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.
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