Recently, Cait over at Paper Fury did a post about how realistic books should be, and it got me thinking.
I read mostly fantasy and sci-fi, so it’s pretty safe to say I like unrealistic premises. But there are certain things within those premises that I do want to be realistic. And one of those things is characters.
Of course everyone likes different things, everyone reads for different reasons, and there are even varying degrees of realism when it comes to characters, but that’s where the discussion part comes in ;-) So let’s get discussin’!
Character Action and Reactions
First things first, let’s talk about the way characters act and react to things they see, things they learn, things that happen to them, other characters, etc. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like most readers like this aspect to be realistic. I know that, as a reader, I can suspend my disbelief pretty damn far, but, unless a book is meant to be absurd (e.g. The Princess Bride) and set in some kind of alternate absurd world, I can’t deal with characters just acting weird and ridiculous for no reason.
– A character finding out the man she just met is a vampire, accepting it immediately without a second thought, and then jumping into bed with him is not realistic.
– On the other hand, a character seeing proof of magic or paranormal creatures right in front of her eyes numerous times and still refusing to believe it is also not realistic.
– Characters getting into a fight and breaking up because one of them accidentally bought four apples at the store even though their partner asked them to buy five is not realistic. (To be fair, I’ve never actually read about that particular scenario, but there are plenty of equally as ridiculous romance scenarios out there.)
– Instalove is such a widely hated trope because two people locking eyes across a room and then immediately deciding to spend the rest of their lives together and being willing to risk everything for each other is generally not realistic.
– A cop letting some random teenage girl join his team to track down the latest serial killer is not realistic.
There are a MILLION examples I could give, but I think you get my point. These kinds of things are often used to make the plot get where it needs to go, but they really throw me out of the story.
Now let’s talk about the less widely agreed up thing—realistic flaws.
First we have the characters who are pretty much just perfect. The Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Those just aren’t for me.
Then we have those characters who are perfectly imperfect, beautifully flawed, tragically misunderstood—call it what you will, but the fact remains that their “flaws” only serve to make them more beautiful. And that describes probably the vast majority of characters, especially love interests. Yes, some of my favorite characters are like that, so I get the appeal. Plus, some people read books to escape and therefore like to read about good people they can root for. But those characters still aren’t my favorite.
What I personally like best are the third batch of characters, the ones who are honestly and truly flawed. I’m not talking about the villains, the “evil” ones, or the over-the-top ones, but rather the characters who are realistically flawed, who do bad things sometimes, who disappoint you sometimes, who make mistakes sometimes, who are selfish sometimes. Sometimes they’re good people who learn from their mistakes, and sometimes they’re just not good people period. But I like them because people in real life are flawed, and not in the perfectly imperfect way.
See, I don’t necessarily have to like the type of person a character is in order to like him as a character. An example I often use is that one of my favorite characters is a manipulative alcoholic. I would never want to know him in real life. He’s not a good person. But WOW is he a great character to read about! Especially when it’s from his POV. The way he’s portrayed is so ridiculously, unbelievably realistic and full of subtleties, rather than some over-the-top stereotype, that I actually spent the first three books of the series falling for his manipulation myself, making excuses for him, etc. That’s why he stands out as one of my all-time favorites.
Of course we also have the villains, the bad guys, the evil characters. Sympathetic villains can definitely be interesting to me, for much the same reasons I mentioned above, but even the truly messed-up villains can be realistic, and I like those too in the sense that there are some people in real life who are just terrible people, and having those types of villains in the story can have a strong effect.
Why I Prefer Realistic Characters
Yes, reading is a way of escaping real life, but for me, it’s that realism that really reaches out and grabs me and allows me to get lost in the story. I understand why some people prefer happy stories and near-perfect characters, it’s a chance to get away from the bad things about life, but those types of stories simply don’t pull me in. And as I’ve always said, my favorite thing about reading is getting to understand other people, and the more realistic a character is, the more I get to do that. Plus, there’s something inspirational to me about seeing realistic, flawed characters, characters who seem just as real as you and me, dealing with their problems and coming out on the other side even better for it.