As a fiction writer, I love to study people. And growing up in a city like New York gave me a good education in the subject of people-watching. Every kind of character lives here—every color, stripe, and texture. If I had a whole millennium to write stories for every interesting character I’ve encountered, it wouldn’t be enough time. But what goes into creating memorable characters for a novel? I pondered the likeability factor found in some of the best loved protagonists in modern literature and movies, and what I found to be the most striking common denominators should come as no surprise. They are as ancient as the art of storytelling itself.
Create Characters You Would Want to Hang Out With in Real Life
I’ve noticed over the years that my favorite characters in books are the ones I have “befriended.” This holds true for the writing process as well as for my recreational reading. Usually about a third of the way through writing (or reading) a novel, the characters should become very real to me. At this point, I have to care about them. I have to like them, feel their pain, and desire things for them. Otherwise the story falls flat. Even with twists and turns in the plot, there is no life for me in a story without a heartfelt connection to the characters.
How are main characters born in my mind? Sometimes I see a physical image, which I then endow with the nuances of a personality. Lately I have taken to writing a detailed bio, which helps me get to know them before I start writing Chapter One. I make sure they have strengths and flaws, a history that has shaped them, and issues to work through. Real people have lots of layers. That doesn’t mean a writer should go into lengthy descriptions or feel the need to squeeze every one of those details into the novel. But it’s important to get inside your characters’ heads with actions, reactions, and interactions. Make them self-conscious about something. Make them perplexed at times. Know what makes them laugh. Know what they worry about. Do they have a short fuse or a long fuse? Either way, know what sets them off.
In short, everything you know about your best friend you should know about your main characters.
Make Heroes Out of Ordinary People and Ordinary People Out of Heroes
Character-driven stories are the stories that have the ability to break out of their genre and make an impression. But how does a writer create a larger than life protagonist who is still relatable? It’s simple, really. Give them a heart. I can cite two very clear examples of this in movies. When my boys were young, their taste in books and entertainment were very different from mine. (They still are). So I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” (beyond the Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson eye candy). Maximus and William Wallace were ordinary characters motivated by universal human emotions—love and loyalty—to become extraordinary. In “Gladiator,” Maximus cherished those little figures that represented his family. In “Braveheart,” William clung to a little piece of cloth given to him by his wife. Characters like these cross all demographics because we understand their sentiment. Their motivation to heroism becomes tangible to the average person.
The same holds true in writing novels. In any genre, I believe giving heroes a heart is just as vital as giving them a story.
Design a Different Mold
It might be easy for an author of fiction to fit their characters into pre-designed molds. Whether it’s for a particular genre, (like the handsome hunk in a romance novel), or a matter of the author’s own taste and experience, I have found that when I like the work of a particular author and read a few of their novels, a very clear pattern sometimes emerges with their character structure. Jodi Picoult creates the champion mother. Richard Russo creates the beloved small-town, ordinary guy. Nicholas Sparks creates the loving husband. (Don’t get me wrong…this isn’t a bad thing. Most published authors are prolific and talented enough to create varied characters within that structure and engage us in their storytelling). As I became aware of this, I looked back at my own patterns and found a strong father-daughter relationship in most of my work. No surprise there…I was a Daddy’s girl. So now I want to break that mold and change it up a little for my next project.
The Creator made us in His image because he is God. If we, as authors, continue to create our characters in our own image, readers might not be as impressed.
A Little Nobility Goes a Long Way
I hope I’m not being overly optimistic when I say people always recognize nobility and gravitate toward it. In literature, even a villain will garner sympathy upon demonstrating the slightest hint of humanity. If readers understand the motivation, even of a villain, they become vested in the outcome. I don’t think any reader rejoiced when Inspector Javert took his life in “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo. He was done in by the extreme nobility of the hero, Jean Valjean. Mercy is a powerful force. So is humility. They are the foundation of true nobility, both in the real world and in literature. The difference is this: In the real world, mercy and humility are rarely obvious to the people around us. Sometimes they are even mocked. In literature, however, the reader gets an omniscient perspective. The character is laid bare—every thought, every anxiety, every attachment. If an author wants a hero to be well-loved, endow him or her with traits that are universally admired. Like good, old-fashioned nobility.
I would love to hear some author/reader feedback on this subject. Who is your favorite character in literature and why?