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.
Check Out the Rest of My Realism in Books Posts!
Realism in Books – Characters
Realism in Books – Injuries
Realism in Books – Big Things vs. Little Things
Realism in Books – Basic Necessities
Here’s my issue … what is realistic to one person may not be to another. I’ve seen it many times where someone has complained about a character not being realistic because of their behavior or reaction, when I know that it is for some people, or even myself. So unless it’s totally outlandish, I try not to discount the character’s realisticness (totally a word- lol).
Darn it, now you have me re-thinking my whole post. I’m having an existential blogging crisis! Lol. I still think there are certain things that just aren’t realistic period, for example, in one book I read, the girl went to the morgue to see her sister’s body and the scientist was this bumbling airhead who started telling her all this classified stuff about the murder case, and then he was like, “You did say you were the detective, right?” even though she was 17. But I suppose a couple breaking up over apples is possible. And all different types of personalities is possible. So maybe the more perfect or absurd characters are in fact realistic, but I still like the flawed ones 🙂
I love this topic because I think it’s something that every reader struggles with. For me, even if the book is outlandish, I want/need to be able to believe the characters are realistic.
I want truly realistically flawed characters, a Byronic hero if you will. Like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. He’s not exactly appealing, honestly he’s probably Bedlam bound, but yet I still fell in love with him. His flaws made him real. If characters are too perfect and go along with everything, I don’t want to read about them. I can’t connect with them thus I lose interest in the book.
And I want their actions and reactions to be realistic also. I read this one series where the heroes are mafia men and when the heroines found out, they were completely okay with it. They didn’t even take a moment to blink before telling the heroes they accepted them.
One thing that drives me mad in romance novels is when the hero/heroine has children and the other automatically slips in as a co-parent without so much as a hiccup. That’s not realistic to me.
I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, but, from your description, it sounds like we like the same types of characters. It’s a testament to the author when they can write a character like that, one who’s flawed and not exactly appeal, but then make you like him or at least feel for him anyway. I also can’t connect with those too-perfect characters and usually end up not liking the books that have them.
Those are perfect examples of unrealistic types of reactions. I suppose there is a chance that someone might react in those ways, as Christy said in her comment… but it’s probably not that common, which makes in harder to believe in a fictional setting.
I prefer realistic characters. Especially if it’s in a book that’s paranormal or something. I’m already suspending my disbelief by accepting the fact that this world has vampires, shifters, or whatever. So when a character is unrealistic it turns me off. Or when a character is one way, but then later acts in a way that is not that character at all. Then I’m like, ” Wait…what? ” Great post!! 😀
I never even thought about it that way, how the realistic characters provide a balance for the fantasy aspect. And yes! Characters being inconsistent is just as bad. I hadn’t even thought about that, but I agree completely!
I saw Stephen King saying something about that somewhere and I was like YESSSS that’s it!! 🙂
Yes this! I like to read fantasy and sci-fi books and like unrealistic premises, but I also prefer those work to be realistic in a certain sense and the rules in the world to make sense. And yes I am the same with characters, I like realistic characters the most. Realistic characters are my favourite type to read about it and me saying an author wrote the characters realistically is usually a big compliment in my opinion. I love realistic characters, especially those who are realistically flawed as well and I feel that few authors can really pull that off well.
I also read and can enjoy books with characters who aren’t flawed or who don’t always act realistically if the other aspects of the story are good or if I still generally enjoy them as a character. Or if there are only few scenes where they act that way. And sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s realistic and what not as every character is different, but I do want to understand why the character acts this way. And this is also part of the reason I don’t like most of those example you listed here as it just doesn’t make sense and isn’t realistically. I don’t mind people being a bit shocked when they first learn aliens or supernatural exist, but if the evidence keeps hitting you in the face (metaphorical speaking) I don’t think it’s realistic to deny it and it can even get frustrating when a character does that. And you know my dislike for the obligatory break-up scened and romances where characters act unrealistic or out of character.
I think those flawed characters who sometimes do something bad for the right reasons or learn from their mistakes are the most interesting ones as they are human and their actions make sense. Or those characters you wouldn’t want to meet in real life, but still are great to read about. I enjoy seeing how certain events can drive characters to do something they normally wouldn’t do. Push them out of their comfort zone and see how they handle it. I think those kind of scenes show interesting sides of a character and it can be great to read about those type of character who are flawed and make mistakes, but still are great characters sometimes. Those grey characters are my all time favourites usually, I won’t start rambling about my love for Annakin from Star Wars. But lets say I never got why people don’t like the prequel movies, as I love Annakin his character arc, he’s one of my favourite characters as he acts so realistically and he’s one of those grey era character who aren’t all good or all bad and that’s what makes him so interesting. And the clone wars animated series shows it even in more detail.
Currently we’re watching Star Trek Deep Space 9 which has a side character named Garek who is exactly like this he does bad things and you can’t really say he’s a good guy in any stretch of the word, but he’s such an interesting side character, I think I mentioned his character before. And then there is Quark who is a greedy alien motivated by greed almost only and as the series progresses you see how change a bit, but he’s still greedy and somehow it turned him into a very interesting character who does care about others, but tries to hide it behind comments about his love for profit.
I also enjoy the more perfect characters and I also enjoy lighthearted stories with happy endings, but I don’t feel the two are mutually exclusive. In fact I remember a romance book with well written realistic characters. I read to escape, but I also read because I find people interesting and seeing them act and understanding them is one of the things I like about reading. And I find realistic character are often the most interesting ones. Looking forward to your next realism in books post as I really enjoy reading these type of posts!
btw which book series is the one you mentioned with the manipulative alcoholic character?
If I mention the characters being realistic in a review, it’s also a big compliment from me 😛 But yeah, it’s one thing for a character to maybe see some small paranormal thing and not believe, but if they’re seeing people turn into wolves right in front of their eyes and then magic flying through the air and then talking cats… like, seriously, it’s aggravating when they keep being in denial. And yes, I do know how you hate those obligatory break-up scenes!
I like what you said about understanding why the character acts how they act though. Because you’re right, every character is different, so what’s realistic for them could be different, but if there’s an actual explanation, something to do with their past or experiences or personalities, it might make something that’s otherwise unrealistic seem right. For example, I read one book in which the character kept making the absolute stupidest, worst decisions, but she had her reasons, and I actually understood.
I’m glad you get what I was saying about how some characters aren’t good people but are still realistic and interesting to read about. You did mention that Star Trek character (I can’t remember which post it was though lol), and he does sound interesting. But yeah, the more perfect characters can also be fun to read about. And like you said, you can have a light story even with flawed characters. We both love that aspect of reading that lets us understand people, so it makes sense that we like realistic characters 🙂
The series is the Ink series by Bella Roccaforte, but it’s dark and has a lot of really gruesome stuff :-/ You know, they might be the kind of scenes that can be easily skipped though. When I reread it (which I plan to do before the final book comes out), I’ll try to pay a little more attention in case you or anyone else who doesn’t do gruesome wants to read it.
I love actually flawed characters, too, Kristen! One of my favorite characters is a drug-addict who uses her profession to not always have to pay for her drugs…
And there has to be something with the characters that make me feel like they could be real, and there has to be some kind of change in the character through the course of a book. That character development does not necessarily have to be positive, though, but nobody stays exactly the same all the time.
Awesome post, Kristen 🙂
You just get me! Lol
Hmmm… I don’t know if I’d say no one stays the same, especially if the book only covers a short period of time, but I agree that character development doesn’t have to be positive for me to appreciate it. Sometimes when it character changes for the worse it’s just as realistic and fascinating to read about, if not more. Thanks 🙂
I guess you’re right when it comes to short-stories, it’s difficult to make big changes when stories only cover a few days, but even then, there is usually something that’s different in the end than in the beginning 🙂
LOL changing for the worse is truly fascinating to me, too, so yeah, a villain who becomes better at being a villain puts me in book heaven 😀
You’re right too, something can still be different by the end, even if it’s subtle or small. And haha, yep, reading about a character changing for the worse can be, well, the best 😛 because it really is fascinating.
I like realistically flawed characters, the shades of grey, nuance- they can be morally ambiguous or conflicted and that makes them interesting. No one wants t read a white knight all the time, but having said that I do like characters to be likable. If I read something with an unlikable MC it can detract from the story for me, I need to relate to them a little, although there have been books with unlikable MC’s that I did like. I guess it depends…
I think people in real life are mostly like your honestly flawed characters, so they may be the most realistic. Rather than being a paragon of virtue or a one dimensional “villain” they’re just people, with flaws and good points and they do messed up stuff. So in that sense I think those are the best characters because they make sense.
I don’t need to like the MC in a book in order to like the book itself. Actually, in the example I gave, it’s one of my favorite series, but I kind of hate the MC. But the other characters, like the alcoholic, are enough to make me still love the books. But I don’t really know what my definition of likeable is… so I don’t know if I agree with that. That probably makes no sense but, I’m here thinking, is the alcoholic character likeable? Not really. But do I like him as a character? Well, yes… And then I’ve described other characters as likeable but still just didn’t care for them myself. So I don’t know.
But yeah, I agree that the honestly flawed characters who have both good and bad traits in them, those are the most like people in real life which why I like them too 🙂
This is a GREAT post, Kristen, and I cannot believe I haven’t stopped by here earlier.
“What I personally like best are the third batch of characters, the ones who are honestly and truly flawed” – Okay, YES! This is so true. I hate those characters that are portrayed as flawed, only to make it seem more beautiful. I really think it’s when characters make mistakes, is when I really empathize with them more, because it makes them so much more human.
I read a TON of fantasy as well, and only recently finished The Lunar Chronicles. I had one huge struggle through the entire thing – about how in real like, just eight people that were constantly getting separated could organize a rebellion to take over a planet ripe with brainwashing? It just didn’t add up. At least in the case of Red Queen, and The Hunger Games, there is a HUGE, organised rebellion. It just wasn’t realistic to me, I guess.
Thanks for sharing! I can’t wait to read your next post.
Thank you!!! Ahhh, you get me. The flaws that only make characters more beautiful are such a common thing. Like, those aren’t flaws! I do still like those characters sometimes, but I too still prefer the truly flawed ones 🙂
I see what you’re saying. I haven’t read The Lunar Chronicles so I don’t know if I’d find it believable or not, but one thing I liked about The Hunger Games was the believability of the rebellion since they had so many people working together and kind of went at it in waves and whatnot. So I would probably also find it hard to believe 8 people rebelling against a planet.
Thanks, looking forward to your thoughts on the next one!
Weirdly, or not, I prefer realistic characters in the most fantastical of situations — urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres. I just finished a book in which the romance gave me whiplash and the magic and worldbuilding just didn’t work because they were just not well-thought-out AKA not logical and unrealistic to an extent. There’s another book in which a character is thrown into the most ridiculous situation, but the girl is grounded herself — you can see it in the way she acts, talks and speaks and I respond to that. I think for me realism comes down to characters more than anything — no matter the situation. If the characters work, the author can make the story work. Really great post, tons of food for thought.
Not weird at all since I like the same thing! Urban fantasy is also my favorite genre. But even if there are supernatural creatures running around or crazy things happening, it’s the characters that keep it all feeling grounded and real. It makes us able to relate. Thanks 🙂
Great topic. I completely get what you’re saying, you want your characters to come across like real people. No one wants flawless characters and no one wants characters who act like crazy people (unless it is already an established part of their personality and their insane reactions have a logical explanation). Characters have to be well written and the way in which the story develops around them has to make sense. I am completely with you on this one, I want realistic characters. I think that’s what everyone is looking for in books, no matter what genre you read in. There is a reason people comment on characters so much in reviews because they matter. You can have the most well-written story in the world, but if you don’t have genuine sounding characters as part of that story no one wants to read that book.
I think the important thing is characters don’t need to be likeable, they just need to come across as realistic, flaws and all. I want my characters to seem like genuine people who you could meet on the street.
I don’t think that’s what everyone is necessarily looking for, some people like characters who are beautifully flawed, but I do think we’re all in agreement that developed, well-written characters are important regardless what kind we like.
And I completely agree that characters don’t need to be likeable people for me to love reading about them, so long as they’re realistic!
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This is a great post. I recently read ‘Queen of Hearts’ where Dinah, the princess, is a really spoilt, bratty character – but then she’d had a wretched childhood with an emotionally abusive father, so the author had got it spot on. However, I did struggle at times to stay engrossed because as she was the main protagonist, I wanted to shake her when she continued to be wilfully selfish and sulky. But… she was realistic! It’s sometimes a very tricky balance for the author to negotiate, I think.
Now that you mention it, I don’t need a character to be likeable in order to enjoy reading about them… but it actually depends on why they’re unlikeable. Because bratty or immature characters are the hardest for me to enjoy reading about, even sometimes when it is realistic. I can definitely see how it’s a hard thing to balance, the realistic imperfections while still making a character people want to root for.
What’s most important for me is that the characters’ thoughts & actions flow naturally from the set-up the author has given them. I don’t mind a character who leans towards unrealistic as long as they are consistent. I really dislike reading books where I feel like the characters are just the author’s puppets, doing what they are told to make the story go in a certain direction, rather than fully developed fictional people. I love reading about authors who talk about times when their characters insist on doing their own thing rather than what was originally planned.
And I go all fan girl squealing when there is growth and continuity, when a character does some subtle that can be traced back to a previous experience.
That’s a great point, that almost anything can be realistic as long as there’s some sort of reason behind it and it fits with who the character is. When characters do things are so very not *them*, it throws you out of the story, so I agree. And haha, yes! Actually seeing how the events in the character’s life directly affects them is the best!
Great discussion post! I love flawed characters, or generally competent characters who are thrown out of their element and now must adapt to survive. Seeing a character grow and change, fight and lose (sometimes win), or be beaten down only to get back up again thrills me to my very core. I especially love it when their reactions are realistic, when I can look at them and think, “yeah, I’d do the same thing.” When characters show up on the page as a cardboard shell and then never grow or change, they just aren’t compelling.
Thanks! That’s another good one, characters thrown out of their element. That’s what I love about post-apocalyptic books, the way characters are suddenly thrown into a crazy scenario with a bunch of other characters they’d not normally associate with, and then they have to adapt and grow. And when you can actually see yourself doing the same thing as the character, that’s the best because it feels so realistic and you connect so much more!
I think I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here. When there are ridiculous, unrealistic plot points, it pulls me out of the story. But I definitely agree that I appreciate characters who I would NEVER want to know in real life!
Exactly, unrealistic things pull me out of the story. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who still likes to read about characters even if I wouldn’t want to know them in real life!
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