace and making them just a little bit what I want to be. I really couldn't even tell you if LIB had flaws--in my head he does, but I'm starting to think the LIB in my head is kinda different than the book one.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've had that happen before--where I start projecting things onto a character that may not actually be in the story, because of my own personal associations. But hey, if it made the book more enjoyable for you, why not? :D
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
Also would add--I have no issue with male characters being sensitive. Sensitive is good! What bugged me when I thought back over the book was the fact that he *always* did and said the right thing (or at least, the closest to right of the available options).
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I guess it's not the perfectionism that bothers me. I dealt with this with the Olivia and Alfred book...originally critiquers said Alfred was too perfect. Which surprised me because I know Alfred and he damn sure isn't perfect, but when I looked at the book, I saw they were right. He did come OFF pretty perfect, but that's because he is just meeting Olivia and he likes her and he's not going to show his flaws right away when he wants her to like him. I thought that was realistic, I mean, it can take me months to see flaws in a boy or a new best friend when everything's clicking.

I will say, though, that I did go back and force Alfred to reveal more of his flaws and I do think the book is better FOR it. But it also not something I necessarily MIND in a book... It does depend on the context of the story, though. It was kind of hard to reveal Alfred's flaws initially because if you point OUT the flaws in a "falling in love warm fuzzies" context, it will seem like the flaw is foreshadowing doom. So I had to figure out a way to show another side of him without really screwing up the blossoming love. If that makes sense.
Jan. 16th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I can see a character acting "perfect" in the context of trying to make a good impression, and that would make total sense. Though I still think they'd make the occasional mistakes (as much as we can try to be perfect, we're not).

I really like seeing a character's flaws and how they're dealing with them--it actually makes me like a character more, to know they're willing to put in the effort to try to do right despite their flaws (rather than doing right because that's just what they'd do), and to deal with any mistakes they make (rather than not making any in the first place). In a way, a character who has flaws but deals with them is *more* likable to me than a character who doesn't have flaws, because there's an intent there to be "good", a choice that's made, rather than it seeming like "well, I couldn't imagine doing things any other way." Unless a flaw is specifically something that would be really bad in a relationship (like, I don't know, a callous disregard for others' feelings?) I don't think knowing that a character isn't perfect would affect my belief that they could have a good relationship with another character. :)

Actually, I've found that making a character too "good" can make people suspicious! I have a character who I intended to become a love interest later on, who was very friendly and cheerful and helpful etc. to the main character. And most of the people reading that story speculated that it was all a front for evil intentions. Heh. So in the most recent draft he's kind of grouchy and impatient, which I hope solves that problem.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
I tend to be okay with 'perfect' or 'near-perfect' characters if they are secondary--or if the story makes it so that that's their flaw, they are too perfect and thus no likes them. Let's face it--who in real life really liked the perfect attendance, perfect grades, perfect good looks girl in school? What guy wants to hang around with a guy who charms everyone, gets all the girls, brings home the championship trophy on his own and is constantly praised?

as MC's I run. If the book is what I think it is you're talking about I originally enjoyed it, but much of that enjoyment was based on just how utterly ridiculous the entire romance was. I can't imagine a more blank character base. And the male I liked in the story was probably the most damaged in the cast (related to the male lead) and I loved him for it.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if we're talking about the same book, because I can't think of any male characters in this one who were particularly damanged... other than the really unpleasant ones (and none of them got much in the way of development). Now I'm wondering what book you're talking about! Heh.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
heh XD a lesson in reading a person's mind! though it could also be that I only started reading YA's in any large quantity in the last 7 months so my base of reference is as large as it should be.

well this'll be simple--does your book have the main male lead with his family of two brothers and two sisters? the guy i liked was one his brothers.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
Nope, the male lead (I'm not even sure I'd call him a lead, but he was the main character's romantic interest and the most important male character) had no sisters.

Actually, I'm glad to know that my description of my issues with the book was vague enough that people could mistake it for books other than the one I was talking about! :)
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
ah I'm glad then! its funny how when you leave out the names and plot elements two radically different books from two different genres even can sound similiar.

one of the games my friends and I play when we're all together and its those long hours in line for Otakon is 'guess the book'. one time my friend was describing a self-help book, but I swear it sounded just like a horror/thriller book. this game is especially fun to play if you have any alcohol or caffeine lying around XD
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 16th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! I like having to worry about whether characters will make the "right" choices--knowing they will takes all the tension out of it.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
I think that for a love story to really work for me, I have to have a sense that both the characters involved care about something bigger than each other. In the case of Love Interest Boy in this book, I got the distinct feeling that his purpose in the narrative was solely to support/enable/romance the heroine -- that up to the point he met her, he might as well not have existed. In which case I don't care how handsome or charismatic or talented he is, he's basically just a Ken doll to me.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is a good point.
Jan. 16th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
Very true! Characters with no lives of their own get boring pretty quick.
Jan. 16th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
I definitely prefer characters with some flaws...but it's a tough balance, I think. I mean, this book I read recently certainly had a flawed MC, but she was so flawed that I just couldn't sympathize. And then there's the whole Bella craze -- she drove me insane. Seriously insane so that I couldn't even finish the book, even though I thought the plot was kind of interesting.

At the same time, I tend to be more of a plot person -- which means that if the plot is amazing, I'll accept a lot of shallow characters and still enjoy it ;)
Jan. 18th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
Oh, yeah, I can't get into a MC I don't like, either. I need a good balance between virtues and flaws--particularly, I need a MC who's at least a little aware of his/her flaws and doing at least a little to overcome them.

And I think I'm the opposite of you on the plot/characters issue--I can handle a less-than-awesome plot if I'm really interested in the characters, but the most amazing plot in the world wouldn't matter to me if the characters were cardboard. :)
Jan. 16th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
I find near-perfect characters boring, which I guess is the 'ultimate sin' from a writing point of view. It's so much more satisfying to create stories about mean, nasty, flawed people :)
Jan. 18th, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
Heh, well I don't think they have to be mean and nasty (though that can be fun!), but I do think flaws are necessary for a person to be interesting. Perfect is kind of predictable, really.
Jan. 16th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
I actually kind of like struggles up to the climax - they don't have to be the same struggles all along - but conflict creates interest & that's what keeps people reading!
Jan. 18th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
Agreed--struggles throughout the whole book are best, but it's totally fine with me if the character overcomes one challenge only to face another. :)
Jan. 17th, 2009 12:15 am (UTC)
I thought I knew which book you were talking about, but then I got lost, but I had a similar experience with a YA book recently where I heard someone say the love was just so great, and I was disappointed.

I think everyone is different, but I like a passionate love story . I like a male lead who is a bit of a bad-ass and a bit of an asshole, a little grungy, but when he finally lets those feelings out, damn it's good. I like this because that's an ideal fantasy of mine, not because it's necessarily realistic or cool.

I'm not a big fan of a sensitive male lead, again because I'm not attracted to sensitive dudes. Not that I need to be attracted to a literary character in the perverse sense of the word, but I like to feel the fire the mc feels.

Perfection in itself is a difficult topic. I don't enjoy perfect characters, but even more I hate characters who are very good at one thing but very bad at another, making them supposedly "appealing" to everyone, that in itself is even more boring to me.
Jan. 18th, 2009 02:12 am (UTC)
Well, I was trying not to make the book too obvious, because the point wasn't to bash one specific book, but to use it as a jumping off point. :) But if you want to know just send me a message. It's certainly an issue I've seen before--it just really struck me this time because it was such a loved book.

And I agree--characters with a really obvious 'here's my flaw so look, I'm not really perfect even though I'm amazing at these other things' can be pretty annoying, too. Mostly I just want characters who feel *real*, not like a plot device or a collection of the author's favorite traits and skills.
Jan. 17th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC)
Hate near-perfection. And so-called "bad boys" who aren't really evil at all.

I like characters to be how I like plots: believable, realistic. If I can't believe it, even with "suspension of disbelief", I'm not going to connect. If it doesn't feel real, I can't relate, and may not care.

So if you're weird, so am I. But that probably goes without saying ;-)

Have a lovely day! :-)
Jan. 18th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
Hee, we can be weird together! :D Believable is so important to me--and I'm quite willing to suspend my disbelief in many ways! But I am kind of picky about my characters.
Feb. 5th, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
I believe I know which book you're talking about, and I agree. I love imperfect characters - characters with annoying quirks and habits, tomboy girls and average-looking guys, people with anger management issues and insecurities. Because I think the best part of any book is the internal struggle, and this book - the one I think you're talking about - was completely lacking that. :)
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )

My Books

Earth & Sky
(Earth & Sky #1, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2014

The Clouded Sky
(Earth & Sky #2, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

A Sky Unbroken
(Earth & Sky #3, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

The Way We Fall
(Fallen World #1, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2012

The Lives We Lost
(Fallen World #2, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2013

The Worlds We Make
(Fallen World #3, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2014

Those Who Lived: Fallen World Stories
(Fallen World #3.5, apocalyptic YA)
self pubbed, 2014

Give Up the Ghost
(paranormal YA)
Henry Holt, 2009

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