Truly good characters are hard to come by. Characters that readers can see as humans worthy of their emotional investment. For writers, inventing fresh characters is one of the most difficult parts of storytelling, because an obviously underdeveloped character can carry bad influence into the rest of your novel. Nobody likes a flat cast of characters.
Readers like stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. People like them. Real people. Not cardboard cutouts. And that can make things tough for those of us who are authors. How do you know if your character is good enough?
Tip: “Good enough” does not always equate to “likeable.” Sometimes good characters are the ones we love to hate.
Today I want to talk about five things you can look for to spot good characters, both in the stories you read, and the ones you write.
1. A Unique Voice
Whether this voice belongs to your protagonist or a supporting character, uniqueness is one key to good characters. This doesn’t mean that all of your characters must have a different accent or dialect. Voice is not limited to how they sound, but also includes what they say. As I listen to people talk, I notice that they often have favorite words or phrases that they use over and over. Most of the time, it’s subconscious. For example, one of my younger sister’s favorite adjectives at the moment is “creepy.” She uses it dozens of times a day in total oblivion. These select words and phrases are often types of personality tics. Which brings me to point #2.
2. A Defined Personality
Voice can be, and often is, filtered through someone’s personality. For example, a person who appreciates art might use more abstract or imaginative descriptions than someone who is prone to analyzing details. Sherlock Holmes should sound different than Vincent Van-Gogh. A character’s personality should be definable to the audience; not just in how they speak, but in their thought processes and emotional responses. One of the best indicators of a good character cast is when the characters differ from one another. Ryan doesn’t have the same nervous habits as Lucy, and Lucy doesn’t think like Hannah. When characters’ personalities begin to mix, the definition that makes them fascinating and unique slips away.
In some ways, this goes hand-in-hand with a distinct personality. Good characters, while they may grow and mature, remain the same people. Their external actions may change, and sometimes even how they think, but the essence of their personality will not. Consistency also means that characters should not conveniently develop skills on a whim that they didn’t have before, in order to get out of a sticky situation. Don’t drop magical powers into your MC’s arsenal if he’s never had them before. Likewise, if he never learned to tame flying reindeer, don’t give him the convenience just because he needs speedy transport to the villain’s lair. Good characters stay within their personality and skill sets.
4. Human Emotions
Good characters are relatable, and it’s difficult to make a character relatable unless they feel emotion. I often stress the need for realistic displays of emotion in fictional people. The characters who strike me as the best are the ones who act like real people when it comes to emotions. They aren’t melodramatic, but they aren’t Vulcans either. They’re just…people. If a character feels little to no emotion, they almost never resonate with me. Characters who ignore all things emotional usually come across as flat. Emotions are what make a person human. Don’t deprive your characters of such an important trait.
5. Believable Motivation
This may be one of the most difficult things of all. Good characters always have motivation. It may not always be good, pure motivation, but it’s motivation nonetheless. And it’s got to be motivation that readers will buy. The best characters are the ones who have clearly defined paths, paved by their personal motivation and drive. Readers don’t like the ones who are all willy-nilly about their choices. Don’t let your characters get away with saying, “Sure, I’ll go and destroy the bad guy! …because I just feel like fighting evil today.” What’s actually motivating him? And what’s motivating the villain? That question is equally important, because readers can’t stand a baddie who’s just like, “I’m planning this dastardly scheme to eliminate mankind because genocide makes me happy.” Readers demand to know motivation. Sometimes it’s anger, or fear. Sometimes it’s integrity or loyalty. Whatever it is, don’t sell your reader short on what’s driving your character.
Before I wrap up this post, I want to take a quick look at a couple of characters who strike me as examples of what I’ve just discussed.
Everybody loves Sam. He’s got a unique voice and mannerisms, such as always referring to Frodo as “Mister Frodo.” His personality is incredible, and it shows in everything he does. While he isn’t the most skilled person for such a quest, he manages to succeed without crossing the boundaries of his more limited abilities. We see his emotion, his raw humanity, and his motivation—being loyalty to Frodo, and the need to do what is right.
Wait a minute! She’s not good. She’s—eeewwww. Actually, that’s exactly what makes her a good character. The fact that you cringed when you read her name on this list. That in itself shows the distinction of her personality. Umbridge is one of the most universally hated characters in fiction. Why? Because she meets these five qualifications. The emotion she displays is usually anger/frustration, but she covers it up with that horrendous giggle, and her motivation is both out of selfish pride and fear.
Some others worth mentioning would be: Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Levi Elias (The Safe Lands Series), Han Solo (Star Wars), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Percy Jackson (Percy Jackson), and Maddie and Julie (Code Name Verity).
Who are some of your favorite examples of great characters? Leave a comment and share!