An appealing protagonist (or villain!) gives readers someone to root for, but appealing characters are not the same thing as perfect characters. Characters that never make mistakes and have lives without incident are not only boring, they are the quickest way to turn-off your readers.
Column by Emily Littlejohn, author of INHERIT THE BONES
(Nov. 1, 2016, Minotaur Books). Emily was born and raised in
southern California and now lives in Colorado. If she’s not writing,
reading, or working at the local public library, she’s enjoying the
mountains with her husband and sweet old dog. She has a deep
love of horror stories, butter pecan ice cream, and road trips.
Follow her on Facebook.
1. Make your character a human being. Unless, of course, you’re writing about robots. But if you are writing about humans, please give your character some quirks and flaws. No one is perfect in real life. Flaws make us unique and interesting, not to mention memorable. They are especially appealing when they present an obstacle for the plot or for the character in question. In HBO’s terrific series The Night Of, John Turturro’s character adopts a murder victim’s cat even though he’s terribly allergic. He knows better, we know better—clearly he’s suffering with the cat in his house—and yet we love him for it. Who hasn’t made a decision against their better judgment? It’s a small thing, but effective. Be careful to keep it believable though, unless your story is such that it demands wild quirks.
2. Give your character a backstory. Many stories start mid-action; on page one, the world is in trouble and your hero has twenty-four hours to save humanity. That’s fine…but sprinkle enough backstory for readers to understand where your guy or gal is coming from. Does he have family? A troubled youth or a privileged upbringing? Why is he or she the way they are? Why do they care about saving humanity? Backstory can be as easy as having your hero receive a call from his mother on page ten. It’s a quick call, three minutes, but based on the content of the call, it can establish a huge amount of backstory. Now your hero has a mother, they’re in touch, maybe she asked about his term paper (He’s a student! Saving the world!) and perhaps she reminded him to call his dad. We already like our hero because he’s trying to save humanity; now we know other people like and care about him too, even if it’s just his folks. Backstory helps to feed motivation, which brings us to tip three.
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3. Give your character something to believe in. In INHERIT THE BONES, Gemma Monroe is driven to find justice for the victims of a decades-old crime. A set of principals or morals helps readers understand what motivates the decisions of your character. And these principals or morals don’t have to be universally accepted to be appealing. When Hannibal Lector is on the scene in The Silence of the Lambs, we can’t look away. He’s a killer, a terrible person…and yet he believes in Clarice Starling, and begins to mentor and guide her. Because Lector believes in something, we believe in him.
4. Use minor characters to challenge your main character. Your secondary characters exist to move the story forward and to flex your main character. Use them to create dialogues and situations where your star can’t be cardboard; where they have to react and respond. As much as possible, flesh out your sidekicks and your minor characters. Just because they may have a small role in your story doesn’t mean it’s fair to give them a shadow of a life. Make their history, their beliefs, just as grounded as those of your main character.
5. Whenever possible, avoid clichés. We’ve all seen them and they are easy traps to fall into because clichés exist for a reason. The shy, timid librarian; the arrogant frat boy; the workaholic dad who’s never home. It’s easy to ‘get’ these characters right away, because they are familiar to us…but how much more appealing is the bold librarian; the frat boy with a heart of gold; or the dad who leaves the office at five in order to make it to his kid’s soccer game? You’ve introduced something different and the reader is forced to stop and think, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I don’t know this person after all.’ Books that can create and carry this curiosity across the chapters are books that compel readers to keep flipping the pages.
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- How to Sell Pieces to Magazines and Newspapers.
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- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.