Compare characters from Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Last Cavalier to discover how to create a larger-than-life character who isn’t infuriatingly perfect.
Because readers get to live vicariously through our characters, they like larger than life characters. People are who are better and stronger and smarter than the average Joe. Hence the current popularity of the superhero genre. So it only makes sense that if we want readers to love our characters and the stories they populate, we should make our characters the best they can be at everything. But, actually, this method is the recipe for Epic Fail.
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. One 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.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 infuriately perfect. You name the test, and Hector is going to ace it: courtly etiquette, shooting, sword fighting, sailing. He fights with no spark of fear, speaks myriad language with flawless accents, plays and composes music upon any instrument you can think of, can quote the history of every monument in Rome, and is a “veritable walking library.”
A few chapters of this saintly fellow is enough to send the reader running back to Napoleon’s tyranny. Larger-than-life characters are the stuff of fiction—but just remember that their larger-than-life virtues and skills need to be balanced with a healthy dose of larger-than-life faults and struggles if we hope to keep the reader interested. Perfection simply isn’t interesting. The possibility of change and growth is what keeps readers reading.