Feb 3, 2012

Posted by in Interviews | 13 Comments

What Makes A Great Character – Part Two

And now for part two…
(for the backstory and what this post is all about, check out Part One)

Ann Aguirre

Memorable characters are imperfect. Their flaws make them fascinating. I’m also intrigued with how people deal with adversity, so that’s compelling as well. My characters suffer; and it makes them stronger. My characters are usually smart, loyal and forthright, probably because I prize those qualities.

My heroines tend to be strong and independent, regardless of their other traits. They don’t let a man define them. Some of them can fight; others use their wits instead. My heroes tend to be dark and damaged; they may even be dangerous to other people, but never to the heroine. She’s always his Achilles’ heel, the one person he would die to protect. There’s just something irresistible about a strong man who doesn’t need to dominate a woman in order to prove his masculinity. In fact, I would argue that confidence and strength only makes him hotter.

I don’t write about perfect people because they have nothing to learn. My characters are always on an emotional journey, and they will have changed in some fashion by the end of the book(s).

Next up for Ann is the fourth installment in her interesting Corine Solomon series, Devil’s Punch.  It’s due out April 3rd 2012.

Gini Koch

What makes a character great to me is a combination of believability, relatability, and extra-specialness.

Believability doesn’t have to mean your character is “real” — Dracula isn’t real, but that character is still believable in his wants, needs and desires. Not his desire to drink blood, but his desire for power, to get the girl he wants, to win. Those are believable traits.

Being relatable means there’s something in the character that the audience can recognize as being like them or like someone they know — Harry Potter is a wizard, yes, but what he goes through for much of his adventures is the simple act of growing up and facing things, like a first kiss, that everyone faces.

Extra-specialness, though, now that’s the key. Extra-specialness is the thing that defines the great characters, the thing that takes them from being “there” to being remembered forever. Every great character has something that sets them apart from everyone else, whether it’s their brains, brawn, beauty, wit, defining characteristic, or special ability. Spiderman has all that radioactive spider-juice that made him a superhero, so that’s a key ingredient for his extra-specialness, but it’s Peter Parker’s witty and smart-mouthed comments that define the character into something more than just another guy in a spandex bodysuit.
Others may not agree. And they won’t be wrong. As with so many other things, great characters may be hard to define down to their DNA and we may not all agree on the reasons why, but we all know them when we see them.

Alien Diplomacy continues Gini’s popular sci-fi Katherine “Kitty” Katt series.  It’s coming to stores April 3rd 2012.

Julie James

I think a lot of things go into making a great character.  In general, I like to see characters who are engaging and taking charge of their lives– meaning things aren’t simply happening “to” them, they have goals, desires, and ambitions they are pursuing.  And a good sense of humor certainly doesn’t hurt.  But, more specifically, I actually have a test for creating good heroines and heroes.  First, I start with the heroine and ask myself, “Would I want to sit down and have a drink with this person?”  Then, after I have a strong heroine in mind, I think up a hero who deserves her.  (And will go head-to-head with her, as well!)

Coming soon from Julie is About That Night.  Kyle’s highly anticipated story releases April 3rd 2012.

Stacia Kane

A great character is compelling; s/he has a fully realized inner life as well as an outer life, and even when s/he isn’t doing the right thing, s/he is at least doing something that makes sense, both to the reader and to him- or herself. People in real life don’t always have to have a reason for what they do, but in general a character in a book must. Even if it’s a bad reason or the wrong reason, there has to be a reason. Otherwise you’re just moving cardboard people around to serve a plot, and while that may suffice for some people it’s not great by any means.

Above all I think great characters come not necessarily from great authors but from authors who are willing to expose themselves on the page and who aren’t afraid to show those characters in sometimes less-than-flattering lights. There is, as I’ve said many times, a reason why Batman is so much more compelling than Superman; Batman has depths and complexity and Batman is ruthless and obsessed, whereas Superman is fairly simple and just wants to help people and eat pie (yeah, I know that’s not entirely fair, but you know what I mean).

If you want to create great characters you have to be willing to show the good and bad, because no one is completely both. You have to make them fully-rounded people, with flaws and insecurities and hopes and dreams; you have to make them people who occasionally stumble or mess up or lash out at others or act unreasonably selfish or hurt someone just because they’re in a bad mood. Because that’s what real people do, and your characters need to be real people, too, for all that they’re fictional. If the reader doesn’t believe them, the reader won’t care about them.

Be sure to pick up Stacia’s anticipated release, Sacrificial Magic, the fourth installment in her Downside Ghost series.  It hits store March 27th 2012.  Book five, Chasing Magic, follows closely on May 29th 2012.

JA Saare

What makes a great character? For me, it’s flaws. You can learn a lot about someone when you contemplate their unsavory traits or habits. After all, many people have skeletons in their closet. Exploring imperfections, especially as it pertains to human nature, allow authors to find weaknesses, expose them, and make their characters stronger as a result. I love it when a hero or heroine finally understand that their actions and/or interactions with others have influenced their life; be it in a positive or negative way.

Fans of JA’s Rhiannon’s Law series are really looking forward to The Ripple Effect.  This third installment in the series is due out later this year.

Inez Kelley

Great characters are three dimensional, in that they have depth, conflict and growth. You can’t have a character be too perfect and still be a great character. Flaws create a believable individual. Study human behavior or just look at someone you admire. They are a great example of a human under development. Even the best person has their foibles and shortcomings. Even the worst person has their good points. By limiting yourself to ONLY one side of a character, writers create a cardboard, or flat character.

Let’s take two prime examples of humans, one perceived as GOOD and one perceived as BAD, or a heroine and a villain, so to speak.

MOTHER TERESA – Yes, even that great lady had her shortcomings and bad side. She admitted them freely. She was very rigid in her belief system. A decent and honorable trait but in her case, it led her life and became her calling, thus narrowing her view on how she perceived the world. Her religious ideals didn’t mesh with the world around her at times and this led to conflict. This put her in danger. This shaped those around her. A good trait to an extreme can also be used as a negative in the proper perspective.

ADOLPH HITLER – One of the most reviled and hated men in history. However, he loved Eva Braun with a passion. His commitment to the betterment of Germany led to a world war that that nearly succeeded in world domination. If you examine his politics, not all of them are so outrageous and some have been implemented in the world today with great success. A bad trait, when viewed through sympathic eyes, can be construed as a positive.

Give a character good and bad traits, show them as more than flat cut-outs of an ideal, and you are on your way to creating a great character. 

Two of Inez’s books landed on my favorite reads of 2011 list.  Be sure to check out Sweet as Sin and Turn It Up!

Kelly Meding

This is a tricky question to answer, because in some ways it’s just as subjective as asking “What makes a great book?” or “What makes a great love story?” Many times, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. In other words, what makes a great character depends on what I’m looking for in a character.  A great character is someone you want to read about–the “why” is the variable that will change according to each reader.  The fantastic thing is that “why” varies so much, which means there are thousands of books and characters to choose from, and variety is a great thing for readers.

For me, as a reader, I want a character who feels authentic. Like they could actually be a real person, full of flaws and quirks and emotions. A character who’s so well-written and engaging that I want to reread their adventures (or if they’re part of a series, I stalk the bookstore for their next release). It’s the emotional connection I get to them that, for me, makes a great character.

The fourth installment in Kelly’s incredible Dreg City series, Wrong Side of Dead, released earlier this week.

Molly Harper

A great character is accessible.  The reader can relate to that character, can live inside their heads and understand their reasons for doing what they do, even in fantastical settings and situations.  Even if the reader doesn’t necessarily like the things that the character does, they still have to empathize with the character a little bit. Otherwise, they just toss the book across the room and yell, “Worst. Book. Ever!”

I will admit that my solution to this writer’s dilemma is that each of my main characters has a tiny bit of my own quirks in their make-up.  It helps that I write in first-person, so I can speak to what is going on in the character’s head.  When I came up with my vampire librarian character, Jane Jameson, I ended up including a lot of my own characteristics.  We have the same weird sense of humor, the same obsession with books- particularly Jane Austen- the same trivia retention, and the same socially awkward tendencies.  It makes it so much easier to write in my natural voice.  It does, however, make it much more difficult to make tough decisions about your character’s fate.  Every time I do something mean to Jane, I cry a little.

The fourth installment in Molly’s hilarious Jane Jameson series, Good Girls Don’t Bite Their Neighbors, hits store February 28th 2012.

Devon Monk

A great character is someone who is absolutely, without a doubt, true to who and what they are no matter the situation. I’m not saying they have to be 100% good or 100% evil (as a matter of fact, I think morally ambiguous characters are some of the greatest characters) but whatever it is that they are, they must be that thing wholeheartedly. Then when the world around them forces them to question or test who and what they are, they (and we, as the reader) discover layers and depths within them (and maybe within ourselves) that we might never have expected.

The eighth book in Devon’s very unique Allie Beckstrom series, Magic Without Mercy, is due to hit stores April 3rd 2012.  After the way the last book ended, I can’t wait for this one.

Lara Adrian

For me, the answer is relatability.  Characters can be many things:  heroic, villainous, courageous, cowardly, brilliant, thick-headed, etc.  But those are just empty labels until an author puts a character into a pressure-cooker conflict that forces that character to act, to change, to grow.  And in order for a reader to care about a character (no matter how big or small his role in the story) we have to be able to relate to him.  We don’t have to like a character, but to make him memorable — to make him
believable and realistic and more than one-dimensional on the page — we have to understand where he’s coming from or why he makes the choices he does, even if we don’t always agree with those choices.

The tenth book in Lara’s hugely popular Midnight Breed series was released January 19th 2012.  Darker After Midnight is a Great addition to the series.

Kevin Hearne

When readers care if a character lives or dies, then you’ve done something right. When they freak out and grab a bottle of whiskey if the character is simply hurt, that’s even better. There are many ways to approach creating that kind of emotional investment, but all of them take time. That doesn’t necessarily mean every character has to be fully fleshed out, either: I’ve been upset by the deaths or injuries of one-dimensional characters as much as protagonists. 

The fourth book in Kevin’s The Iron Druid Chronicles series is arriving soon!  Tricked, the continuation of Atticus’ story, is due in stores April 24th 2012.

Jeaniene Frost

First, opinions are subjective, so one reader’s great character will be another’s “Ugh, I hate her!” That being said, I think when we write, it’s important for authors to remember that our characters don’t know they’re not real (forgive the double negative). Real people are highly complex, so characters need to be more than the sum of one or two personality points. In romance, everyone expects the hero to be brave and loyal to the heroine, for example. But if that’s all he is, he’s rather two-dimensional and boring. What are his other strong points? What makes him laugh, lose his temper, or scares him? (and brave men still get scared.) If he has a sense of humor, is it dry, witty, dark, sarcastic, or risque? What’s his background? What are his flaws? If these different personality aspects don’t shine through in the story, then the character can come across as flat and forgettable. Multiple layers and hidden depths should never be limited to just the hero, either. These various characteristics need to be present for the heroine, too, and don’t forget side characters and the equally-important villain.

To sum up, a great character is so multi-dimensional that he or she feels like a real person to the reader.

The cover for Jeaniene’s first book in her upcoming Night Prince series, Once Burned, was released this week and it’s made fans of hers anticipate this book even more.  It hits stores June 15th 2012.

Jenn Bennett

Of all the elements that go into making a great character, my absolute favorite is defect. Flaws. Imperfections. And I don’t just mean physical ones—scars, misaligned teeth . . . a wardrobe containing an embarrassingly large number of garish socks. These are fun details but usually nothing more than set dressing. No, what I’m talking about are deeper defects that hamper the character’s decisions and actions. Things that make them human. And memorable. They also help to create the most sought-after element in good story-telling: conflict.

Self-made millionaires who can dropkick a villain, shoot off a lock at fifty yards, AND churn out flawless renditions of Chopin’s 24 Preludes on piano? All well and good. But a man who’s allergic to bee-stings, or a kleptomaniac, or a gambling addict? Count me in! Because, hey, of course Perfect Joe over there is going to solve the mystery and get the girl, but what about the guy who’s too stubborn to admit that he’s deaf in one ear? Will he be unable to sneak out of a Thai prison if he can’t hear the guards coming? Will the young English girl he’s fallen in love with give up on him when she mistakes his inability to hear half her questions as disinterest?

When the heroine of my UF series meets the hero, Lon, all she can see is a guarded man with the social skills of a gnat, who often answers in grunts and hangs up the phone without saying goodbye. But she later finds out that the reason he acts this way is because he’s an Empath—he has the ability to “hear” people’s feelings. Over the years, he’s learned to deal with emotional overflow by staying cool and calm, strictly controlling his actions, and limiting his communication. It’s a defense mechanism. How he copes.

Another author might have written Lon’s empathic ability as a greater asset to him. Perhaps made him into an ultra-sensitive superman who knows you better than you know yourself. I decided to write it as an imperfect blessing. Being privy to other people’s feelings might give Lon the advantage now and then, but it’s also turned him into a social lurker. If he plays his cards close to his chest and stays inside his proverbial hermit crab shell, he’s better able to process what he reads from others. This also makes him a difficult person to understand and know.

Flaws make us sympathize with a character. Sometimes even laugh at them. Without flaws, we wouldn’t have tragedy or comedy—two of my favorite story elements. So I say bring on the defects! Because when it comes to creating characters, perfection isn’t just boring, it’s forgettable.

Jenn’s first book, Kindling the Moon, knocked my and many others’ socks off.  Its sequel, Summoning the Night, is due out April 24th 2012.

I want to say, no yell a Big Huge Enormous THANK YOU to each and every author who took part in these posts.  I know this question took some thought which means that taking the time to write me back took time out of your busy schedules.  I truly appreciate it.  I loved every one of your answers.  They made me smile and they made me think.  I can see why you are the authors of some of our most favorite characters. xo

  1. Great post. I love to read about how the author thinks. Very interesting.

  2. Awesome answers! So fascinating and kind of inspiring to see what everyone says.

  3. Once again, thanks for this amazing post! You’ve inspired me to do some thinking about character qualities I admire… I want to write a post, let’s see if I make the time! Awesome job!!

  4. I love, love, love hearing the different author responses to this question. Really a fascinating and interesting post. smiles….

  5. I do like what everyone has to say :)

  6. Excellent post. I love the common thread that a character’s flaws often are what make them feel most real to readers.

  7. Love these posts!

  8. Michelle – I love picking authors’ brains. It’s always really cool to see what comes out. lol

    Carolyn – Fascinating is a great word to use for these posts. :)

    twimom – OMG Jen! You totally have to do a post. I want to read that!

    Christi – It must be interesting reading this as a budding author. :)

    blodeuedd – Impossible to find a bad answer, eh? lol

    Chelsea – I agree. And it’s so true!

    Sara – :)

  9. So many great responses! I’m going to have to bookmark this post because I have a feeling I’ll want to read it a couple more times. ;)

  10. This is an awesome post– thank you so much! What a great idea, and I love the answers.

  11. Jeaniene I like your answer, it is those little things (that make them laugh, loose their temper, or scare them) that make them come to life.

    Kevin it is those characters that I get so consumed with that I think about them and what they are going through even when I don’t have the book in front of me, drive me to drink? Some sure could =)

    Lara I am with you, I like to know what made the character the way they are. So much molds a person, and with book characters its guaranteed to be some fun/terrible/larger than life events.

    Love those flaws! If I have them (just a few) then I can connect with characters that have them. Embrace them, fight them, leave them but it makes them real.

    Thanks for all the fun answers, GREAT post!!

  12. Love these posts!
    awsome julie

  13. Reading what the authors think is really interesting. I think the overarching theme is complexity. Characters must be multi-dimensional, had both good and bad traits and they must be in some way relatable. I think as a reader, the most important thing I can remember is that my most beloved character might be another reader’s most hated. That’s the beauty of fiction. There is something for everyone!

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