On Saturday, Jo Eberhardt posted about unlikeable characters . She pointed out that what makes loathsome characters compelling in spite of their faults are their clear motives, consistency and genuine relationships.
Interestingly, those are also factors that make likeable characters compelling. That started me thinking. What other qualities are critical to creating characters we care to read about for several hundred pages? Is there a universal checklist of character elements that cause us to feel swept away?
We tend to focus on characters’ faults, troubles and turmoil. That’s not wrong. They are the basis of story. They allow characters to make mistakes, stir things up, struggle, and wrestle with life in ways with which we can identify. Writers say, “It’s their flaws that make them interesting.” Well, interesting to writers.
In my prior paragraph, there’s a distinction that matters. Flaws are a negative. Struggle is a positive. Flaws by themselves are not attractive, but struggles draw us in. The inner journey—which really means the difficulty in arriving at a state of grace—is rooted in a desire to change. Absent that yearning, characters are stuck. They can only wallow, whine and suffer. A small subset of readers will tolerate such characters, but only up to a point. Most readers reject them unless there is a reason to hope.
There is, however, a further distinction to make. Not every inner struggle and outward plot problem are guaranteed to engage readers’ hearts. When we are swept away it is because a character’s inner struggle is one that we deem important. It matters. It feels close to home. Plot problems are the opposite, they have an anti-gravity: They are the most compelling when they put us face-to-face with our deepest fears.
Your deepest fear is not necessarily my deepest fear, obviously, which is why there is a diversity of story type. Some authors express it all to you and yet say little to me. Plots have varying levels of appeal and that’s not bad. The point is that a plot—a problem—will grip your unique audience when it first of all grips you. When it matters. When you wish it would stay far away from your home.
When characters sweep us away, we wish we were them. What makes us feel that? External circumstances are a factor. Times and places can interest or enchant us. English historical settings and faux-medieval fantasy worlds have perhaps endured, in part, for that reason. We’d like to live when and where we feel that life was (or is) better, more dramatic, fraught with social pressure, full of pleasures and where and when we may have the vicarious enjoyment of a status (high or low) that we would not otherwise be able to experience.
Characters’ professions and personalities can also appeal. Who doesn’t want to be a spy, a boy wizard, a symbolist, or a tattooed hacker with a violent streak? Imaginatively, I mean. Who doesn’t want to wisecrack, have steel nerves, or see the world in terms of beautiful metaphors? We’d all like to be better, bigger and elevated in ways that we aren’t. It’s not just lives that we wish for, but traits. Characters we want to be are characters whom we envy.
Characters we envy may be many things, but one key thing that they have, and which we want, is love. Characters who sweep us away have others who believe in them: supporters, mentors, friends. They also sweep us away when they themselves are swept away by a great love of their own. The One. The Only. Scientifically speaking, One True Love is a romantic fallacy, I’m sure, but that love’s appeal is not its singularity but its power. We all want to be deeply in love, subsumed to the point that this love gives our lives meaning if not a fundamental reason to be alive.
Characters who sweep us away also do things that are admirable, heroic and impossible. I have written previously about creating impossible odds . What constitutes heroic actions is fluid and varies by story, but if a sense of heroism is achieved then what is done involves doing good. That can be good for others or good for self or both, but it is right action that for a given character is both difficult and necessary.
I’m not talking today about what makes characters feel realistic, lifelike or authentic. I’m not talking about voice. I’m talking about what makes characters enthralling in stories. Whatever it means in any given story, when we meet characters who face impossible odds, who meet defeat if not death, who act for the good, who love and are loved by others, who meet their limitations and fail, and somehow rise again, then we cheer.
Naturally, we don’t need to cheer. Not every character needs to be as admirable as a Jean Valjean, Atticus Finch, George Smiley, Celie, Nancy Drew, Harry Dresden, Lyra Silvertongue or Jack Reacher. Not every character needs to be as heart-catching or thought-provoking as Jane Eyre, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caufield, Holly Golightly, Kilgore Trout or Captain Yossarian.
It’s not necessary to be swept away but it’s not impossible, either. Why not develop your characters until they achieve that enchantment? Why not fashion that checklist and tick off the qualities that will make your characters as enthralling as your favorites in literature?
How does your current protagonist struggle inside? How is your protagonist’s problem your own deepest fear? Why do you wish you could be your protagonist? Why do you wish you could live when and where he or she does? Who loves your protagonist and whom does your protagonist love in turn? Why makes that love greater than all others? What must your protagonist do that is impossible? How does your protagonist rise again?
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