Why do we read? When I was young, I thought I liked stories for their plots. The books that caught my attention in the library or bookstore usually had a dragon, horse, or sword-wielder on the cover, promising hair-raising battles and edge of seat adventures. Give me Dragonflight or Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island or the Black Stallion. Nothing would raise my gag reflex so fast as the suggestion from a teacher or librarian that I might try a book with an “interesting” character whose problems I could “relate to.” Or so I thought.
I thought I needed dragons or battles or at least horses to enjoy a book, yet at the same time I read and reread plenty of novels without them. There were the books with an ordinary bully instead of a dark overlord for a villain (Nellie Oleson vs Sauron), and there were even books with no villain at all. The March sisters of Little Women battle societal expectations and a smallpox outbreak, but no one, not even Aunt March, tries to thwart them. Indeed nothing extraordinary happens to Jo March and her three sisters, which is, in fact, Jo’s constant complaint (and a problem I could relate to). Yet I gorged on Jo’s coming of age at least a dozen times during my teens because I loved her and all the other characters in Little Women.
So let’s face it, great characters make a story great. Yet what is it that makes a character great? I think the key is complexity of thought, feeling, and behavior, but that’s just my opinion. Since I make my living as a science writer, I’m used to evaluating questions in terms of evidence. So I set out to study the question of character by surveying other writers.
In science writing, before we report study results, we describe the study method. My survey was informal and qualitative. I asked only 1 open-ended question rather than asking a series of questions with answers scored on a numerical scale (eg, 0 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree). This was the question:
Please name your favorite character from literature and give 2-3 specific reasons why he or she is your favorite.
I surveyed writers belonging to a Facebook group composed of novices, professionals, and everyone between who share a common desire to improve their craft. Only 21 out of about 500 members responded. Favorite characters came from a wide variety of genres, including children’s literature, fantasy, thrillers, science fiction, and the classics. Some of my favorite answers included:
Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Jo March. They kicked ASS in times when most women had no choice but to let men rule their lives.
[I love] Samwise from LOTR because he’s so solid, he’s so grounded in the Earth real, Emma Bovary too, because I can so believe how she would get trapped within her own romantic thinking: the compelling hobbit who won’t let the troubles cause everyone to forget what is better, and the poor woman whose love of the not real makes her lose what is real.
Scarlett O’Hara. I admire her strength, independence, and headstrongness. Most of all, I love how she’s a “lady” by appearances on the outside, but a do-what-I-have-to-do-and-screw-everyone-else bitch inside.
I’ll go with Tyrion Lannister. A basically good guy in a family of scum suckers who has no real option but to be somewhat loyal to them while simultaneously knowing how messed up they are and wanting their approval and love. And [he’s] HILAAARIOUS.
Hamlet, because he’s thoughtful.
Snoopy. Rascal. Suave. Hero.
Characters with multiple votes included Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Raistlin Majere (Dragonlance), Jo March (Little Women), and Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind). The answers also revealed three overall themes. Most respondents liked:
- Male characters who succeed despite a weakness, disability, or moral failing
- Female characters who succeed because they’re strong
- Male and female characters who defy convention and who also put others ahead of themselves
Acknowledging the sample is too small to draw firm conclusions, I still propose distilling these findings into 2 general guidelines:
- Your character should succeed (everybody loves a winner)
- Avoid stereotypes
Simple, right? Recommendation #1 here has more to do with plot than character. People tend to favor happy endings. We can all admire Flaubert’s brilliant characterizations in Madame Bovary, but only one of the survey respondents picked Emma Bovary as a favorite character. Everyone else picked someone who achieved his or her goal, or was at least still alive and trying at the conclusion of the latest volume in a series.
Recommendation #2 ought to be self-evident, but given the vast number of cookie cutter characters in existence, it bears repeating. Most authors do a decent job fleshing out their protagonists into three-dimensional figures with quirks and flaws as well as strengths, but their supporting characters often come straight from central casting. Of course, a writer doesn’t need to write a full backstory for every stablehand or hotel clerk, but every elf need not be a paragon either. (Tolkien peopled Middle Earth with drunken, oafish elves as well as somber virtuous ones.)
Nearly every scientific report concludes with a call for more research into the topic, and that’s certainly needed here. The characteristics of a “great” character may not be fully definable, just as the identification of every new subatomic particle only points to another that cannot be detected but whose influence betrays its presence. We may never have all the answers, but that won’t stop me from asking the question:
What do you think makes a great character great?
A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. She is the author of The Woern Chronicles, a fantasy series peopled with characters who defy stereotypes, and a contributor to Four Doors Open, a collection of essays written by real women who do the same. She encourages you to visit her website KnownearthWorks.com, follow her on Twitter, or like her Facebook page.