The Perfect Story: Characters

In writing a novel, one must consider, “What makes a perfect character?”

Very often I’ve heard writing instructors mention that we should create “strong” characters.  After over thirty years of writing, I still don’t know what that means—and neither do they!

Part of the problem of course is that there are dozens of types of characters—everything from characters who appear only as spear-carriers, used to deliver a few lines, to protagonists that are supposed to break a reader’s heart, to villains that we the author might want to have inspire fear and loathing. The traits that we desire in one character are often unusable in others.  We don’t want our spear-carriers to all be perfect heroes, for example.  If they were, our young protagonist wouldn’t need to exist.  He wouldn’t need to grow.  Nor do we want a heroic protagonist to be too common.  Couch potatoes don’t make believable heroes in most cases.

Nor should all characters exhibit the same traits even within the same class.  Not all “heroes” should have the same makeup.  After all, we’re not all the same.  Some people are born tough enough to ride bulls pretty much from birth.  Others fall apart when faced with the angst of potty training.  Both of them can be “strong” characters in their way.

So one might be tempted to think, “Well, maybe my hero should be well-rounded?  Maybe he should be a man of steel and velvet.”  Yet there’s nothing more boring to me than James Bond, a hero who can handle anything.  If your character knows how to speak twenty languages, dismantle a nuke, seduce a devout nun, and fight off a dojo of karate masters with one hand, he really is rather a silly character, isn’t he?

Given that heroes are so often given too much power, I’ve heard Realists say that “Your characters must be realistic.”  That argument is so dumb that I don’t even want to waste time on it.  Characters who aren’t realistic often work just fine.  Hannibal Lecter is a great character because he’s not your common thug off the street.  He rivets us because he’s brilliant, dangerous, and remarkably evil.  I knew at least a hundred killers back when I worked in the prison, but none quite like Hannibal Lecter.   In short, eccentric characters can often be enthralling in part because of their eccentricities.

On the other hand, I find that one highly acclaimed author consistently creates characters that are so twisted and grotesque that they’re no longer human.  Hence, I don’t find myself feeling sympathy for them, and though I think that this author is a genius in many ways, I’ve quit reading his books.

So what makes a perfect character?  I’ll give you a hint: you need to develop characters that you feel are suited to their roles in your story.  You don’t want them to be so talented that they become absurd.  You don’t want them to be so weak that we find them pitiable or contemptible.  You don’t want them to be so ordinary that they’re boring.  You don’t want them to be so eccentric that they seem grotesque.

In short, each character in your tale is a puzzle piece, fitted to his or her role in your tale.  The character must be balanced with all other characters, with the themes and conflicts.  Each character needs to be strange enough to be compelling, yet ordinary enough so that we as readers can connect with them, experience the tale through their eyes.

Each character is just a part of a larger picture, but what picture you create, and what characters you choose to portray that picture—that’s up to you as an author.  In large part, it is a matter of taste.

Yet if you find that your readers are leaving you because they dislike your characterization, then you have to wonder, is it just a matter of taste, or do you need to use your audience as a touchstone?

So what makes a perfect character?  One that is perfectly suited to his or her role in the story, with traits balanced against those of other characters and the needs of your readers.

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Next week I will be teaching my workshop in Phoenix, and I still have a few spots available. If you would like to join us, you can register here.

One thought on “The Perfect Story: Characters

  1. Jason Parker

    An old pulp writer named Dwight Swain had a great book called Creating Characters. By great I mean all the little tricks used to create an interesting yet somewhat cardboard character in a fast moving story. One tip, for example: don’t give each character a similar name. I see this all the time. Just last night I was reading a book like that and I had trouble remembering who was who.

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