How Interesting!

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!


213 thoughts on “How Interesting!

  1. Hmm, this sounds familiar, though my problem is slightly different. In Book 1, my MC was great. In Book 2, my MC almost took over the role of an SC from Book 1 who wasn’t there in 2. Does this make any sense?
    I would also like to add character developement to this list. The MC of LOTR (Frodo) is the one we care least about because his change is something we have trouble identifying. If your charrie does not have a character-flaw, give him one and have him change before The End.

    1. I disagree, actually. Character development only works in the long run. These are things to think about when creating and writing characters, not necessarily plotting your novel. Eventually, character development will become interesting– but not right off the bat, because character development never happens right off the bat.

      1. Yes, but it’s easier if you know that flaw at the beginning. That goes with the charrie himself as much as ability/inability and motivation and goals. If he is selfish, it will affect his goals.

  2. Fab post, Liam! It’s weird – main characters are kind of harder to handle than side ones, particularly narrators. Possibly because they have to DO so much more, and they have to drive the plot so much, we evidently have trouble balancing that with trying to make them interesting at the same time. Because we have to spend so much more time with the MCs, we have to see more of them, and thus they need more time and attention, which we don’t always have time to give them.

    Nevertheless, I find that taking a character out of the context of his or her role in the story and just looking at them as a person for a little while is quite helpful. Obviously you need to gear them a bit toward their role, one way or another, but sometimes just mulling them over can help you spot things like awful lack of humour / goals / a life outside Being The MC. Certainly helped me a couple of times.

    1. Profound, Charley. There are a lot of gems in here.

      I agree that MCs need more work, as well as the benefits of looking at them separately for a while. But sometimes MCs are just more trouble than they’re worth.

      1. It’s kind of too bad sometimes. It’s almost as if we’re destroying our own chances by destroying theirs– they get back by being dead weights and we get back by being nasty. Perpetual cycle.

      2. Sort of. Some of them will decide to carry on and try and win anyway, just to spite us. I love those characters. They make my job so much easier. And more amusing.

      3. Oh, yes, then they plead for mercy as they crawl toward their gun. You go all Hamlet on them, and they get the chance to kill you. Nah, I like head shots.

      4. Sometimes, if I’m in that sort of mood. Other times it’s funnier just to watch them try and think of adjectives while I swing my axe worryingly close to their toes.

      5. Can you imagine writing on the run? Sounds like a good way to trip and poke out your eye with your pen.

      6. He must have had strong legs – hence why I tend to hamstring my foes. The pain tends to addle them for the best effects. Also, when they do get it right, it’s quite marvellous. I tend to take them home and give them a dungeon then. Sometimes I even have biscuits with them, if they’ll sing me another song.

      7. Great. My squad is heading over now. They’re giving me live updates on their progress. The border is in sight. They’re coming up to the– wait, they’ve made a wrong turn, off into a parking lot! I don’t pay them to do that! Stupid Italian restaurant.

      8. Yes, but why would you want them to live? I should want them to live, since I’m invading your place.

        Perhaps we should switch places, since I want them dead and you want them to succeed.

      9. Them! You can go get eaten by a kraken for all I care right now. …Wait, I’m trying to assassinate you. Don’t get eaten by a kraken until they arrive.

      10. My kraken couldn’t eat me if it tried, no fear.

        Now, let’s see if these little assassins of yours can get past my moat . . .

      11. Aha. So they’re effectively giving themselves a lake to cross… or… Whoa. They’re actually quite brilliant. The moat is overflowing and reaching the foundations of your fortress.

      12. Ah, yes, a moat of acid surrounding a vulnerable infrastructure would be quite unwise. My squad has managed to find a boat that will float on this acid stuff. They’re preparing a grapnel to throw over the walls.

      13. Messy. The sharks have found a couple of them . . . oh, one’s made it over, so’s another!

        Now they’ll have fun getting through the doors and facing the barricades!

      14. Well, they took their inspiration from Les Mis . . . but my minions have added a few things. Namely rockets. And a dragon.

      15. Who will wake them? No one ever will.
        No one ever told them that a big missile could kill.
        Did you see them lying where they died?
        Lonely piles of ashes, drifting as they fried?
        Did you see them burning side by side?

      16. Notably. Eh. These ones are expendable anyway.

        Just wait until they get through the door. THEN the real fun will start.

      17. I can. It’s very funny. Oh, and they aren’t taking to it. Well. Unless you count ‘catching fire and running to douse themselves in the custard and getting eaten by the sharks’, taking to it.

      18. I’m getting a communication from the leader’s radio. It seems they’ve passed the tribbles with only a few casualties, which are now shark food.

      19. They are actually quite brilliant. They’ve carefully barricaded themselves in this room with the marmite. Now they’re taunting your minions outside– I wonder how many get blown up before they realize it’s a mistake?

      20. Indeed. These assassins of yours are really quite marvellous! Oh . . . there go the Expendable Minions. Hmm. Looks like they’re settling in for a siege.

      21. IDIOTS! I shall have them smote as nothing has ever been smote before for their incompetence! I PUT A SIGN UNDER THERE AND EVERYTHING!

        Oh my . . . it looks like there’s something of an uphill battle going on down there . . . oh dear, they have a cave troll.

      22. . . . My minions or your assassins? Because if you’ve paid my minions off I’m blowing this whole fortress to kingdom come right now.

      23. Ah, that’s alright then. Oh my stars, look at that cave troll go! I had no idea they were so proficient in the art of causing domino effects . . .

      24. When they fall over, though… ugh.

        Well, my men have gained entrance, though their cave troll is dead. They report a long dark tunnel. Can I trust you not to have assassins down there? …No.

      25. Huh. Never mind, I shall have biscuits prepared for the aftermath. Then again, I wonder if the giant vampire bats in the corridor will make it end more swiftly than I thought it would . . .

      26. Have one of mine – I’ve got lots of colours and sizes to choose from.

        Hang on . . . I didn’t leave the trapdoor open did I? Oops.

      27. That was sarcasm. Huh. Evidently my Sarcasm-To-Text transmitor has failed again. Ah well *smashes mace into nearest opponent*

      28. But before we get too far into our bloody existentialism, let’s get back to the issue at hand– jellied killer tuna attacking my troop of highly-trained assassins meant to kill you! How can this possibly end to both of our advantages?

        …Do you just want to get lunch?

  3. Ah, I LOVE my side-characters. Usually more then the mains. Except for the last book I finished, where the main character was actually funny (gasp!), had clear motives (oh my!) and got hungry at the strangest times (clap, clap). I think your check list is spot-on there. For me, in trying to make my main characters perfectly written…I lose my love for them.

  4. Everyone has their own way of viewing things. In the world of storytelling, there’s really no right or wrong. If Twilight can have a protagonist with a goal to keep attempting suicide just to get the love of her life back, that doesnt really make her proactive. But who can say she’s wrong when the book has millions of readers.

    As writers, we all learn and view things different; hence our readers are not always the same. This makes us all… special? I guess I can say that 🙂

    1. Yes, of course. Nothing is going to work for everyone– there is no surefire system or formula for creating good characters, though there are some parts of the process that some people (including myself) miss.

  5. How interesting indeed!

    But I can see why some of these things don’t work so well for main characters. Humour is as you said: if the main character is too funny it makes it like a comedy. Having an interesting history doesn’t work so well for main characters because we are interested in them for what they do in THIS story, not in some random other story. If we were, we’d be reading the other story instead. The other factors seem fairly applicable for main characters though.

    I haven’t read much of your Phil Phorce yet (nor even many of you other posts lately) because I’ve been too busy, but I’ll be on holidays in April so I’ll probably read it then all in one go.

    1. Very profound. Reading this a few days after I wrote the post, I’m half wondering if I said all that.

      It’s no problem. You can read this whenever you want, if you read it at all.

  6. Hmm. That explains why some random character I made to basically be part of the setting ended up being as important to the story as my narrator. He was so much fun to write, he kinda bumped himself up on the ranks.

    Actually, I might have to disagree with the humor. It depends entirely on the style of humor and how it’s presented. If you are writing the type of embarrassing humor, where so-and-so is making a fool of himself, but it’s funny to watch, then yes, your work might turn into a comedy. I have a somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, and often my characters adopt that as well—it adds a bit of humor and something to smile about, but it doesn’t need to take away the seriousness of it. On another hand, I do agree. Comic relief usually does come from the side-characters, and there are obviously reasons to it.

    So, does Bob get his sandwich?

    1. Humor in books isn’t usually set up as jokes that the characters share in. Someone might say, “It’s a giant fingernail clipping of doom…” which is funny to us, but not necessarily to the characters who are about to be crushed by this giant thing. In short, any humor in the story involves the characters being laughed at, so the main character shouldn’t usually be the funniest. Nor should he crack jokes. I don’t know if that made sense.

      Of course Bob gets his sandwich. He always gets his sandwich in these examples.

      1. Yes, you have a point. Hm.

        Well, not necessarily. Or, rather, it could end with a cliffhanger. He gets his sandwich—and then loses it. Or somebody else eats it. Poor Bob….

  7. A brilliant point here, Liam. There’s a major issue with protagonists, because they’ve got to measure up to and surpass the side characters, many of whom will be invested with more interesting stories. Also, as the main character forms the drive of the story on many occasions, you have to tie in their motive, mostly, to somehow furthering the plot. This inevitably leads to those horrible bland farm boys seeking to be knights who set out to save the world and do so with the help of a list of Assorted Stereotypical Sidekicks.

    On the subject of humour – a funny main character isn’t always a bad thing. I had one in my 2011 NaNo project; he was witty and wisecracking and generally incredibly sarcastic, but rather than turning the whole thing into a comedy romp, I found it really easy to use his slightly vindictive sense of humour to make him genuinely chilling and frightening at times, and also a pretty sad specimen of a love-starved childhood, too. It all depends on the presentation, and how the humour is used, and what that humour can reveal about the character on the whole. Having a main character whose purpose is solely focussed on being funny is just shallow writing, and it’ll show.

      1. Have I? Silly me. Ah well, read it again, came at it with new thoughts. A double dose of Charley silliness.

        It’s a matter of practice, I think. Most things are.

  8. I agree with the sense that humor in the MC can make it feel like a comedy. At the same time though, some writers have managed to pull it off. Leo Valdez? Percy Jackson? I agree with Charley, the humor can make the character REALLY scary when they need to be.

    1. As long as the other characters don’t laugh at their jokes, it’s a comedy. There must always be someone saying, “A time for foolery this is not, thou ignorant goat!”

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