The Key to Writing Larger-Than-Life Characters

The Key to Writing Larger-Than-Life Characters

The Key to Writing Larger-Than-Life CharactersBecause 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.

Epic Fail

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

Last Cavalier Alexandre DumasOne is a historical sketch of the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte, a flawed and foibled and fascinating man of there ever was one.

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
  • Shooting
  • Sword fighting
  • Sailing


  • 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who are some of your favorite larger-than-life characters in books and movies? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. I love this!

    Change and growth- super important! There’s nothing worse than sitting through an entire book only to find the main character exactly where they were in the beginning.

  2. I love your vlog. It is so getting to be the hot way to post and I love finding one. Yours was so good! I love that epic fail part. Is so very, very true. We have foibles and so should our characters if we want our readers to be able to relate to them. Thanks for sharing. So well spoken.
    Coming back

  3. @Stephanie: Static characters work occasionally, but static, perfect characters just flat out irritating!

    @JD: I like to read about characters who rise above their faults – but first they have to have faults!

  4. Good job, Katie…and I completely agree with what you’re saying, too!

  5. Thanks, Sage!

  6. Great Vlog – you have such a calming presence – it’s very easy to watch you ;o) Great information and very important – we’re not perfect why should our characters be :o)

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. The allure of perfect characters (from a writer’s perspective) is tied up with the fear that readers won’t like a flawed personality, and therefore won’t want to read about him. But in analyzing the characters that we love best as readers ourselves, it becomes clear pretty quickly that flaws don’t scare us away!

  8. Well said, I completely agree!

  9. You’re so right. One of the reasons why I love to read across a broad spectrum of genres is because I love to study the work of great storytellers. The more complex and interesting the characters the better!

  10. @Sharon: Couldn’t have said it better. I’m a genre jumping bean when it comes to reading. I like to keep my horizons wide open.

  11. Wonderful! This is such great information and you delivered it so well. I love your vlogs, K.M. 🙂

  12. Thanks! I’m glad you found it useful! 🙂

  13. Flawed, foibled, and fascinating.

    Much better than flat. That’s just frustrating.

    I love watching and hearing you! But I could use a transcript, too. Furiously taking notes. LOL!

  14. Flawed, foibled, fascinating – but not flat. Sounds like it should be a bumper sticker!

  15. Thanks for another great video lesson! Your videos are neither too long nor too short, and always deliver a juicy tidbit to ponder.

    I agree that the whole notion of perfection seems whitewashed and dull. Flaws – now they’re juicy! Especially when they’re not ours.

  16. Yep, yep – other people’s flaws are infinitely more interesting than our own!

  17. Simply brilliant, my thanks.
    Warm regards,

  18. Thanks for stopping by!

  19. How impressive! Not only do you know your stuff, you present yourself professionally and authoritatively. I’m looking forward to seeing many more of these from you!

  20. Thanks, Linda! This project has been a fun learning experience for me too so far.

  21. We readers DO like those flawed characters, their the ones we remember! Another good post… surprise surprise 🙂

  22. In large part, I think our need for flawed characters is the fact that only flawed characters can *overcome* flaws, at least to some extent.

  23. Stephen Mc Devitt says:

    Probably coincidental timing after reading that the recent superhero movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, being built up for having larger-than-life characters comparable to mythological Greek gods, is now a textbook example of how not make larger-than-life characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m going into this movie with such totally low expectations that I’m hoping maybe I will be pleasantly surprised if only by contrast. :p

  24. Three observations on superhero movies. One, The Marvel heroes have been successful because they were created as flawed, foibled and fascinating. Second, Batman has been more successful than Superman because Supes is the most boring hero this side of Watching Paint Dry Man. Ahem, sorry. I MEANT to say that, as Superman represents the acme of human nature, there is a distinct lack of arc in his films. Finally, superhero movies are popular because they are a safe bet: high recognition factor lowers marketing costs and they are popular with the key viewing demographic: males, 18-34.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. I’m so “meh” about this upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie, mostly because Batman can torch Superman and I totally wouldn’t care. :p

  25. I have a character who is a super-genius, good at thinking, not so good at relationships. Her biggest issue is her sarcastic wit, giving me the first book’s title: Sarcasm is my Superpower.

    In the next book featuring her, I have to work a bit harder on finding her weak spots as sarcasm will only work so long as a flaw.

    My biggest challenge is writing a character who is immensely smarter than I am without making everyone else in the book look stupid. They need to be smart, and her smarter. I sneak it in by having her see the world differently and yet still have blind spots.

    I like the notion of giving characters rough edges which they may or may not wear off by the end of the book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Sarcasm is totally a superpower! 😀 Lots of fun here. I like the notion of super-smart characters using sarcasm as a “defense,” of sorts, against the comparative stupidity of the rest of the world. It works as a genuinely motivated flaw.

  26. Glenn Sellers says:

    I would guess my favorite larger-than-life fictional character would be John Carter, not the Disney version, the Edgar Rice Burroughs version, especially the John Carter from the original trilogy of Barsoom novels. I also like my own fictional character William Henry Watson. I created him using John Carter as a template but making some realistic and necessary changes to make him a bit more believable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      John Carter is great! Such fun old pulp novels.

      • Glenn Sellers says:

        I’ve read all of the Barsoom series a minimum of 10 times. That’s how I know how badly Disney screwed up on their movie. As I said, my own fictional character was inspired by John Carter; however, my character does have a few, albeit relatively minor, character flaws.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I actually really enjoyed the movie, but I saw it before I read the books, which tends to skew my reaction.

  27. Glenn Sellers says:

    Yeah. I’ve found that to be true about 99.99% of the time. Hollywood must believe that they know what an author meant better than the author him/herself. That’s one reason why, if my book(s) are ever published, I’d think LONG and hard before I agree to allow them to be made into movies, especially by Disney.

  28. Glenn Sellers says:

    Sometimes, I believe Hollywood does it on purpose.

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