“So her dog died and her husband is leaving her and her teenage son is peddling meth and now she’s fallen into a viper- and rat- infested mineshaft in the middle of Waziristan,” my friend said. “But I just don’t care. I don’t feel anything for this character, so I’m not emotionally invested in her outcome.”
We were discussing the most recent book she’d abandoned (I’ve taken liberties with the plot outline). This was usually the problem, she said: too many books about perilous things happening to utterly boring – or downright irritating – characters. I empathized, having recently slogged through a series of novels (from such literary darlings as Colum McCann and Joyce Carol Oates, no less) full of characters I didn’t care about.
Plot is important, but character is, perhaps, more important still. If you can create a few fascinating characters, it almost doesn’t matter what they do. People want to read about them anyway. But oh man, is this hard to pull off. It seems the job for a god: give me some clay and a puff of magic, life-infusing breath. How can I make a fascinating character from scratch? What’s going to convince the reader to care about her troubles?
Maybe it helps to look at actual people who fascinate us: usually they’ve got some combination of admirable qualities and sympathetic flaws. We’re rarely interested in the guy down the street who just goes about his workaday business, being pushed along through life, asleep at the wheel. The drama queen also annoys us: she is reactionary, fluttering her hands and bemoaning her fate. We root instead for dynamic people, larger-than-life people, people who surprise us with their boldness. We like quirky folk, too, so long as their eccentricities don’t cross over to psychoses.
Some authors can get away with creating thoroughly unlikeable characters: Nabokov with Humbert Humbert, for example. I’m reading John Updike for the first time and finding Rabbit Angstrom to be quite despicable. But Nabokov and Updike can get away with this because they’re masters of the craft. Most of us can’t afford to toy with unsympathetic characters, not even if we have a great plot.
When I took a hard look at my protagonist recently, I realized she was mired in self-pity. If I was reading about her, I’d want to smack her and tell her to stop brooding. Nobody wants to read about a moper. I had to make her more dynamic. Yes, she’s gone through some horrible things and is about to go through more, but I want my readers rooting for her, not pitying her. So she’s not always gloomy, I gave her an acerbic wit. Ideally, her observations will make the reader laugh, or nod in agreement. So that she’s not passively accepting her fate, I made her scrappy: I borrowed a situation I was in, and then had my hero do what I wish I’d done: when a teacher fails her unfairly, she takes the test from him, lights it on fire, and drops the flaming paper on his desk. I hope these changes have made her more compelling: certainly she’s more fun to write.
I find inspiration in Claire Fraser, Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous protagonist from her bestselling Outlander series. Claire would be justified in some passive brooding, given what she goes through, but she’s a fighter. Often her attempts at getting herself out of trouble land her in further trouble, but that’s not always the case: sometimes her toughness keeps her alive. Sometimes the man rescues her, but pretty frequently she’s rescuing him: a refreshing change from the distressed damsels of vampire lit. Claire is not a perfect character, her primary flaw being stubbornness, but she’s immensely likable.
What about you? What makes your favorite fictional character(s) so compelling? Do you find yourself putting down novels because the protagonist isn’t sympathetic enough? What about the characters you create? How do you ride the balance between creating flawed characters and likable ones?