― Aesop, Aesop’s Fables
“You can’t please everyone, nor should you seek to, because then you won’t please anyone, least of all yourself.”
― Dylan Moran
The general consensus among high profile authors is that characters become interesting when the reader finds them interesting. Each person finds different things interesting so it’s not enough to craft the most amazing multifaceted character ever. The reality is that no matter how great a character one may create, it is still not going to resonate with a lot of people out there. That’s just life. You can’t please everyone. People’s tastes are unique. Many good authors are aware of this, which is why writing for certain niches is so popular.
How to make an interesting character is a question that will get a hundred different answers if you ask a hundred different people. Some folks will say that a character is interesting if he makes the reader turn the page; others find characters who make them think very compelling; many people relish in characters who can manifest emotion out of them. The list goes on and on.
However, according to my research there are some very basic things that you can do so that your character isn’t horrible. Despite the dissent among authors and readers as to what makes a good character, there is some common ground. The first thing that folks generally agree on is the following:
People are Interested in People – Don’t Make Inhuman Characters
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
― Helen Keller
If your character never doubts himself; if he never does things that the reader himself would do or has thought of doing; if he is a paragon of virtue that never falters; if he never suffers defeat… you have a problem. People like this don’t exist in real life. A character like this has no soul. Readers can tell that this individual is hollow and they will most likely throw the book away because they are failing to connect with the character.
An author will have no problem creating good characters as long as he or she can show the readers the inner world of the men and women in his or her story. Ask yourself: what is the human world filled with? Emotion! We are emotional beings. Every good book ever written has at some point sparked emotions in the reader. That’s what makes people want to share the book with friends and talk about it. Even the most world-driven novels such as Lord of the Rings appeal to the feelings of the reader. Look at this sentence:
“Susan wanted him, and soon enough her hands found themselves below the waist line.”
That might seem like a good sentence. It’s simple. It’s not wrong. But it in fact tells you very little about Susan’s inner world.
Now look at this sentence:
“Overcome with unbearable lust and the sizzling feeling in her chest that begged her to be close to John, she began feeling herself, scratching her own skin as she imagined his arms running all over her body. It didn’t take long before her hands found themselves below the waist line. Moaning and panting sensually, in the back of her mind Susan still felt guilty about lusting for another man. A part of her cried at the idea of allowing herself to feel what she was feeling, but she was at her limit. She just couldn’t resist anymore.”
Notice how nothing really happened besides Susan moving her hands to the most interesting part of a woman’s anatomy. Yet the vast majority of people would take the second paragraph over the first one. Why? Because good writing isn’t just telling a story. Anyone can do that. A child can tell a story. The skilled author wants to tell a story in a compelling way–and what do humans react to? Emotions. Feelings.
In horror novels the idea is to create the emotion of fear in the reader. He or she wants to be afraid. To see a favorite character walking into a situation where he or she is probably going to kick the bucket is ecstasy for the average reader of horror novels.
And romance novels? You’ll want to create the feelings associated with romance and transmit them to the reader.
A common occurrence is the fact that readers very often don’t know what makes a novel good, but they know when they read something that they dislike. There are many novels out there where it feels like the characters are made of paper. The reader doesn’t feel that they’re real. There are few things more uninteresting than a character who has no personality. And one of the best ways to make good characters lies in your real life, which brings us to…
Observe People in Real Life
“To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”
― Marilyn Vos Savant
Most good authors also understand how vital it is to study people really closely. Stephen King explains the importance of this in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Think of the most interesting people you know in real life. What makes them interesting? What attracts you to them? Asking these questions will unlock whole new perspectives within you. You’ll often find that interesting people have a combination of traits that make them compelling. The basic rule of fiction writing still applies: Different people find different things interesting. There are things that almost all people are repelled by. A robotic and unreal character is one of those things.
This is part of the reason why a lot of authors don’t sell quality books until they are in their 40’s. It takes time and experience to gain an understanding of people and life. By the time you are forty, you will have, hopefully, gained insight into human nature and what drives men and women to do the things that they do. From this understanding you can craft real and interesting characters.
If you’re an aspiring writer, the secret to accelerating this process is to gain the habit of observing people really, really closely. Develop empathy. Listen. Observe. This is something that will play dividends in all areas of your life if you make a routine out of it.
Such a habit will make you not only a better writer, but you’ll also gain the power to talk to people on a different level because you’ll know where they are coming from. Your brain will assimilate patterns that you didn’t notice before. The folks who have the greatest empathy and observation skills are often able to deduce a person’s personality within minutes of meeting them.
One of the defining traits of the empathic person is that he or she is very curious about people, and this curiosity naturally drives them to seek to understand others. They literally try to get inside the other person’s head so that they can see what drives them.
Never stop striving to understand others.
Read Novels with Great Characters
Stephen King’s method is still one of the best I’ve ever read about. If you want to learn all you can from a book, first read it as a reader. Don’t use your analytical mind. Just read and enjoy the story. Afterwards, if you noticed that one or more characters were absolutely amazing, read it again, this time with a completely different attitude.
Activate the logical part of your brain and aim to understand why this character was so fascinating. Don’t read the book to entertain yourself. You’ve already done that. Read it as a student of the craft. Try to get into the author’s head and figure out how he came up with his stuff. Do this often enough and you’ll find that you will soon be able to replicate what these authors did with these characters.
This is another habit that will play dividends in the long run. You won’t get that much from just analyzing one book with a great character. But when you’ve done it a hundred times, you’ll start to notice the difference when you go back to your writing.
Interview Your Characters
This is a common technique that many authors use to get to know their character a little better. Sit down, close your eyes and imagine your character in your mind’s eye. Then, either talk with them out loud or open your eyes and start talking to them as you write on a piece of paper or on your computer. Make it an interview—ask them any question you can think of.
Pretend that this is a real, live person you’re talking to. If this happens to be the villain of your story, you can ask him or her why he or she is such a douchebag, or why he or she wants to conquer the world. This method is interesting because you’ll often find that you can gain incredible material for your story by doing this. For all you know, your villain’s explanation as to why he wants to achieve his goal of world domination has its roots in childhood trauma—or maybe he really is just a psychopath. Maybe his brain is just wired that way.
Regardless of the answers that come from applying this technique, just keep doing it. It comes close to what some top writers call being in the “zone”. Forget about all your perfectionism here; good grammar doesn’t matter; just write what comes to mind—and oftentimes this will be the very first thought that enters your head.
What you’re really doing here is accessing your subconscious. Some of the wildest ideas I’ve ever had have come from being in this “zone”. In one of my books, I used this process to access a character’s background story. After some editing, I ended using most of what I wrote in the story. That’s how powerful this technique can be.
I don’t recommend that you use everything you get out of this process—a lot of the stuff will be irrelevant. Your character likes to eat Doritos while watching TV? That’s nice, but your reader doesn’t really care about that—and it likely serves no purpose.
Avoid the Mary Sue Character
Most authors are readers generally agree that they are sick of seeing this kind of character. But the truth is that you can make this kind of character if you really want to. Probably. It can be done but it’s not easy to pull in readers with such an individual because do you really know anyone in real life who is like Mary Sue? There’s nobody in the world who is perfect all the time—nobody, and therein lies the problem. Once a character like this is created and you feel that you need to maintain its Mary/Gary Sue status… well, you’re in a bind. The character itself can cause problems in your story because it can be difficult to move a plot forward with Mary Sue in the epicenter.
Perfection and constant goodness is not realistic. There is no person alive who does not succumb to self-doubt, stupidity and evil from time to time. Thus, one of the better ways to make this kind of character work is to actually make them less Sue-like. You need to give them flaws and humanity.
The other issue is that this kind of character is that its everywhere. It’s way too common. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that—but many people are sick of the repetition. Ask yourself: Why do writers continue creating these characters?
It’s because they read about them on other successful novels; they see them in the blockbuster movies; and thus they conclude that, hey, I’m gonna do that too and people will like this character. And that’s just not how it works. Scriptwriters everywhere have been making the mistake of trying to reverse engineer what is successful instead of drawing upon their own well of creativity.
On another note—authors write interesting characters when they’re interested in them. I would find it extraordinarily difficult to be fascinated by a true blue Sue. I know people who actually have to rewrite stories because one of the characters is just too damn perfect. Beautiful, good-looking, lots of wealth, no flaws to speak of. Perfect is bad. Human is good.
Much of the problem with Sue characters likes in the fact that they are bad characters to begin with.
Sometimes it’s not even something you can quite pinpoint―yet the character feels unrealistic and paper-like. There are many examples of characters with impeccable personalities who don’t give you this Sue feeling. Look at Gandalf. Knows everything about everyone; stands against evil with no hesitation. I’ve never heard anyone saying that Gandalf was a lousy character. Because he’s not.
However, even Gandalf himself was human in some ways. He couldn’t carry the Ring himself. He got whooped by the Balrog and by Saruman. He was fallible.
You Don’t Need to Make a Character Likable. Not Even the Main Character.
As it turns out, you can have a character be the most demented psycho and people will still love him just because he’s so interesting. The Joker from Batman is a good example. The TV version of House of Cards also comes to mind. Frank Underwood isn’t a nice guy. In fact, some of the most interesting stories out there have a completely villainous character as the main character.
Part of the reason why the main character tends to be a paragon of virtue is because, in general, people genuinely enjoy someone who overcomes adversity and solves a conflict—and they enjoy it more if they can somehow relate to the character.
A more sinister main character requires a different kind of writing. Now you’re taking the reader down a different journey. He or she will either cheer for the villain or hope that he gets defeated―or perhaps the reader goes along with the story out of curiosity just to see what happens with the nutjob. This kind of story usually requires that the other characters in the story overcome the main character’s wickedness.
Make real characters. Observe real people. Read novels that have great characters. Interview your characters to understand them at a deeper level. Avoid making paper characters. If you do this you’re well on your way to being a good puppet master. Your characters will thank you.
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