Monday 26 November 2012

What makes a good character?

What makes a good character?

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently (yes, really) and a couple of thoughts came to mind regarding characters, their development, and the empathy readers have with them.

In one book I’m reading, a YA dystopia, the male lead’s only recognizable feature is his spiky hair.  On top of this he appears to be good-looking.  No surprise there.  The female lead is a teenage girl who appears to be Bella out of Twilight with a different name.  Several reviewers have mentioned “great characters”.  Um, why?  The guy is a TV presenter transposed into a sci-fi novel.  The girl is a high-school girl of regular attractiveness and intelligence who will obviously at some point get with the guy.  There’s nothing at all that makes either of them special or makes them stand out.

And perhaps here we have the answer.

Do readers, particularly young adult readers, merely want a character that they can pretend to be?  So that they can pretend to be in the book itself, interacting with the other characters as if they were real?

Another recent book I read, a so-called sci-fi classic, had a review bemoaning the lack of character development.  The book was set on a foreign planet, and revolved around a guy finding out what was going on in his world.  Which he did, and it was great.  Why would I need the guy to have some kind of big change in his life?  The story wasn't just about the guy, it was about the whole world around him.

Another issue I have is with empathy.  Matt Cassidy, the central character in The Man Who Built the World (that's him looking miserable on the cover), is an alcoholic borderline wife-beater who hates pretty much everything.  He’s intentionally detestable, in fact I went out of my way to give him no redeeming features.  The point of the book is such that through his story you discover why he is how he is, and whether he can find redemption. You're not supposed to like him.

I recently had someone pull out of reviewing the book because they couldn’t identify with him.  While I fully respect the reviewer’s opinion this pleased me in a certain way because I don’t want my readers to identify with him.  I want them to pity or hate or be repulsed by him.

I don’t write books with swimwear models or high school nice guys for characters.  If you find one, you can be sure he or she won’t last long.  Charles de Molay, star of my favorite of my unpublished novels, Hooks, is a cripple.  Dan Barker in Head of Words (forthcoming) is mentally insane.  Even the Tube Riders have their issues.  Marta - the only one close to being good-looking, hardly ever gets to wash and her dreadlocks are a case of more grime than intention.  Switch has, for want of a better expression, a fucked up eye, and Paul is balding and overweight.  It’s not just about their looks, either, but their actions.  In a lot of books nothing seriously bad ever happens to the main characters, or they never do anything bad, take your pick.  In Tube Riders, Marta sleeps with guys to pay her rent (or at least she did before the book starts).  Paul does even worse.  Switch kills without thinking whether his victim deserved it or not.

A reviewer recently said my book contained “real people”.  This was perhaps the biggest compliment someone could ever give me.  It doesn't matter if they liked it or not, they got it.  In real life people don’t always do the right thing, and they certainly aren’t always good-looking.  For every Che Guevara (cool enough to spawn a billion t-shirts) or Aung Sung Suu Kyi (gorgeous - at least in her youth, damn) there are hundreds or thousands of 'heroes' that are nothing much to look at.  It is totally possible for someone who isn’t cool or an oil painting to have an adventure, to be a hero.

So what do I think makes a good character?

I used to suffer from something I call the Steve Syndrome.  I would have a couple of main characters who were more distinctive then everyone else would be a Steve (apologies to anyone called Steve!).  This would be a character who had no real features or definition and often a generic name (the first character I identified as having this problem, in my third novel, Resort, was called Steve - hence the name).  In Tube Riders, both Paul and Simon were originally Steves.  Marta and Switch were always pretty well-defined, but I had to make a real effort to make Simon and Paul distinct.  Paul I made fat and more unattractive, while with Simon I went the other way, making him more feminine, almost androgynous.

Therefore, the first thing that I believe is important is memorability (is that even a word?!).  A character has to be memorable.  And not just by having a cute smile - that’s not memorable, it’s generic - they have to have some feature or mannerism (or both) which makes them stand out.  It doesn’t have to be good, and it doesn’t have to be bad.

Also extremely important is voice.  People talk differently.  Some people swear, some people don’t.  Some people say certain words more often than others.  Some people talk in long sentences, others talk in short, clipped phrases.  You should (within reason) be able to write a three- or four- way dialogue without using any identifying dialogue tags yet still have the reader know who is speaking each time.  If you can do that, you’ve got it.

Also very important to me (as you’ll notice from my character descriptions above) is flaws.  I hate good-looking, perfect characters.  Boooorrrriing.  Have you ever met anyone who was perfect?  (Actually, I have met a couple of people who were, and god they were dull).  Perfect characters are only allowed in comedy, because their very perfection can make them hilarious (see my novella series, Beat Down!, for an example).

So what do people think?  Obviously few people agree with me.  I’ve sold 27 books this month so far.  How many has Stephanie Meyer sold?  A billion?  Even the book I was complaining about above has probably sold about 200.  So, I’m likely wrong (except in my own head of course!), but I’d love to hear your ideas on what you think makes a good character.

27 Nov 2012


  1. Hi Chris,
    I believe memorable characters are defined by the reader's personality. Some readers connect with, and as a result are impressed by, characters that seem familiar. If they remind them of themselves or someone they know in anyway, then the connection is stronger. These characters are memorable because the author drew them after a familiar fashion. The closer they are to the reader's reality, the better.
    For others, and I'm one of those, it's how different these characters are from what the reader knows. For example, the character that most impressed me is Hannibal Lecter. I don't know anyone like him, thank God, and I do believe I have nothing in common with him, yet he affected me. He was so different, psychology books can be written about him.
    This is why it's important for authors to identify their target audience. Is it impressionable teenagers? Is it readers of dark fiction who don't mind crossing the line every now and then? Or is it simply someone looking for a quick and simple read?
    Does that make sense? Well, like you, in my head it does. Great post :-)

    1. Hi Su, I think you're spot on. One of the most memorable characters for me is Flay from the Gormenghast trilogy - I can see him in my head with his head stooped forward and towels tied round his knees to muffle the sound of his clicking knees as he went to sneak up on Steerpike (was that his name?). Such a vivid image, although I certainly don't identify with him!

  2. Hi Chris, I agree with all three points - if your characters are clear in your head, they will be to the reader. Seems to me, if the characters in a book you're reading don't build an image to you - they didn't to the author. Makes sense! I hope!

    1. This is very true, Judith! I think it is important for us as writers to ensure that all our characters are as vivid as possible.