Thursday, August 5, 2010

What makes a good character?

What makes a good character? To be specific, what makes a good main character or narrator?

I’ve been wondering about this more and more lately, especially after finishing the Hunger Games books and rereading some random book reviews. I think it’s interesting the words that keep reappearing when describing characters:

Strong, Shallow, Boring, Stupid, Cocky, Relatable, Funny, and the most descriptive word of all: … “Great”

I bet my criteria for a good main character and/or narrator is different from some of yours, and it dawned on me today that I’m actually a pretty capricious person in this regard, because I realized that I don’t even follow a set formula. Some characters just click with me, and others – for no major or noteworthy reason whatsoever –just don't.

I've copied some really interesting points made in reviews by one of my Goodreads friends and scatter them throughout this post. She has some really good ideas!

Now, for the reason I won't say, (Character) has an excuse for acting out of character, but EVEN considering said reason, he still acted like a jerk. Not once in the book did he do anything remotely redeeming.

First comes the issues of RELATABILITY (which is totally not a real word, but if Palin and Obama can make up words, so can I!). I’ve been thinking about characters, both as a reader and as a writer. I guess my question is – are all characters supposed to be relatable? I’ve seen this comment on several reviews, and it’s definitely on a lot of mine – about characters being relatable. And I wonder – do all authors even intend for characters to be relatable? If I say that I can’t relate to a character, am I even supposed to? What do you all think?

For the most part, I try to relate to the main character in each book, and usually I’m met with some kind of success. The last few MCs: Katniss Everdeen, Kelley Winslow (Wondrous Strange), Bertie Shakespeare Smith (Theatre Iluminata series), Jena (Wildwood Dancing), Grace (Wolves of Mercy Falls) and Grace (The Dark Divine) were all relatable in some sense. The characters I can’t really relate to are usually in the books that I give low grades to. That doesn’t mean, though, that characters have to be just like me. All of the above ladies have had experiences (within the realm of their stories) that I have not experienced, and all of them at one point or another made decisions that I probably would not have made, were I in their situation. That, to me, is one of the fun things about reading. In a way, it’s kind of like an out-of-body experience, isn’t it? You get to live vicariously through the characters. In my reviews, when I say that a character is “relatable,” I’m not saying “this character is a carbon copy of myself…” but I do mean that the character’s actions make sense to me. I may not have agreed with everything that Grace Brisbane did in Shiver and Linger, but I pretty much understood why she did them. I could relate to some of her actions, but I could almost always relate to her feelings. I guess this is the best way to explain what I mean when I talk about characters being relatable.

Next Point:

One thing that bothered me was how (Character) seemed to notice no one but herself. She is way too self absorbed, which made it hard for me to like her character.

(Raises hand) I’ve done this! It’s been hard for me to like characters because of their attitudes. I like characters who either start out strong and stay strong, or who gradually develop over the course of the story. Occasionally there are characters who are strong from the very beginning, but most characters have some sort of hindrance that they must work through or overcome. Sure, it’s nice to have characters I can relate to, but more importantly, I like characters I can look up to.

I also love smart characters. I don’t mean geniuses or always-make-the-right decision characters; I mean characters who know when they’ve screwed up and work toward a change. One of my favorite characters of all time is Jena from Wildwood Dancing, and she is the best example I can think of for this point. She’s a smart character to begin with, but at one point in the story she does something really stupid. She eventually sees her mistake and makes it right. I love characters like that!

It’s not necessary, but it’s an added bonus to have characters with a great sense of humor. Percy Jackson, one of my favorite characters of all time (and hands down favorite narrator) has a sense of humor that can’t be beat. It made reading the series more enjoyable, because who doesn’t love a laugh? It also really helps the mood and tone of the novel. Have you ever read a book that you thought took itself a little too seriously? Comic relief is definitely something that I find necessary in long stories.

When it comes to love interests, I personally prefer simple, sweet characters. I love “gentle warriors” who can be both sweet and affectionate and tough as nails if called to do so. Whether or not a guy is tough and good with a sword, though, I like them to be kind to the girl. Anything else is secondary to that. One of the reasons I love Peeta so much is just because he’s so kind-hearted. Every time he says something sweet (which is a lot) I get this big goofy grin on my face that won’t go away. I don’t look for complicated love stories, and I don’t need a lot of drama. The best love stories, for me, are the ones that feel genuine.

Last Point:

He lacked the elements required to make a fictional male of this genre appealing (bad-boy with a hidden heart of gold or an exuberant sweetheart in possession of a sense of humor, or tormented soul); and therefore, I didn't care what happened to him. When you don't care about the main character, a fantastic story is required.

And finally, the part of this post that is going to be the hardest to explain. For better or worse, I’m the kind of reader who almost always makes a decision about characters. I either like them or I don’t (Just liking a character, though, doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to being objective – like with Katniss, for example). I rarely ever say about characters “I could take them or leave them.” But the weird thing is, I don’t always know why I like certain characters, and why I don’t like others. Are any of you the same way? I definitely agree with my friend’s comment, and I’ve made similar ones on my reviews. If I don’t like the main character/narrator, I will almost always be disengaged from the story. I don’t want to be that way, but I am. The main character is like the gigantic fat Santa Claus at the mall from our childhoods: you either run up to him squealing and laughing, or you turn on your heals and run in the opposite direction, but you can’t just get around him – he’s too big! Well, the main character/narrator is the same way.

So I listed my preferences. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl, I like characters to

- be compassionate, and aware of other people’s feelings

- have a sense of humor

- treat the love interest kindly and with respect (in addition to completely necessary sizzling and smoldering kissing scenes!)

- be smart or somewhat intelligent. Not make stupid, random mistakes over and over again

- grow and develop over the course of the story. Overcome obstacles and move towards a goal.

Those are all the really broad things I could think of. What about you – what qualities do you think make a good character?

5 shout-outs!:

Jillian said...

"If I don’t like the main character/narrator, I will almost always be disengaged from the story." - I agree with this wholeheartedly because I have disliked novels because of the main character/narrator before. One good example: Tally from the UGLIES trilogy. While I liked her in the first book, she went downhill in the second and third books where I felt she wasn't learning enough from her mistakes (and her personality went downhill as well). (I hope you feel differently about her, though, when you get around to reading PRETTIES and SPECIALS! :) )

Also, there are times when I don't know why I like a character. I think, though, that we're all inherently drawn to things we see in ourselves -- such as humor/wit, intelligence, compassion, etc. -- and our favorite characters lists somehow reflect that (even if *we ourselves* may not always see 'the why'). :)

Shy said...

Man... I guess that our heads do click in this regards. I totally need to be able to relate to the main character (especially) in the book and I'd totally feel not satisfied with the book if I feel like the character is too foreign to me.

Anyways Amelia, I do have an award waiting for you on my blog =) --> The Bibliophile's Journal

Tales of Whimsy said...

Great question!

I think a strong spirit.
A desire to do right.
A sense of humor.

Darlyn said...

I love this post Amelia! I find that relatable and smart characters always work for me. And like juju, a sense of humor and lively characters do the tricks well =)

Jenny Girl said...

What a great question and post.
For me a great character depends on the story as well as the characters qualities. The character could be great but if the story is a stinker, I don't care how much I like the character, I'm outta there.
Characters don't necessarily have to be nice or relatable either. There have been some characters I couldn't stand but the story was a train wreck I couldn't look away from.

So my "ideal" character would be brave, funny, sarcastic, thoughtful of others....someone I would have a cup of coffee or a beer with. I think that answers the question :)

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