What makes a good character? That’s something I’ve been asking myself lately as I work on my current manuscript. Interesting stories and engaging plots are all necessary components, but it’s the main character that ties it all together. After looking at some of my favorite protagonists, I think I know some of the things that makes them universally liked.
Let’s face it. We all have a soft spot for characters who crawl out of the gutter. From Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) to Eragon (Christopher Paolini) we love to see characters come from humble beginnings to scratch and claw their way to a goal. Whether that’s overcoming their station in life, or toppling a corrupt empire, we’re there to cheer for them all the way. And why is that? Two reasons. Either we see aspects of our own life in these characters, or the situations that they find themselves in we–in modern society–view as inherently wrong. That leads me to my next point.
From Bad to Worse
The truly great characters are those who suffer and struggle and we love them for that. Like these people we understand that life is hard and good choices aren’t always available. Let’s take the character Vlad–a.k.a Dracula–from the 2014 Dracula Untold movie. The movie first invokes empathy by showing the trials and hardships that Vlad has had to face and his struggles to keep his people safe from the Ottoman Empire. When the Sultan demands children–including his son–it prompts him down a dark and bloody path full of nothing but bad choices and he’s inexorably pulled toward one, inevitable conclusion. Despite that Dracula–and the person upon which he was inspired–weren’t nice people, you are drawn to this character for these very reasons. You watch Vlad’s progress, feverishly hoping that their will be a happy ending, even when you know one isn’t forthcoming.
This might be an oxymoron, but I’m serious. Characters who don’t have special powers, secret birthrights, or prophecies marking them as the harbinger’s of doom can be the most appealing people we come across. The literary classic Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) is a good example. It’s nothing more than a tale about the life of a group of girls from a young age to womanhood and everything that happens in-between. A far cry from the action and intrigue that seems so prevalent in modern literature, and yet, it has withstood the test of time. Why? Because these characters don’t just touch on aspects of our personality, they are us, going through the same life trials we all do. That resonance has kept it a beloved and well read novel for well over a century.
I wouldn’t say that this makes me an expert on character building–or on what makes a good character–but I think it’s a start. After all, just as there are many things that can make a story great, there’s an infinite number for making a great character.
Disclaimer: I do not own the imagery used on this blog post and have no artistic claim to it.