Because readers live vicariously through fictional characters, they like larger-than-life characters: people who are better and stronger and smarter than the average Joe. (Hence the current popularity of the superhero genre.) If you want readers to love your characters and the stories they populate, it only makes sense you should make your characters the best they can be at everything. Right?
Actually, no. This method is a surefire recipe for #epicfail.
Consider an example. In Alexandre Dumas’s lost (and last) novel The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon, the author brings us two larger-than-life heroes.
How to Write a Larger-Than-Life Character
Dumas sketches Napoleon’s quick temper, his arbitrary judgments, his ruthless ambitions in no uncertain terms. But he balances the man’s humanity—his humor, his generosity, and his brilliance—honestly enough for us to see a wonderfully three-dimensional personality emerge.
We relate to his flaws just enough that we can cheer his successes, in spite of ourselves.
How Not to Write a Larger-Than-Life Character
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Dumas’s fictional hero Comte Hector Sainte-Hermine, whose perfection stands in stark contrast to Napoleon’s realistic shades of gray.
Hector is infuriatingly perfect. You name the test, and Hector is going to ace it:
- Courtly etiquette
- Sword fighting
- Fights with no spark of fear
- Speaks myriad language with flawless accents
- Plays and composes music upon any instrument you can think of
- Quotes the history of every monument in Rome
- Is a “veritable walking library”
A few chapters of this saintly fellow is enough to send readers running back to Napoleon’s tyranny.
Larger-than-life characters are the stuff of fiction—but remember their larger-than-life virtues and skills need to be balanced with a healthy dose of larger-than-life faults and struggles if you hope to keep readers interested.
Perfection simply isn’t interesting. The possibility of change and growth is what keeps readers reading.