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. [Read more…]