I have discovered a pattern in my writing: I tend to despise my main characters and love my side characters.
In my first completed novel, Wise, I had no such problem. Perhaps my main character was a little flat, but then, everyone in that story was. In Fathoming Egression, however, I killed off my first uninteresting main character and installed another. As I got to editing, however, the new main character somehow seemed just as uninteresting as the first. Thus was the question brought to my mind: what makes an interesting character? The following is not a guide to creating characters, nor is it a checklist– it is a list of items that make characters interesting.
Humor. This is usually the difference between my main characters and my side characters. My side characters are cracking jokes left and right because they don’t have to be serious. My main characters are deadpan, making me want to write about the side characters more than the main characters. When you make your main characters comic, however, the story feels like a comedy. In serious stories, that might not be good.
History. In the first draft of Fathoming Egression, this was the difference between my main character and everyone else. For some strange reason, I find it difficult to write about someone without a history. Mo and Dustfinger from Inkheart obviously have a history together, and it intrigues us. Obi-Wan and Darth Vader likewise. Aragorn and Gandalf. Notice that none of these are the main character of their stories, but they are all intriguing. Captain Jack Sparrow, however, is a main character and has a history. The trick with that is to focus more on the immediate story than on the history, though you can feature it now and again.
Goals. Proactive protagonists are always interesting because though they’re tossed about in the metaphorical ocean of human existence, they are always trying to get their own way as well. Bob might be stuck with the responsibility of saving the world, but he’s still trying to get a sandwich. This makes them real, and keeps people wondering if he ever gets his sandwich in the end. TV shows do this excellently; the team is hunting their criminal, but at least one of them will be involved in a personal issue that must resolve before the end of the show.
Motive. This goes hand in hand with the goal. Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean wants to marry Elizabeth, and that’s his motivation for trying to save her. But occasionally the motive is separate from the goal– questionable, perhaps, or shrouded in mystery. Why is he helping that guy? Which side is he on, anyway? I love trying to figure this stuff out, and I’ll stay involved in any character with questionable motive. It’s why I love traitors so much. (Fictional ones, that is.)
Interests and opinions. This was suggested by John Hansen, and it’s spot-on. A character’s interests set him apart from the crowd. Again, this could go with motive or goal, but occasionally it’s separate. If a character’s interests or opinions are radical, they’re sure to get him in trouble someday. As the story goes on, his ideas are shaken and he begins to question them. Opinions are an enormous part of character development, and any character who has none will be immediately labeled as flat.
Abilities and inabilities. Firstly, no one likes an inept character. Secondly, no one likes a perfect one. The character must be good at something and bad at something else. It just so happens that, in order to consider itself saved, the world requires what he can’t do. I explained this in my recent post Failure is Fun! Both are important, of course, but inabilities are better for making characters interesting.
If you ignore all of this, you get a character commonly known as a Mary Sue. Arya, from the Inheritance Cycle, was exactly that. No goals, no motives, sense of humor, no interests, no inabilities. She may have been alive for a thousand years, but she still has no history. And thus, she is the least interesting part of the Cycle.
On a related note, there is this amazing post from Charley R, talking about the love interest and the importance of making them interesting. Go check it out.
Do you have anything to add to the list? Anything to take away? Any examples from your own writing on why I’m wrong? I’d love to hear them all!