Thursday, 21 June 2012

Writing Great Characters

You know how important a great main character is to a story. Sherlock Holmes or Elizabeth Bennett or Becky Sharp. Whether they’re fighting at the edge of a cliff or having a quiet moment of reflection or making a total ass of themselves, you want to be there with them. That’s the sort of thing you want to create, right?

But when you put your character down on paper, they’re a bit wishy-washy, a bit ordinary. They work in a boring office, or get stuck doing household chores. They’re waiting for someone to come along and make things interesting for them.

That’s okay, you’ve read books like that, where the ordinary character get swept up in an adventure, with romance and thrills and derring-do, right? Of course you have... but wait, what happened to writing great characters? 

What happened to writing characters people will love to spend time with? Jeeves and Wooster and Scarlett and Rhett. Harry and Katniss and Stephanie Plum. Were they quiet nobodies who avoided trouble and had to wait for someone else to make life exciting?

Creating a character that readers are taken with is central to making a story work. Undoubtedly, things will happen in your story that will require suspension of at least a little disbelief, and having characters that readers engage with make that suspension all the easier.

The key to interesting characters is attitude. The MC has to be opinionated. Obviously it helps if they’re interesting opinions, but most important is that they have them. A neutral stance, waiting to see how things pan out, being reasonable, calm, patient and tolerant are all great traits to have in real life, but they don’t really translate well to the page for an MC.

Extreme, unusual, surprising opinions help, but no matter what happens in your story, big or small, your MC needs to have a position on it. Immediately. It can turn out to be wrong. You can change it later. But it has to be present. Readers can’t react to “nothing”.

Now, just because you give the character an attitude doesn’t mean the reader will automatically dig it. The fact they have “something” to react to means they can react badly. They can hate it. But you’re in the game. 

With “nothing” you are guaranteed no reaction, which is useless to a writer and far worse than a bad reaction.

The other thing you need is for your character’s attitude to be made clear to the reader. No point having these opinions if no one knows about them. The fact you, the writer, know doesn’t help.

Often, the way aspiring writers choose to do this is through internal monologue or narration. This is the most difficult, and subsequently the weakest way to convey attitude to a reader. It may seem the most direct, just have the character think what they think and the reader will get it, but when one person is doing all the talking it gets boring quickly. That’s not to say you can’t make it work, many writers do, but monologues are much harder to write interestingly than dialogues.

What you need is someone for your character to voice their concerns to, and it helps A LOT if that secondary character is unsympathetic to those concerns. It’s when you challenge characters that they come alive.

If you have Jane go: “I can’t believe Dave dumped me” and her mate Norma responds: “I know, the bastard. More cake?” then what you have is a perfectly believable, perfectly boring scene.

If Norma says: “Actually, babe, if I were Dave I’d have dumped you too” then you’ve got something to talk about.

And if your MC isn’t the sort to speak up or make their opinions known, then you have two choices. One, write a scenario where your MC is forced to speak up. Or two, get a new MC.

Again, it is of course possible to have a quiet, passive, sedentary MC and make it work if you have mad writing skillz and great confidence. But of the many WIPs I read by writers who think they can pull off that kind of character, I’ve yet to come across an MC worth listening to. Their views are just too bland and their adventures too mundane.

So, if you like stories with great characters, and that’s what you want to write, you may need to take a long hard look at your WIP and then add a little more kick-ass.
If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. If you have thoughts, questions or general abuse you'd like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.


Unknown said...

"So, if you like stories with great characters, and that’s what you want to write, you may need to take a long hard look at your WIP and then add a little more kick-ass."


Misha Gerrick said...

So true.

The way I think about it is this: If I wanted to spend hours getting to know the everyman, I'd go meet one at a restaurant or something.

But since I don't, I'd much rather like to read about someone exciting.

mooderino said...

@EJ-Is that a yes?

@Misha-not that you can't make everyman stories work, but most writers extol the virtues of great charaters but somewhere along the way...

Margo Berendsen said...

This is always my biggest struggle - giving my characters strong opinions and in-your-face actions. Thank you for reminding me, something I still need lots of work with!

mooderino said...

@Margo-it is much harder to give the character more provocative views, can leave you feeling exposed.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

My secondary characters tend to be more interesting than my main ones. Gotta work on that. Thanks for the reminder!

mooderino said...

@Madeline-you could always pull a switcheroo.

Precy Larkins said...

Excellent post!

Btw, I have a blog award for you. :)

mooderino said...

@Precy-thank you!

chihuahuazero said... summarize this post:

* The key to interesting characters is attitude.
* It’s when you challenge characters that they come alive.

Both are great pieces of advice! Thinking about it, the second one relates to another piece of advice I read in a writing craft book ("a character is defined by his actions").

Also, I think my narrator's opinions are one of the elements that make him an interesting character. All I have to do is to figure out a way for them to induce conflict, considering he's the person that isn't afraid to be honest.

This is going into my weekly round-up of writing posts!

Rachel Frost said...

We don't love characters because of their strengths. We love them in spite of their flaws. Great characters have to have dimension. Someone who has no flaws is flat and boring.

mooderino said...

@CZ-great, glad to be included,

@Rachel-yes, but it also depends on the flaw. If my MC's flaw is shyness and she won't leave the house, she won't be much of an MC. Not all flaws are created equal. People with flaws can still be flat and boring.

cleemckenzie said...

I loved Rachel's comment. The flaws are what draw readers in, but you're right that the flaws can't make them flat, either.

As to characterization . . . I really love it when characters reveal characters. Perfect!
Lovely post.

mooderino said...


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

You know how you say "take a long look at your character and you may have to make her more kickass?" A perfect example of that is probably from the actual movie "Kickass". I really enjoyed the little girl in that movie. I heard that it was quite controversial but she definitely was a strong main character.

LD Masterson said...

I love a strong kick-ass character. It makes the whole story worthwhile.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have a strong kick-ass character. I just hope I have done justice to her in the story. Great post!

mooderino said...

@Michael-Hit Girl was a fun character (better in the comic).

@LD - I think they have more appeal.

@Rachna - I'm sure you have!

Jason Runnels said...

I think you can learn a lot about characters from reality tv producers. Sometimes it's the mix of characters force them to do interesting things.

What happens when you take the redneck country boy and throw him in the house with the tattooed feminist? Alone, he may be uninteresting, but put into that house and the sparks fly.

Golden Eagle said...

Interesting post!

I think giving my characters opinions is one of my weaker points--they're usually to passive in a range of situations. Something else to work on, definitely.

mooderino said...

@jason-very true. you do have to be careful that the writer's hand isn't too obvioius, though.

@Golden - cheers. it's important not to let your character off too easy.

Extremely Average said...

Jason Runnels makes an interesting observation about reality TV, but watching it is not a sacrifice I'm willing to make for my craft.

Still, it is a very good point.

mooderino said...

@EA - Wise, very wise.

Nick Wilford said...

I love your points here. I think no truly interesting character can exist in a vacuum. They need other people to rub off of who may have very different agendas and opinions in order to reveal their true colours. Particularly if one of those characters threatens something held dear by the MC.

Sarah said...

I have the same problem as Madeline. I think it's because I work so much with my main characters that when I start something new, like create a minor character, that character seems more refreshing than the overused main character. Guess I should spend less time with my main characters and not attempt to perfect them to death.

P.S. I've nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award on my blog! :) Congrats!

Sarah @ The Writer's Experiment

mooderino said...

@Nick-no point avoiding fires if your job is firefighter.

@Sarah-you're always going to have to spend a lot of time with your MC, easier to live with if they're interesting. Gving them a desire they're prepared to act on also helps.

Unknown said...

I agree, and since I've been doing a lot of thinking on myself, I really think attitude might be the manifestation of the character herself being at least semi-conscious of her own motivation... Great post!

mooderino said...

@Lora-or if the character is fighting the feeling, it may be the opposite of the true motivation.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Great post. Just the kick in the pants I needed ;)

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