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?


From Goodreads:
What if love refused to die? Haven Moore can’t control her visions of a past with a boy called Ethan, and a life in New York that ended in fiery tragedy. In our present, she designs beautiful dresses for her classmates with her best friend Beau. Dressmaking keeps her sane, since she lives with her widowed and heartbroken mother in her tyrannical grandmother’s house in Snope City, a tiny town in Tennessee. Then an impossible group of coincidences conspire to force her to flee to New York, to discover who she is, and who she was. In New York, Haven meets Iain Morrow and is swept into an epic love affair that feels both deeply fated and terribly dangerous. Iain is suspected of murdering a rock star and Haven wonders, could he have murdered her in a past life? She visits the Ouroboros Society and discovers a murky world of reincarnation that stretches across millennia. Haven must discover the secrets hidden in her past lives, and loves¸ before all is lost and the cycle begins again...

Razorbill was nice enough to send me a copy when they sent The Replacement, and I'd love to pass this ARC on to one of you!

I'm going to do this giveaway a little different from the other ones, so here are some rules:

- please make sure that you click on "Follow" if you haven't already. I really do check!
2. You must live in the US or Canada. I'm so sorry, int'l pals - I bet you're all really sick of seeing this.
3. You must enter before Monday, August 9 (at 11 PM Central Time)

Extra Points for
1. Doing a blog post - +10
2. Being an 'Old' Follower
(following before August 5) + 2
3. Tweeting (+2 for every tweet, and you can tweet as many times as you want)

The way you can enter is to leave a comment below. This is a pretty last-minute contest (I wanted to put it up before I went to camp, but alas that didn't happen) so it would help me so much if you'd help spread the word! The winner will be announced at 12 AM on August 10 (the day Eternal Ones is released into stores).
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