Add a little … character

I bet if you asked people to tell what their favorite books are and why they enjoy them, most people would mention something about loving the characters. For example, I love the Harry Potter books because I adore Snape. When I was waiting impatiently for the seventh Harry Potter novel, I wasn’t wondering what nefarious schemes Voldemort would unleash–I wanted to know what was going on in Severus Snape’s head when he killed Dumbledore. Why did he do it? What was he doing the entire series as Harry’s sometimes-protector, sometimes-tormentor? He was so mysterious and fascinating!

Other characters I’ve adored: Silk, the snarky, sneaky, heroic thief from David Eddings’ Belgariad. Matthew, the sweet and stumbling farmer of Anne of Green Gables. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit  from The Wrinkle in Time. Sarah Ruth from The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (which is easily one of the five most moving books I’ve read in my entire life). None of them are main characters or POV characters in their stories, but they are the characters that jump out at you and steal your heart forever.

What is it about these characters that makes them so special? How can they be so touching? How can we create characters that are that good at grabbing readers’ loyalty and love?

I’m not sure. But here are a few of my ideas about them:

  • They are well-defined characters with unique voices. Think about the way Matthew starts 90% of his sentences with the phrase “Well, now…” By the third time he’d said it, my daughter was hooked on his humble, folksy speech. He doesn’t use dialect, but when he talks, Matthew words are uniquely his.
  • They have special moral roles. Silk struggles with morality–he’s a thief and a troublemaker. But he always winds up doing the right thing (even if it’s the wrong way). Some characters are especially loving or giving, touching the heart of the protagonist in a way that allows them to grow as human beings.
  • They are funny. I love the Weasely brothers because they are outrageous and ridiculous. And I can’t tell you how many of Silk’s one-liners I had to read out loud to my poor suffering mother while I was in my Belgariad phase.
  • They die in ways that deeply affect the characters. Beth is a wonderful character, but it’s her death, and Joe’s heart-break over it, that makes Little Women such a remarkably affecting tale. (Conversely, does anybody like Gone With The Wind‘s Melanie until she’s dead?)

So it looks like characters that are unique, well-defined, complicated and somehow have a substantive effect on the POV character(s) is a pretty good way to sink a hook in your reader. How can you use this to your advantage? Do you have any secondary characters who could become more morally complex? Are there ways to make a minor character funnier? Could somebody have an interesting (but not too annoying!) catch phrase? Could your POV character have a more meaningful relationship with one of your secondary characters?

Do you have any ideas that would help create more memorable and affecting characters? Please share! Creating lovable characters is my Achilles heel, so any tips would be incredibly, incredibly useful.

 

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  • James Worrad

    They’ve got to have one or two character flaws- egotism, avarice, irascibility etc. Otherwise they’re too pure and good. Everyone prefers Han to Luke. There’s a reason for that. 

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  • How much do I love that you tagged this post “Snape”?

  • Flaws, but they’ve got to be fun people. The ones you want to hang out with. The people whose wit, charisma, chutzpah… make you gravitate naturally in their direction.

    The Ticker in Emma Bull’s Finder.  I =love= Tick-Tick.  Pamela Dean’s Fence. 

    DWJ’s Chrestomanci and Wizard Howl are exceptions in that you don’t necessarily want to be around them yourself, but you _can’t stop_ watching them.  And you’d never mistake them for someone else either.  Magnetism has its uses.  😀 

    Diane Duane’s Ed (the Master Shark) fits this mold also.

    Sometimes you get just a glimpse of the character, sometimes they’re major forces. 

    (And Silk, ohh, I love Silk.)

    P.S.  Yes, Luke is boring.  He’s just too unformed.  Hasn’t had enough time to develop past being a plot point, poor kid.

  • Daniel

    Good post!

    Question: have you ever read Inheritance Cycle (Eragon)? If so, do you like the character Angela?

    I do: she’s whimsical, good, powerful, and incredibly mysterious. @James Worrad, she’s got enough tendency to poke fun at everyone (including Eragon), and enough tendency to tease readers with just barely withheld information to offset her awesomeness. @openid-141863:disqus, she’s got enough awesomeness (not to mention a triple helping of wit) to make her likeable!

    @twitter-18224903:disqus, agreed!