So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.
Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.
So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:
Make them flawed.
Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.
Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.
George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.
Allow readers to relate to them
Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.
I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.
The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*
Give them a purpose of their own
Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.
When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).
My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.
Make them grow
Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.
There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise). Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?
Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.
Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.