As writers we need to ask ourselves how we can make our characters beguiling. What do we have to do to make them irresistible, compelling, and believable? They do not, of course, all have to be loveable, or even likeable. My own list of favourites reveals many anti-heroes and people I would not care to spend a weekend with. There are things, though, that are common to all successful characters.
- They are driven. In real life people are often passive but fictional characters must be dynamic. They must be active. However dire their circumstances, they cannot remain feeble victims. Their dynamism stems from what it is they want; what drives them. All of the great characters you have read about wanted something very, very badly, and that need was what produced action in the story. Sometimes what a person wants is obvious – Ahab and his whale, for example, or Bridget searching for Mr Right. Other times it is more abstract – Heathcliff wants Cathy, but he also strives to be at peace with himself, something he never achieves. We must know what it is that motivates our characters early in the tale.
- They are believable. Creating colourful, original characters to people your stories does not mean dreaming up extreme eccentrics, madmen and psychopaths. At least, not exclusively. Fair enough, if your thriller requires an evil murderer, he’s not going to be your average Joe. For the most part, however, characters are more ‘normal’, they just have to be differently and interestingly so. Whether your protagonist is a ruthless kidnapper of grandmothers, or a middle-aged housewife, the same rule applies: they must be plausible. They must behave in a way consistent with who they are. They cannot be given random quirks and peculiarities simply to try and make them more interesting. Any distinguishing factors in their personalities/appearance/behaviour must feel authentic and in keeping, which is not as easy to do as it sounds.
- They are unusual. A direct contradiction to 2, I hear you cry. Not quite. It is the subtle differences from the norm that will make your character interesting and at the same time credible. Give him something original in his make up, something intriguing in his outlook, something out of the ordinary but not unfeasibly so. This is the way to avoid stereotype while remaining convincing. Such foibles work better if a reason for them is provided. For example, the reader might doubt the likelihood of a professional wrestler who collects chintz china as a hobby until you explain (cleverly, of course) that his long dead, much loved mother had a passion for the stuff and it reminds him of her. You might try making your hero very good at something in particular (say, hang-gliding, or calligraphy, or baking, or speaking Japanese). This not only sets him apart but also shows us he has competence, which helps us believe he will ultimately prevail.
- They have a terrible time. Don’t tie yourself in knots over the difference between empathy and sympathy. A believable character with a burning desire for something will have our empathy. A believable character in trouble will have our sympathy. To connect with the reader a character should demand both of these. To this end, you must put your poor hero through hell. Don’t spare him. The worse things get (plausibly, of course) the more the reader will support the hero.
- They change. All successful characters can be seen to go on a journey through the story. It would be unrealistic to expect them to undergo a miraculous transformation (although in some cases it could be appropriate) but they must give some sense of being altered by what they have experienced. Even a self-knowledge that they need to change but are unable to do so may be enough, as long as the reader can see this clearly demonstrated somehow.