What Makes A Great Character – Part One
On Monday, I asked you guys to tell me what makes a great character? I loved the answers you guys gave – really, I was impressed. I also found it interesting how many of your answers matched the answers I got from some of the talented authors who are visiting the blog today. But before I get too ahead of myself, a little backstory:
I am a character reader. Some of you may be a setting reader, some a plot reader, but I am a character reader. What that means is the story may not be the best story ever but the characters, if well written, have the ability to save the book for me. It means that often shortly after finishing a book, I will not remember specific details (thanks to my ‘book brain-fart syndrome’) but I will remember remarkable characters.
One day, a while back, I was chatting to a few people on twitter and the subject of favorite characters came up. I found it so interesting how the same characters affect each person differently. That conversation gave me an idea for a post – but first I needed some ‘reader assistance’. So naturally I went to twitter. I asked the masses “Who writes great characters?” I tweeted that a few times throughout the day and the response amazed me. SO many awesome names were mentioned! What did I do with that wealth of information that twitter provided me? I wrote all the names down and emailed the authors whose names came up at least 3 times. I emailed them all the same question with the idea that I would post all of their great answers in one mega-post. Well, the response from the authors was nearly as overwhelming as the response from the twitter readers. Twenty-five authors answered my question. Twenty-five! Since that was to make one loooong arsed mega-post, I decided to split the post into two parts. This is part one.
As for the question I asked the authors…well, that’s easy. I asked them “What Makes a Great Character?”. Here is what the first group answered:
I think a great character is one who has a lot of layers. Someone who is strong, smart, sassy, and still a little vulnerable too, at least in certain areas of her life. Someone who learns from and grows from her mistakes and experiences. A great character doesn’t necessarily have all the answers, but she always keeps searching for those answers, keeps fighting, and keeps going no matter what. A great character is one you enjoy spending time with and someone you root for.
Next up for Jennifer is the sixth installment in her popular Elemental Assassin series, By a Thread. It’s hitting stores February 28th 2012.
For me, it’s a mix of things, but one of the most important is a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves. I don’t care how dark a character is…I need them to have a sense of humor, even if it isn’t a slapstick/funny/ha-ha humor. Sarcasm is fine. Quiet amusement is fine. There just has to be SOME indication that the character has a funny bone. I tend to look at people I know in real life, and the people I am drawn to are the ones who can laugh. People who are too serious make me nervous. So…for me, great characters are a mix of light and dark, good and evil…and they have a sense of humor! 🙂
Larissa’s great PNR series about the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Lords of Deliverance, continues with Lethal Rider. It’s due to hit shelves June 1st 2012.
When I think of the characters I love reading about—Stephanie Plum, Nicholas Brisbane, Phedre no Delaunay, Zsadist, Eve Dallas, Branden Kel-Paten, Aiden the Fierce, Nix and on and on—well, that’s a pretty diverse list, but they are all the similar in that they’re big and bold in their own special ways. I’ve always loved how Donald Maass puts it—that great characters are ‘larger than life’. So true!
And one thing for sure, great characters aren’t great—that would be too boring. They have greatness in them or potential greatness, but they have vulnerabilities. If a great character was a picture, he or she would not be drawn in fussy tiny ink lines, but rather, painted in massive brushstrokes of strength and liability and keen desire and trouble.
Be sure to check out the third book in Carolyn’s Disillusionists series, Head Rush. It’s in stores now. And her Disillusionists novella, Devil’s Luck, will be releasing this spring. Simon’s story!
In a word: Imperfection. I love a character who leaps off the page with personality. Whether it be somber or sparkling, grating or warm, that character has to make an impression. But what makes a character both believable and endearing is his or her imperfections. Does she secretly long to be a chef yet burns everything? Does he awe everyone with his military prowess but grows nauseous at the sight of blood? It’s these little imperfections that captivate your audience, that make a character utterly unforgettable.
Don’t miss Darynda’s latest release! Third Grave Dead Ahead is the third book in her very entertaining Charley Davidson series and was just released this week.
Someone with whom we can emotionally connect but who also has somewhat larger-than-life qualities we’d like to have ourselves. When we read romance, we’re escaping, and in escapism we touch base with the inner child, the one who remembers the childhood dreams of wanting to be the hero, the person who runs into the burning building, the person who accomplishes great things no matter what obstacles are thrown in his or her path. A great character experiences the emotions we all do – regret, loneliness, yearning, doubt, guilt—drawing us into their story, putting us in their corner, wanting them to succeed, to find love, to overcome adversity, etc. However, the adversity they face gets to be something emotionally or physically heroic, elevating us away from the worries of our mundane world. If that character is done well, you come out of the story with a spark of hope that you can in fact be the hero/heroine of your own life as well.
The first book in Joey’s latest series, Arcane Shot, releases next week. Something About Witches is a PNR book you won’t want to miss.
A great character, before anything else, has to be relatable. The readers don’t necessarily have to like the character or share the same motivations. Inf act, literature is full of fascinating villains we love to hate. But the readers must understand what drives the character and why he or she make certain decisions. Some characters are compelled by the sense of obligation to their friends and others by pure self-interest, but as long as their motivations are clearly on the page, the readers could find them equally compelling.
Most great characters are also complicated. A human being is infinitely more complex than a fictional character, and no novel can truly capture the depth of a real person. We make hundreds of decisions every day, some of them seemingly contrary to our nature. For example, I’m a workaholic, who usually tolerates very few distractions, yet I made a deliberate choice to respond to this email instead of continuing working on my manuscript. Dozens of factors went into this decision: I’m sick, I feel overwhelmed by my edits and need time to think about them, I’m interested in this question, etc. If I were to list them all, I’d bore everyone to death.
In fiction, authors make a deliberate choice to simplify the character somewhat, but it’s still necessary to show conflicting aspects of the character’s personality. An assassin could be an attentive father, capable of affection and kindness. A soldier commended for her bravery could be secretly a coward. A loner, who deliberately keeps everyone at arm’s length, somehow manages to acquire friends. It is that inner conflict and potential for surprise that draws us in and makes us want to skip pages just to see that same character reappear again.
Next up for Ilona is Gunmetal Magic. It’s part of her hugely popular Kate Daniels series and is due to hit shelves August 2012.
What makes a great character is someone who leaps off the page, someone who is unforgettable, and sticks with you long after you finish the story. They’re flawed. They have goals and hopes and dreams, not all of which come true. They screw up. And they love. But most of all, they feel so real that you can picture them, you can imagine asking them questions and you just KNOW how they would respond because they’re been drawn and filled in so perfectly that they could be the person standing right next to you.
Jilll’s charming Lucky Harbor series continues with Lucky in Love, due out in May 2012 and At Last, hitting stores shortly after in June 2012.
For me, great characters have to hurt, they have to fear, and they have to have secrets.
By hurt, I don’t mean physical pain, I mean emotional pain. If someone loses something or someone that they love, I hurt right alongside them. I need them to get through the loss, so I read on, hoping they find their happy ending.
Fear is revealing. In a genre like urban fantasy, characters are often in situations where they should fear for their lives, but the heroes and heroines who really hook me are the ones who fear other things like losing their friends, losing a war, or losing a part of themselves when they compromise their ideals or morality. When you learn what a character fears, you learn what’s truly important to him or her.
Finally, in order to really pull me in, a character has to have secrets. If I know everything about a person, why continue to read? I want to know what a character is hiding behind his or her half-smiles. I want to know why they start to voice their thoughts but stop suddenly. If they’re asked a direct question, why don’t they respond? What are they hiding? What do they not want the other characters in a book and the reader to know?
Be sure to check out Sandy’s awesome debut, The Shadow Reader. It’s in stores now.
Great characters have layers of depth. They are shaped by their pasts, their interactions with others, their aspirations, their needs and their desires. What you see on the surface is a lot less interesting than what’s going on within. They also need characteristics with which readers can identify.
Olivia’s super hot Sinners on Tour series will continue with Trey’s story. Tentatively titled Double Time, this third book in the series hits shelves November 2012.
I think a great character is evocative in some way. There are characters you love, characters you hate, and characters you love to hate. Either way, the author has evoked strong feelings from the reader. I’ve read books with characters so frustrating that I wanted to chuck the book across the room. Other times I can relate to a character’s personality/deeds/reactions to the point that I feel as though I’ve bonded with them. And then there’s the tear factor. If a character makes me cry, the author has hit a home run. A great character is real. No one is perfect. There’s not a person alive who is loved and adored by everyone, and a great character is also multi-faceted in the sense that not everyone will like or relate to him/her. A great character makes mistakes. Learns lessons. And grows.
After her very impressive debut, great things are expected from Blood Before Sunrise, the second book in Amanda’s Shaede Assassin series. It’s due in stores July 3rd 2012.
A great character is interesting, memorable, and a bit over-the top. I used to think that all great characters had to be likable, but I realize this isn’t necessarily true.
Think of Sherlock Holmes, a character known throughout the world for more than a hundred years. He’s not someone you’d want as your best friend or to have at your dinner party, but don’t we love to watch him go? His mind moves at lightning speed, and you never know what he’s going to do. That unpredictability, and his way of saying or doing things that we’d love to but never would, is why the Holmes character has endured as long as he has, and why he resurfaces from time to time as characters like House, Monk, and Dr. Who.
Out-of-the-ordinary characters are memorable. Most people don’t want to read about someone exactly like them (go to work, pick up the groceries, pick up the kids, watch TV, go to bed). We want to see people whose lives are a little out of control and beyond our norm. There’s a reason most romance heroes are dukes or rich, handsome businessmen (the extreme of rich, not just well off), or tattooed biker bad boys. It’s doubtful that romance readers will end up with men like that, but it’s fun watching the heroine be swept up by them.
Likewise, it’s fun to watch our urban fantasy heroines (such as Janet Begay in my Stormwalker series) have to contend with their out-of-the-ordinary magic and out-of-the-ordinary personal issues. These heroines aren’t life’s observers–they’re very much plunged into the heart of things whether they like it or not.
To create great characters, we can’t be kind to them. Their lives are tough, and they have to be, because it makes their victory stronger. UF heroines live very uncomfortable lives (I notice that they are banged around a lot and never get enough sleep), which we wouldn’t want in our lives, but we love watching these heroic women face steep odds, including fighting what’s within themselves, and triumph.
Also, great characters give us with new information about themselves whenever we meet them. We see their layers peel back as the story (or series) continues, as we learn who they are and what made them that way.
In conclusion: Great characters are multi-layered, face steep odds, live beyond our comfort zone, and do the things we want to do but likely never will.
Be sure to check out the next book in Allyson’s captivating Stormwalker series, Nightwalker. It’s due out this Spring.
For me, a great character is one to whom I can relate on a human level. In a hero/heroine, I need to see flaws, fallibility, maybe even weaknesses…all those are part of the human condition and are things against which we all struggle. It makes a hero/heroine feel more real, and that authenticity is what makes me empathize with him/her. In a villain, I want the same glimpses of humanity, but this time from the opposite end of the spectrum. I want to be able to see the choices he/she has made that have led to the current villainy…and I want, on some level (perhaps an uncomfortable one), to be able to understand it. The more I can relate to a character, the longer that character will remain with me, and the greater he/she will be.
The second book in Linda’s original Grigori Legacy series, Sins of the Son, is due out March 27th 2012.
That’s a big question, but it all comes down to little things. I know the stories I love the best are the ones where the characters feel real. You can’t be a successful writer with one-dimensional characters. Well, you CAN be successful, but I think it’s less honest story-telling.
The characters that stand out are the ones that could be people you know. It’s one thing for a character to have amazing powers, super strength, or dazzling beauty, but you won’t relate to them unless there’s a human element there. I remember being so impressed with Charlaine Harris in the early Sookie Stackhouse books because Sookie worried about things like being a responsible employee, paying her bills and meeting the expectations of those around her. Carolyn Crane’s Justine Jones, similarly, is brilliant in her humanity. She is nearly paralyzed by her fear, but it isn’t a fear of vampires or the apocalypse. Nope. Justine is a hypochondriac, and that made her so phenomenally real to me because her only motivation was to escape the prison of her own self-manufactured fear.
These little things are what makes a character memorable. The character quirks and foibles real people have. The limited range of knowledge and experiences that shape who they are and what they do. I’ve said before that I believe in the philosophy of characters choosing their authors. It pains me to hear that people sometimes just formulate plots and jam one-dimensional characters in there as an excuse for sexy times. I think it’s a thousand times sexier to read aobut two characters you’ve seen develop over several books finally get their romantic moment. Think Sookie and Eric. Or Patricia Briggs’s Mercy and Adam. You cheer when they come together because you actually CARE about them.
As an author, I feel it’s my duty to breathe life into Secret, but not her only. I read reviews where people applaud my secondary characters, and that means the world to me. In my opinion, I should know as much about my minor characters as I do about my main ones. It’s this thought process that has lead many one-off characters to become series regulars. I spend so much time with them, I don’t feel ready to let them go. That’s how Detective Tyler and Brigit became integral to the story arc of my books.
So, that’s it really. A great character is a real character. They have those minor details that make them something extraordinary merely because of how ordinary they are. They are people we could be friends with, or see on the street. And if the characters are real and honest, it becomes a lot easier to lose yourself in their story.
Make sure you check out Sierra’s terrific Secret McQueen series. Book three, Deep Dark Secret, comes out March 6th 2012.
Be sure to check back tomorrow when I’ll be posting Part Two. 🙂