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10 Factors that make for a great character

December 28th, 2011 | Posted by Annette 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?


  1. They are relat­able.  Read­ers under­stand them because, to some degree or another, we have felt what they feel.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Great char­ac­ters are writ­ten by authors who know them well; they know what he/she will do given any cir­cum­stance or condition.
  10. 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.


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