With all the reading I do, I’m very aware of how I feel about different characters in different books. There are times when I’ll go weeks — months, even — and not read a book that knocks me out. I begin to wonder if I’m getting jaded, but then, suddenly, a book comes along that I simply love and the characters are more like dear friends than two-dimensional sketches. These characters really grab me: make me laugh, make me cry, make me bite my nails with worry over their challenges. But they’re rare. Rarer than they should be. So it got me to thinking, what makes a really, really great character? Here’s my list, in no particular order.
Intelligence. One thing that drives me crazy is a character who repeatedly does stupid things. I’m talking the twenty-something cheerleader-type who’s alone in an isolated cabin with a chainsaw murderer on the loose, and she goes outside with only a dinky flashlight to check on a weird noise. Really? That’s a special kind of stupid and she deserves everything she gets. No, I want my characters to be smart — smart but, for whatever reason, boxed into a corner, forced to make hard decisions, forced to really reach inside and find out what they’re made of.
Rhett Butler is a smart guy. He understands economics, he understands war, and he’s good at keeping his head when everyone else is panicking. So he’s not so smart when it comes to falling in love, but we’ll get to flaws later on. Overall, he’s smart, he’s capable, and he’s effective. Quite the catch.
Sympathetic. A good protagonist has a good heart. Okay, sometimes it’s buried under a ton of stuff: mistrust, betrayal, abuse, defense mechanisms. Sometimes the character has to assume a tough exterior, a hard-guy persona, in order to battle through his own demons, but underneath it all, he’s a good guy. Someone to root for. Someone to care for. We may only see glimmers of it from time to time, but it’s there. We know it.
One of my books is a fantasy about a young peasant who gets pulled into the middle of the classic battle between good and evil. In the beginning, he takes on a purely personal quest, albeit an altruistic one, and that is to free his family from slavery. He’s very single-minded about this, and objects to being pulled into the larger conflict. On my first re-read, I realized he was too single-minded, and he showed a distinct lack of compassion for the people around him. He had nothing but petulant disdain for the hardships of others. I had to go back and write him softer, more empathic. Having him be more sympathetic to others gave him a deeper dimension, and also heightened the tension in his decision to press on with his own quest. It made him more human.
Strengths. Our characters don’t have to be super-duper X-men to be interesting. Sometimes strengths come in very subtle packages: perseverance, support, encouragement, patience. Personally, I like willingness in a character. They may be up against a wall, their quest may be a longshot, but they are willing to go the distance.
In one of my romances, the woman has been a doormat all her young life, but the threat of having her marriage fall apart spurs her to a newfound strength and conviction she never manifested before. It’s not courage in a grand, epic sort of way, but it’s still courage. Sometimes the subtle strengths can be the most profound.
Weaknesses. All great characters have flaws. Secrets. Pasts that haunt them. The flaws make them human and provide tension — will he be able to do what he needs to do, or will the flaws be his undoing? Will his tragic past dictate his future? These weaknesses can take two tangents in stories; they can be things the character needs to overcome, or they can, surprisingly, become strengths, become the tools the character needs in order to accomplish his goal. Either way, they add a great deal of texture to the character and the story.
Remember what I said about Rhett Butler? He’s smart, but he falls for Scarlet O’Hara, god knows why. He can handle himself confidently in business around town, on a profiteering ship and at a dance, but he can’t keep himself from wanting the stubborn and selfish woman who taunts him. This is the kind of flaw that must, eventually, be overcome. Sadly, regretfully, but yes, he must finally walk out the door. Not giving a …
Motivation. What drives the character? What pushes him forward? This needs to be very clear. If a character has little or no motivation, it will be hard for us to believe he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. I think I’ll go climb Mt. Everest. Why? I dunno; just seems like a good idea. Yeah, no.
Growth. To my mind, this has to be at the end of the journey. What has the character learned, understood, accomplished, gained? With all the ups and downs our characters endure, all the hoops we put them through in their story, they have to end up different in some way. They have to be affected by what they’ve seen and done. If there’s no growth at the end of the story, I have to wonder if the character is just a blockhead after all.
In one of my historical romances, the woman has led a very sheltered life as a pampered only child. When she travels to the wild west of Arizona to find the father she never knew, she’s faced with some very rough experiences, including time in an Apache village. While she’s repulsed at first by the primitive ways, she learns — reluctantly — that the Apache methods are exactly what are needed in the harsh landscape. It’s a lesson she thought never to learn — didn’t want to learn — but it stands her in good stead by the end of the book.
Complexity. No human on earth is all good or all bad. I call this the Disney Syndrome. In Disney movies, we know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and neither will ever, ever, be anything else. This works for six-year-olds, but as adults we need more than that. We need complexity in our characters. We needs shades of gray (no, not that kind). This is where the flaws come in. Our guy is fighting a secret organization bent on controlling the world, but he’s also fighting his own fears, his own tendencies to give up and run and hide. The complexity of his character keeps us wondering which side will win out.
Consistency. This can be a tough one. The character needs to stay in character throughout the book. If a guy has been a selfish S.O.B. all through the book and suddenly at the end he turns the other cheek and becomes Mr. Niceguy, are we going to buy that? He’s had no life-altering experience, no dark night of the soul, yet he just decides to be a good guy? I don’t think so. The characters have to stay true to their inner core, although obviously their experiences can lead them to do some heavy-duty soul-searching. I’m not saying they can’t change, only that if they do, there has to be a good reason for it.
Physical Presence. Now that we have all these qualities, we need something to hang them on. We need just a pinch of physicality, something we can picture in our minds. I don’t need a full page of description down to the number of pores on the face, just a brief mention of the character’s defining qualities: ice-blue eyes, tall and lanky body, a shock of wild brown hair. I’ve read some books where I’ve gotten absolutely no indication at all what the character looked like, and while I could certainly conjure up something on my own, I noticed that I had a hard time imagining the dialog, the expressions, the carriage of the body. Just having a small bit of distinct description can move the character from words on a page to a visual, relatable image.
These are the things I work to build into the characters I write, and the things I look for in the characters I read about. What about you? What do you look for in a memorable character? What are the make-or-break qualities that elevate a character from cartoon to real-life, three-dimensional hero?