A while ago I wrote a piece about perfect characters and why they don’t really work in literature. The basic problem with them is that the story’s narrative bends around these characters in an unrealistic way. Today I’m going to revisit that idea and talk about flawless and imperfect characters. Both of these are terms that I use to describe characters that are better than realistic, but don’t quite meet the standards of perfection. In books, there are two big examples I can think of that perfectly fit this description: Ned Stark, from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is flawless, and Miles Vorkosigan, from Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is imperfect.
This is the type of character that’s basically perfect, but doesn’t bend the narrative. Ned Stark fits this description really well. He’s morally strong, well-loved, and has no real faults or weaknesses. His action are consistent with his beliefs, he always tries to do the right things for the right reasons, and takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions. The only reason he isn’t a Mary Sue is that he doesn’t bend the narrative. Ned is a highly moral character in a very corrupt world, and rather than his morality improving those around him, which is what a Mary Sue would do, the world abuses and manipulates Stark. His perfection is used as a tool against him.
This is a fantastic type of character. They’re easily likable because they represent the best of humanity, but because they live in imperfect worlds they remain believable. Their struggle is to remain strong and upright despite the challenges they face. A well written Ned Stark may break on occasion, but then they quickly gather themselves back up and live with the consequences of their failures. It’s a very human ideal. I’ve noticed that often these flawless characters are used as mentors. Aral Vorkosigan in the Vorkosigan Saga, Kelsier in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, and Lan in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books all seem to fit into this mold.
This one is a little different because an imperfect character may bend the narrative, but usually has a large flaw that keeps the character from being perfect. That’s why I chose Miles Vorkosigan as my example of this type of character. Miles is a hunchbacked dwarf living in a militaristic society that shuns mutations. That’s a huge obstacle for him to overcome. Unlike Ned Stark, Miles has his faults, but things almost always work out for him in the end. Miles, especially in the earlier books, is impatient, stubborn, and naive, and those traits get him in a lot of trouble. If Miles didn’t have the obvious flaws in both his physical capabilities and in his personality, he’d be a Mary Sue and really annoying. Fortunately, because he has those flaws, the positive outcomes he experiences come across as the result of his superior skill/intellect at best, or good luck at worst.
I’ve found imperfect characters to be a lot more fun than flawless ones. While flawless characters are likable because they’re an ideal, imperfect characters are likable because we can relate to them so well. We all have faults and imperfections, and a well done imperfect character captures the insecurities that come with those and turn them into strengths. They’re not quite an ideal like flawless characters are, but they still show how weaknesses can be overcome. I’ve found that this character type is more likely to be a protagonist, rather than a supporting character. Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files seems to fit this mold, as does the titular character from Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series. While I haven’t read all of the books yet, I also think that Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire could be this type of character.
As always, I’d be interested to hear any thoughts or examples you have on this.