Perfect Characters as Default: Why this is problematic

Once Upon A Time pencilThe number of pitches, synopses or opening lines I’ve seen like this is outstanding:

[Your character’s] life was simple, quiet and perfect…until it wasn’t.

I’m being dramatic, but perfection as a default is firstly boring, and secondly I want to know where the humanity is, not the godliness.

Think about these tips instead:

  • I assume that we’re meeting your character at an interesting time in their life (or why else would you be starting the book here?): so get to telling us about it! Cut your opening line about perfection and ask yourself the tough questions: what is it the deep-rooted source of conflict for your troubled character.
  • Instead of your character being perfect (because no one is!) tell me about their background in struggle. For example: what made them blind to asking questions about their life or blind to the conflict that’s about to come in the next 80k words? What makes THIS moment the moment when things changed?
  • Just like people, we can’t assume characters had no life before we meet them. Your characters should feel so rich that they had lives before we start to read about them on the page.
  • If you think your character’s life was perfect before the (real or metaphorical) asteroid hit their world then I don’t believe you’re thinking deeply enough about their backstory.
  • Challenge yourself to think about your characters as living before and after the book is done. If you need help, use this blog post: 30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character. Or this funny one.

30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character

Key to a breakout book.

How well do you know your main character?

So often I see writing that feels like it only lives on the page. Writers only imagine their main character in the situation they’ve put them in, not what their main character would be like if they were real. To get beyond the obvious, try to imagine your main character as someone that lives in a multi-dimensional, multi-situational way. Readers connect most with characters that they feel live on after the book is over.

Do you know the answer to these 30 questions?

  1. What do they look like?
  2. What do they like to wear?
  3. How do they like to socialize?
  4. What was their role in their family growing up?
  5. What were they most proud of as a kid?
  6. What did they find terribly embarrassing as a kid?
  7. What was their first best friend like?
  8. What ‘group’ were they in during their high school years?
  9. What did they want to be when they grew up–and what did they end up becoming?
  10. What are their hobbies?
  11. What music do they listen to?
  12. What annoys them?
  13. What makes them laugh?
  14. Are they a dog or a cat person?
  15. What season do they enjoy most?
  16. What makes them embarrassed as an adult?
  17. Do they drink alcohol?
  18. What do they feel most passionately about?
  19. What trait do they find most admirable in others?
  20. Do they want a job that helps people or a job that makes money?
  21. Are they a leader or a follower?
  22. What scares them?
  23. What are their long term goals?
  24. What are their short term goals?
  25. What are their bad habits?
  26. If they could have lived in another decade which would it have been?
  27. What do they do when they’re bored?
  28. What do they think happens after we die?
  29. If they were to come into money what would they do with it?
  30. Who was the love of their life?

Q: What questions would you add to the list?