You know who doesn’t strive for perfection? Fiction authors. They know that compelling characters have both good and bad characteristics. Should family historians write about both good and bad sides of ancestors in family stories? Let’s look at the question from a storyteller’s point of view.
What’s so bad about perfection?
Besides being unrealistic, perfect characters (read ancestors) are lackluster. Especially in nonfiction writing, readers need to be able to envision having a relationship with the person we’re describing and portraying. No one is perfect. They all have both good and bad characteristics. They have moments when they aren’t their “best self.”
And strangely—or maybe not—we like people and characters a little better when they’re imperfect. When they’re “people like us.”
Author and writing coach, Rachna Chhabria explains in her post In Why do we like Imperfect Characters:
Characters who remain calm and unruffled and who never makes mistakes have a falseness attached to them. Though we look up to perfect people, they give us a temporary sense of insecurity. We feel small in front of them. We may even secretly and subtly resent their perfection and larger-than-life image.
In contrast, we bond with imperfect characters, such as ancestors with good AND bad traits. In their presence, we more okay with our own imperfections.
Aim for “Human” not “Perfection”
Writing coaches advise us both fiction and nonfiction writers to depict multi-dimensional characters. That means that readers look for something more than cardboard-cutout of understanding in stories. They crave some complexity.
Humanity, in all its convolutions and contrasts, connects readers to characters. And perfection isn’t a great way to achieve that humanity.
Likewise, nice isn’t necessarily the same as engaging. Flawed characters can be sympathetic. They’re definitely compelling.
One of the best examples of this is the character Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. If J. K. Rowling had made him simply despicable, we wouldn’t feel as strongly about him. By including backstory that explained his bad traits, she made him relatable and fascinating.
Not surprisingly, the same goes to our stories too. If we want readers to connect, we need to write about the good and bad sides of ancestors.
Ordinary, flawed, messy stories often resonate with readers more than ponies and rainbows. (See also Of Trees, Beauty and Family Stories.)