Think of the books you love, and chances are, it’s the main character you remember. Hopefully, the secondary cast is memorable as well, but chiefly, we’re looking at the protagonist, the hero—the person who drives the story.
So many elements go into this. Entire books are written about how to create them, and you can download for free my eBook here. But for now, let’s keep it simple.
What, in a nutshell, makes for a great character?
A memorable character grabs you right off the bat. This is the person onto whom the reader has latched to journey the course of a novel (and works of narrative nonfiction as well). And that has to happen immediately. The voice of that person has to resonate within the audience; something has to catch hold for the reader to sign on for that journey.
Do you have to like this person? Well, yeah. Some books are driven by an anti-hero, a flawed or outside-of-mainstream person. But still, you like her. It’s the rare book that is successful where you don’t really like the protagonist. It happens, but not often. Most of the time readers give up early, in frustration or disgust.
Because caring about this character is what keeps readers riding along, rooting for him to win, get better, surge onward.
I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve edited where there is no one to like, where the folks are so flawed, with no sense of ethics or strength of character, that you just don’t care if they ‘get theirs.’
Does someone have to be strong to be liked? Not in the beginning. But you better get him moving in that direction quickly. And if he is weak, what qualities does he have to draw the reader in?
That can be lots of things. Self-effacement and humor work wonderfully. We can all relate to our own foibles, created in the life of someone else. That makes a character human. Add humor to that and we’re in—everyone likes a good laugh. Even if he’s killed the governor, we’ll stay to see if he can right his wrongs. Exception here though: This doesn’t hold true if he’s killed pets or children. And he better have had a very compelling reason for his deeds (which we find out very early on).
The best characters are multi-faceted, and the author has weaved in background, texture, nuances, which are integral not only to the character but the storyline as well. The characters are in service of the plot, and vice versa, or they become beside the point (indeed, if this doesn’t happen, the reader is left scrambling to wonder what the heck the book’s about).
We also don’t want a laundry list of the character’s background and history.
It’s vital for you, as the author, to know everything about everybody in order to paint them on the page. But this needs to filter up organically—where it “fits” in the story and brings about that relationship of characters to plot.
In order to do this, you have to know your characters, inside and out. The old adage of ‘Write What You Know’ stands firm here. I see so many books where the main character is an astronaut, or a brain surgeon, or a Donald-Trump-alike. And the author has no clue what those sorts of lives are like, or how being such a professional is a part of the very texture of the person.
While yes, readers love characters who bring to the table worlds quite different from their own, they must believe this world, and believe the character who is functioning in it.
Joshilyn Jackson is a current master of this. In The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, our main character is involved in the world of quilting. It’s integral to her character, and the story as well. Joshilyn immersed herself in this world in order to write Laurel, and she acknowledges the Quilt Mavericks for schooling her in the craft.
So, you don’t have to be a tennis pro in order to write one, but you danged sure better spend a lot of time both on and off the court with those in that profession, in their world, to bring one believably onto the stage.
In the end, your hero has to change and grow. This brings back the service of the plot to the character. She has in the end righted the wrong, reached the grail, saved the day in some way—both internally and externally. The odds were steep—if she didn’t succeed, the result of failure would affect her, her world, those around her, terribly.
In James Dawsey’s Masters and Savages, Whitfield Stone begins as a slave trafficker (post-Civil War, where the Old South has moved to Brazil—a part of history I didn’t even know existed before this book! But about which Dawsey had already written a scholarly work, The Conferderados). The events of the voyage are horrendous, and as Hemingway said, under pressure we find of what a character is made. In the end, our Southern anti-hero has come full circle, into redemption.
And we, the readers, along with him.
So yes, writing great characters is difficult. Writing ones who drive the plot, and the plot then changes the folks, takes, well, a good while to learn. But these are the high points, and will get you going.
What characters have you loved?