Who are some of your favorite fictional characters? If I look back to some of my early reading, icons like Orphan Annie, Huckleberry Finn, and Jo March of Little Women come to mind. Nowadays, I love Janet Evanovich’s great cast of characters, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Haller, among others. Nora Roberts’ romantic suspense Three Fates features six unique, intriguing characters with tons of personality and attitude, who all spring to life and interact in fascinating ways. The stories crafted by these and bestselling authors are exciting and satisfying, but it’s often the characters that endear themselves to us and stay with us longer. How can we, too, create characters that jump off the page and stay with the readers?
Your novel can have a great premise and riveting plot, but if your characters are weak, boring, or undeveloped, your book will be quickly rejected by agents and acquisition editors. As Elizabeth Lyon points out, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)
Your protagonist needs to be likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He needs emotional depth and a few flaws and insecurities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your character is annoying, boring, too perfect, or a wimp, you’re dead in the water. –And don’t make your villains 100% evil, either!
Please – no annoying protagonists
Your main character can and should have a few faults, but overall, she needs to be sympathetic and likeable – not whiney, ditzy, cold, immature, or annoying. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character. If the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist and what happens to her within the first few pages, she will put down the book and go on to another one. As James Scott Bell says, in fiction, “readers will respond only if they are connected, bonded in a way to the lead character.” (Revision & Self-Editing)
A perfect character is insufferable
Don’t make your main character too good to be true. Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes.” As Mittelmark and Newman so aptly put it, “Perfect people are boring. Perfect people are obnoxious because they’re better than us. Perfect people are, above all, too good to be true.
“Protagonists should only be as nice as everyday people are in real life. Making them nicer than the average reader will earn the reader’s loathing, or make her laugh in disbelief.” (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel)
Develop those cardboard characters
To avoid flat, superficial characters, you need to create an interesting backstory for each of them, including their secret fears and insecurities, hopes and desires, likes and dislikes, quirks and attitudes, and strengths and triumphs. Many of these details won’t make it into your novel, but knowing them yourself will make your character more complex and well-rounded, and reduce the chances that you have him acting out of character.
Also, a sure-fire way to deepen your characters is to have them react more to events. Show how they’re feeling, through their words, actions, and body language. An emotionally flat character is boring.
Give your protagonist charisma
“GRIT, WIT, AND IT.” – That’s James Scott Bell’s answer to the question “What makes a great Lead character?” Here are a few of his points about each of these essential attributes:
GRIT – “Let me lead off with the one unbreakable rule for major characters in fiction: No wimps!
A wimp is someone who just takes it. Who reacts (barely) rather than acts. While a character may start out as a wimp, very early on he must develop real grit. He must do something. He must have forward motion. Grit is guts in action.”
No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve their life. As Bell says, “Know your character’s inner lion. What is it that will make her roar and fight? Bring that aspect to the surface early in your story and you won’t be hampered by the wimp factor.”
WIT – Wit can rescue a character from a moment that can become just maudlin self-pity, or be overly sentimental, almost sappy, and will enliven even a negative character. As Bell says,
“Find an instance when your character can gently make fun of himself. Work that into a scene early in the book. This makes for a great first impression on the reader.”
IT – “It” means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It’.”
Bell gives several suggestions for making sure your lead character has “it”, including:
“Work into your novel an early scene where another character is drawn to your Lead character. This can be because of sex appeal, power, or fascination. It can be subtle or overt. But this will set It in the minds of the readers.” (Revision & Self-Editing)
And don’t forget to give your main character plenty of attitude!
Don’t wimp out on us
“Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active—risk-takers—highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person—a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.” (Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them))
As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion. […] Usually the writer simply doesn’t realize that his character is a dishrag type because he modeled the character after a real person or he doesn’t realize that fictional characters differ from us mere mortals.” (Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us)
So don’t model your hero after someone you know. He needs to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Morrell puts it, “fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.”
Make sure your protagonists aren’t boring, perfect, annoying, or wimpy. Make them appealing and memorable by giving them charisma, flaws, likeable traits, and above-average moral and physical strength and inner resources.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction.
Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copyediting and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques.