Well-crafted characters - why they're essential to a novel
Today I'd like to look at what traits readers love in a character. As well as what they hate! My reason? I've just finished reading a book that's garnered high praise from literary pundits, but which failed to impress me. The main reason was the characters - totally flat and unbelievable, very one-dimensional. The protagonist was cold, unfeeling, dismissive of her parents because they lacked money. Yet the author wanted me to believe this person was also capable of a great, undying love. By that time I'd given up caring about her, repelled by her personality. The other characters were no better. To make matters worse, the plot lacked depth and cohesion, along with an unsatisfactory ending.
Crafting great characters is one of the hardest challenges authors face. The storyline might be intriguing, the narrative well written, yet if readers don't identify with the main characters, then the book is unlikely to entertain them. Or even hold their interest past the first few chapters.
So what makes a great character?
Hannibal Lecter, from Thomas Harris's novel The Silence of the Lambs, springs to mind. This is no cardboard cut-out antagonist, but a complex individual who captures the reader's imagination, partly because he presents two such different sides to his personality. On the one hand, he is cultured, well educated, a former Baltimore forensic psychiatrist. He is knowledgeable about art, literature and cuisine. Yet he is also a psychopathic and cannibalistic serial killer. Quite a juxtaposition, isn't it? And that's what makes Lecter such a compelling personality. He'd make a great dinner guest – provided he didn't eat you!
What follows are my thoughts on what makes a great character. First, they need to arouse empathy in a reader. I don't necessarily have to like them, but I do need to be on their side, eager for them to overcome their demons by the end of the story.
They should also be interesting. I don't want to read about someone who works in a mundane job, has no friends and holds no opinions. That's boring, and in real life we shy away from dull individuals. Instead, I like characters to have fire in their bellies, to laugh, to cry, to experience pain and joy and all the emotions that come attached to this crazy life we're living.
Treat 'em mean...
One piece of advice that's often dished out to writers is to torture their characters... and then torture them some more. Wise words, in my opinion! By forcing them to endure angst, loss, loneliness, an author makes them real, because sorrow and tragedy happen to us all. In addition, how a character faces life's trials helps to shape their personalities, meaning that by the end of their novel, they've changed - and for the better. An example is Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars franchise, who morphs from a humble farm boy to a great Jedi warrior.
I love it when a character aspires to become a better person, often as a result of pain they've suffered in the past. Sometimes they're the underdog in a novel, a plot device that helps the reader to root for them. Underdogs are called to rise to challenges that will shape their personalities; a notable example is Harry Potter from J K Rowlings' books. Once a mistreated boy forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, he eventually becomes an accomplished wizard despite facing adversaries such as Draco Malfoy and Lord Voldemort. Speaking of which, antagonists in a novel need to be worthy of the title of villain. Make them dark, make them twisted, make the reader loathe them, yet be fascinated by them. Hannibal Lecter again!
To be well-rounded, a characters needs to have flaws, because who doesn't? I don't want to read about someone who's always calm, patient, reliable, consistent - such people don't exist. We're all imperfect, changeable, difficult at times - some of us all the time! This leads me on the my last point - characters need to be believable. Don't give me street thugs who never swear, teenagers who don't act out, couples who never argue. I want reality, in all its ugly glory, because that's what shapes an great read. And I suspect other readers do too.
What do you think?
Are there any points you can add? What do you like or loathe in a character? Leave a comment and let me know!