The most relatable characters in novels are as complex and flawed as real-life people. But portraying their bad qualities requires going out on a limb—which many authors aren’t willing to do.
by Gregory Erich Phillips
Think of a few of your favorite characters in novels. What was it about them that you loved so much? What was it that made you care what happened to them and made your heart twist up when things went badly for them? I’m guessing it wasn’t because these characters were so “good.” Sometimes it was almost the opposite, right?
I bet if you look back, all the characters you loved started with an author willing to take a risk. The most memorable characters are complex to a point where they may be liked, or they may not.
The trap of the bland protagonist
Have you ever noticed, either in your own writing or in novels you’ve read, that the secondary characters are often more compelling than the protagonist?
I find this to be fairly common. It sometimes seems as if the protagonist can become a window toward the much more interesting things that are happening around him or her. Occasionally this is done intentionally, where the point-of-view character is being used to hold a mirror up to the true star of the story. The Great Gatsby and A Prayer for Owen Meany are two clear examples. But in reality, though Nick Caraway and John Wheelwright are the point-of-view characters in these novels, Jay Gatsby and Owen Meany are the true protagonists.
Many authors feel too close and protective of their main characters, so they avoid taking risks. They want readers to like their protagonists.
More often, however, writers fall into the trap of bland protagonists unintentionally. I believe the reason is that authors feel too close and protective of their main characters, so they avoid taking risks. They want readers to like their protagonists. Writers will give their secondary characters quirks and flaws and vices that might make them unlikeable, but also give them the human shape that makes them believable. Some writers are not brave enough to give those same idiosyncrasies to their leads.
Look back at those two earlier examples. Jay Gatsby was a light that brought people to him like moths. But his character was deeply flawed and in many ways he was a child in a man’s body. Not every reader liked him, but no one could turn away from him. With Owen Meany, John Irving created a character that was almost two good—portrayed literally as a Christlike figure. So Irving gave him physical defects, as well as a boyhood accident that creates a trauma from which he never fully recovers.
A necessary ugly streak
The most relatable characters are deeply flawed. The most memorable characters have an ugly streak. It takes courage to risk making your lead character unlikeable, but the result is almost always a better novel. The best characters have jealousies, fears, secrets, addictions, regrets, guilts. The best characters sometimes make readers angry at them.
It’s not enough to give your character a flaw—you must bring this ugly fault to the fore right when it matters most.
In my latest novel, A Season in Lights, I crafted a protagonist in Cammie that some readers actually didn’t like, even while they liked the story as a whole. Other readers loved her. She had a selfish streak and had treated her family quite badly in the back story. But because of her flaws, she was a character who was able to grow, and most of the feedback I received about her, even from those who didn’t like her, was that they could relate to her on a certain level.
It’s not enough simply to give your characters a flaw or a vice. When the rubber of the story meets the road, don’t let them off the hook. Bring this ugly fault of theirs to the fore right when it matters most. They will have to grow or fail; either way, your story, and your character, will be stronger for it. We novelists are cruel to our characters, it must be said.
On a more playful level, I like to give all my characters (lead and secondary alike) a little quirk that they may not even notice about themselves. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase that they overuse, or an unconscious mannerism, or a weird eating habit. We all have something we do like this. If you watch people in your life you will start to notice and get ideas for your characters. Only don’t tell your friends and family you are watching them! Adding these types of nuances make your characters more believable and more endearing.
I hope this gives you some ideas for the characters you’re working on now, or for the next character you bring onto the page. And I hope you’ll check out my latest novel, A Season in Lights: A Novel in 3 Acts, which you can find via my website, or wherever books are sold.
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