Tag: writing great main characters

What Makes a Great Main Character

Forgive me if you’ve seen this picture before.  I know I used it in a draft but don’t know if I ended up actually using it.  Pretend you’ve never seen it.

I’ve read a few books lately that failed to engage me.  Well, three failed to engage me so completely that I couldn’t finish them.  One engaged me well enough to finish it, the writing was good, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the explicit sex scenes were irritating, and the main character (who was supposedly 20 years old) had the maturity of a 15 year old.  I am not interested in reading books about teens.  The last time I did that (Twilight) was enough to last me through the whole of my forties.  I’m not putting down adults who enjoy young adult fiction at all, it’s just not generally my taste.

A couple of days ago I started a great book and last night I went to bed a little early (there was no beer to keep me out of bed for) and couldn’t put down “Coil of Serpents” by Anne Stevenson.  I’ve bought every book she’s written just so I can read them because she’s not widely known in the U.S.  I had to get them on Alibris.  I bought them on the strength of loving the one book of hers my library has that I loved (“A Relative Stranger”).  It got me thinking about the importance and the subjectivity of main characters in stories.  The most important part of any story, in my opinion, is the main character.  Why people love stories, can’t put them down, is usually because they relate to or in some way care about what happens to the main character.  But what’s interesting is how many of us have different requirements for a compelling main character.

I know, for example, that not everyone who’s read Cricket and Grey really loved Cricket.  That’s kind of crucial for loving the book.  If you don’t get Cricket, if you find her irritating, then you won’t care as much what happens to her and you won’t enjoy the ride half so much.  My mom liked my book but in talking about it she is always hyper focused on Cricket’s stubbornness and her obsessing over her parents’ lies.  I get it.  She’s not the only one who found Cricket’s stubbornness irritating.  On the other hand, my friend Emma said she loved Cricket for her scrappiness and she “got” who she was.

What kind of main characters do you like?  I have no easy way of describing my favorite qualities in a main character.  Sometimes it’s easier to say what they aren’t than what they are.  I’ll list qualities I like and all the qualifiers necessary to make me sound like an asshole:

grown up – literally.  I like main characters to be 20 years old or older.  The important thing is that they don’t ACT like teens or kids.  I can’t stand general “innocence” in grown ups.  (Gentle adults whose tastes are all child like and who relates more to and acts more like children)  I like a grown up with grown up tastes and concerns and maturity.  It’s okay if the character is immature about a few things, because most of us are, but not if they’re immature on the whole.

Intelligent – I like a main character with some cognitive skills and some innate intelligence.  I’m not talking genius, just some sharpness in the head.  It can be street smarts rather than book smarts, but a little of both is always preferable to me.

Depth of character – I like a character who is multidimensional and who sees levels to things.  A character who knows there’s more to life than the surface.  A character who questions things, who considers their own philosophy about things.

Funny – I like characters with a sense of humor but that doesn’t have to mean they’re hilarious.  Hilarious can get annoying fast if that’s the main attraction.  I like a character with a wry sense of humor.  I like a character who can be both serious and humorous by turns.

complicated – I like a character with inner conflict, a person with contradictions.  Most people I know (certainly the interesting ones) have unresolved conflict in their personalities and world view.  They are very smart but have a dumb  blindspot.  They have a lot of sex but aren’t sensual.  They are physically strong and have a temper but hate violence.  They believe in love but can’t let themselves have it.  They work in lingerie factories but wear cotton grannies.  They are religious but question God.

Imperfect – there is nothing more insufferable to me than a character who seems perfect.  It’s unreal, it makes me feel like scum, and there can be no story in perfection.  It’s an author’s worst nightmare.  The perfect person is one I love to hate.  Always.

Irrevocably broken – the opposite of the perfect person.  Detectives in mysteries are famously “flawed”.  I get irritated sometimes with how broken authors feel obligated to make their detectives.  To the point where they are incapable of any healthy relationships, bent on self destruction, and not even likable bar-fly tendencies that make them assholes to everyone.  Yes, they solve the crime – whoopie.   I must believe a person is capable of evolving and of changing.  Broken is okay if there is, in due course, some evidence of growth and healing.

A cluster of characteristics I don’t enjoy in a main character: flightiness, passivity (the character just watches things happen in their life and lets things happen to them), arrogance (confidence is okay, arrogance is irritating), amorality (yeah, I like a main character with a conscience and Dexter is the sole exception to that), disloyalty (can’t relate to this, I need to trust that the main character is loyal to the people they care about – betrayal is only okay when it is part of the evolution of their character and comes with great struggle and regret), hyper sexual (I don’t relate and am not interested in characters who are largely motivated by having sex, especially when it’s indiscriminate, the only exception being with prostitute characters who do it for a living but don’t pursue it for personal appetite), adulterers (I really can’t stand characters who commit adultery and so I don’t read stories that revolve around this topic).

Characteristics I don’t necessarily love for their own sakes but which I find drive main characters very well through stories, add drama, and get them in just enough trouble to keep them from being sad boring people: stubbornness, irascibility, and personal irrational hang-ups.

In summary, my favorite kind of main characters are: complex, grown up, imperfect, learning, sharp witted, have some humor, capable of being serious, strong – but with weak spots, scrappy, independent, have a fairly well developed moral center or are in the middle of developing one, and an ability to eventually realize they aren’t always right and are capable of change.

Please tell me what kind of main characters you love best.  I will not ridicule anyone for loving completely different kind of main characters.  This is what makes writing books, reading books, representing books, and publishing them a seriously subjective arena.  Books are as subjective as art.  What makes a book great depends on what the reader is looking for, who the reader is, why the reader is reading (entertainment, edification, thrills, taken to places they’d never go in real life, etc.) so what I want, what I’m looking for and love is very personal and I can never be an expert on what is an excellent read for you.  But I do want to know what your own perimeters are for great main characters.  Share, please!