I’ve been on a character kick across the web lately (see Character Motivation, Action, & Goals and Character Renewal a.k.a. Character Arc), so I thought I’d keep it rollin’. Ultimately, what a good book comes down to for me—a memorable one—is the characters. That isn’t so easy to do, it turns out, but I’ve got a few tips to make it a bit easier.
GIVE US A REASON TO ROOT FOR THEM This can be achieved by making your character a victim of a horrific incident, friendless, a member of a screwy family, or perhaps the character is “special” in some way that makes them an oddball and left out of society. Perhaps the character is overweight, or alone in the world, or unemployed…these little or large things make readers want to root for them.
SHOW US THEIR WEAKNESSES not just their strengths. A valiant hero’s weakness is what truly makes us cheer for them. Iron Man is a cocky, rich, womanizer, but really, he’s very alone and longs to be loved by someone. This yearning endears him to us. Even a villainous protagonist needs to be sympathetic in some way. Maybe they have a weakness for kittens and babies. Maybe they punish themselves for their own behavior. Perhaps no one loves them and what they’re really after is fulfillment and love, deep down. Bottom line is, give your character a softness to balance their strengths.
GIVE THEM PAIN We all have pain so characters without it are cardboard cut-outs. Also, without pain we don’t LIKE them—they come off as “lucky” and, unfortunately, we humans have a bit of schadenfreude kicking. In other words, we like to see people fall down on the job JUST LIKE US. So torture your protagonist, if only a little, so that readers can see them rise above it and become better. Those type of stories inspire us to do the same.
A GLIMMER OF SELF-AWARENESS Often characters start out not knowing themselves; the scope of their pain, where their physical or emotional limitations truly are, and sometimes, not even what their goals are. By illustrating even a shadow of awareness in the narrative, it helps us attach to them as readers. For example, take Damon from the Vampire Diaries (I know, groan, but it’s a good example. Plus, I just wanted to post his picture here.). He doesn’t apologize for his thirst for blood or for killing people. But what makes him likeable is that he knows who he is. There’s something comforting and even enviable about a character (or person) who accepts who they are. It also means this character understands what they need to do to change, to become better—unlike a hero who has no clue where to start. At the end of the day, we admire people who know, understand, and do.
Is there a memorable character that comes to mind for you? What endeared them to you?