10 Factors that make for a great characterDecember 28th, 2011 | Posted by in Books | Perspectives | Writing Tips
Voldemort. That is all it takes. Chances are, by reading that single name, the entire Harry Potter series comes to mind. Now think of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Assuming you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, a whole new feeling registers. Characters and stories are so closely related that they are almost one and the same. This is why great characters are not only important; they are absolutely essential. Most writers understand this concept. The difficulty comes in implementing it. Let’s start by looking at a few captivating characters.
Harry Potter: When we first meet Harry, we find that he is pretty average. There has never been anything special about him. Then, out of the blue,voila, we discover he is unique. He’s the regular Joe turned superhero, and audiences love him.
Meet Skeeter from The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Supposedly she is not pretty, though the movie character was gorgeous. She cares more about getting an education than finding a husband. To her mother’s dismay, she does not care about her hair and would rather speak her mind than follow social cues. Though she is strong, she has had to move back home until she is able to land a serious job.
Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, is the man we love to hate, until we start to feel sorry for him. He’s stingy, mean, and sometimes downright cruel. As the tale progresses, we learn that he wasn’t always like this, and by the end of the story everyone wants Scrooge to make good. We want him to take that leap of faith. Do a good turn. Buy the turkey in the window!
Captain Ahab, from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: talk about trouble. Ahab has become engulfed in revenge. While he may seem ordinary at times, occasionally even kid, the vengeance in his heart is paramount. Everything else becomes secondary, even life. He is one of the most flawed characters ever hatched, and yet he has lasted one hundred and sixty years and counting.
So what do these characters have in common? Why do we love them?
- They are relatable. Readers understand them because, to some degree or another, we have felt what they feel.
- Great characters are always flawed. This is one of the most crucial areas of character development. Without flaws, characters do not seem real. They become hollow imitations of life, not tangible beings. Even Superman has weaknesses, and I’m not talking about Kryptonite. Supposedly he does not lie, yet his entire Clark Kent persona is a lie. He believes in being kind and courteous, while time after time leaving Lois Lane hanging. Talk about rude.
- Great characters are different. They have qualities that make them unique within the stories they inhabit. Harry finds out he is a wizard. Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice) is high-spirited, educated, smart, and yet blind as a bat. Cinderella loses her identity when her father dies, and regains it by taking on a secret identity. Edward (The Count of Monte Cristo) is loved by everyone except his best friend who throws him into prison for crimes he did not commit. THese are unusual scenarios with unique, strong characters who react in a timeless manner.
- Most great characters have quirks: unique attributes or tics that either tickle or disgust us. Edward (The Count of Monte Cristo) twirls his hair. Skeeter (The Help) takes secret phone messages in the pantry so as to hide them from her mother. Bella (Twilight) is constantly tripping, falling, crashing, etc.
- Great characters are strong. Throw out the flimsy people. Weak characters will not do except in supporting roles. Jimmy couldnever be Superman. It just wouldn’t work. The main character must be able to carry the story, drive the plot, and grip the reader.
- Great characters are likable. When characterizing a villain, remember that we want to love hating him/her. We want to enjoy how horrible the character is. We want to read the dirt and relish it! When characterizing a hero, readers want to see him/her rise above the conflict so that in the end, we can cheer ourselves silly.
- Great characters grow. They must change, morph, and become more than they were. This is especially true when writing a series. Characters that stay the same do not seem real, and they are boring.
- In a series, the backbone of a great character remains intact. Even though character development is crucial, the character’s traits should remain solid. For example, Edward (Twilight) is a vampire. No amount of character development can or should change that. It is who he is. And beautifully enough, it is a flaw. The same principle should apply to character traits.
- Great characters are written by authors who know them well; they know what he/she will do given any circumstance or condition.
- Great characters are created from the heart. There is nothing more intriguing than an original character fresh from the ink, molded to life on the wings of imagination.