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!

11 comments

  1. Karmyn R says:

    I admit it – I’ve been reading a bunch of fluff recently (historical romances – just because I want to read and they are easy to put down when you don’t have time to read and entertaining)

    I have to say I get totally pissed off when the main character can’t see what’s right in front of her. It makes me want to throw the book. If it is a mystery, and I don’t know what’s happening either, then fine – but if the author makes it known to me, but the main character can’t figure it out – it’s a book thrower. Frustrates me to know end.

    I like strong female leads. They can be innocent – but not naive. I also like characters who take a chance and a risk – and usually has some sort of quirk that makes them likeable.

    But most importantly – a character who STAYS IN CHARACTER…..
    That is all pretty vague, isn’t it. (but I just read a horrid romance novel where the woman was a freaking 30 year old JUDGE – and yet acted like a stupid lame teenager around the guy. really? bugged me – it was a book thrower)

  2. Chelsea says:

    I know I write infrequently but there are two authors that I highly recommend to you. There is a bit of mystery, awesome characters, and a great sense of humor .

    The first is Kate Atkinson, who wrote Case Histories, the first of 4 novels involving Jackson Brodie ( who I would love to marry) and a great cast of characters. It’s funny, odd, and totally engging. Apparently they made a miniseries of this book but I have not seen it yet, as I loved the book so much, and in my mind’s eye did not see Jason Isaacs (aka Lucius Malfoy) as Mr. Brodie. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it!

    The other author I love right now is Jeffrey Eugenides. He has only written 3 books (1 every 10 years) but they’re worth the wait. His first, The Virgin Suicides, was made into a movie by Sofia Coppola, but I did not see it. It’s good, though you may not the subject matter. The second is my favorite, Middlesex. It’s about a Greek family in Detroit, and is narrated by the main character, who happens to be a hermaphrodite. It’s excellent (and though sex is the subject, it more about the biology of sex not the act itself). I haven’t read his third book, The Marriage Plot, but I’m looking forward to it.

    And another book I am (hoping) to receive for Christmas is Death Comes to Pemberly, written by PD James. I like her books, though I often tire of Dalgliesh (and the tv series is God-awful, their production level is so poor that it looks as if it were filmed in someone’s basement, along with the fact that wardrobe insisted that Dalgliesh wear a tan corduroy 3 piece suit- but I digress…) but this new book marries Jame’s excellent writing with her love of Austen novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Well that’s my two cents

  3. angelina says:

    Karmyn – I completely forgot about risk taking – I like that quality in a main character when it isn’t excessive. I basically have three favorite genres of books: mystery, classic lit, and romance/suspense (combined). Romance can be fluffy but there are actually some fantastic writers who write under the romance genre. I don’t like a book that is a romance just for the sake of getting a couple together but I love a suspense novel with a romantic entanglement. That’s my all time fave and what Mary Stewart mostly wrote. Like the movie Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn – but in a book. When trying to pin down my favorite qualities in a Main Character I found it was all a little vague. I could think of plenty of exceptions to my general list and that’s because a good author (in my opinion) can make you like characters that you didn’t think you could.

    Chelsea – you MUST CALL ME. I stopped trying a while ago but I’m going to pester you again. It’s been way too long. However – every time you comment here I love it. So no more lecture. I have seen the Case Histories series and it is EXCELLENT. (I watched on online on PBS while it was up there). I’ll definitely give the books a try. Jason Isaacs is fantastic in the series but, of course, since I haven’t read the books I’m not familiar with the author’s original intentions. I have read most of P.D. James’ books with Dalgliesh but like you I get a little tired of him after a while. He doesn’t evolve much which irritates me but her writing is fantastic. So that sounds like a cool departure. I’ve seen all those Dalgliesh productions and they are definitely LOW QUALITY!!!! I have never read Eugenides but will consider that. I’m a little more leary of his work but I’d love to read a main character who’s a hermaphrodite. I’m not a prude with sex as a topic, I just don’t want to be in the bedroom watching all the explicit action while it’s happening. You always have good recommendations. Tell me who that mystery series is that takes place in the thirties? You told me about it a number of times and I keep forgetting when I actually go to the library. Maybe it has a main character with the name of Daisy, or something?

  4. Chelsea says:

    I’m glad to hear that you liked the series on TV- but please, read the book- the characters are hysterical. I especially love the relationships he has with his wacky clients, and his feelings about his failed marriage and his daughter. There are 4 books currently in this series, and I’ve read 1,2 and 4- they’re all entertaining.

    Eugenides is a really clever writer, and Middlesex isn’t about sex itself, just the life of the narrator and how as she/he grows up, how her/his perception of their world changes as well. The book starts in the early 1900’s in Smyrna, and his Greek heritage is always part of the story. The family members are funny, interesting, and real- so please give it a try, it’s terrific.

    Another write I like is Tawna French, an American who writes and lives in Dublin. Her first book, Into the Woods is terrific. I couldn’t put it down.

    The series you’re thinking of is by Jacqueline Winspear and it’s called Maisie Dobbs. It’s good, but I generally can’t read more than 2 in a row because I get annoyed. It starts out in the mid 1920s after WWI (god how the British love their wars) and focuses on Maisie, a-college-educated-former-maid who serves as a nurse in France, loses the love of her life, and decides to start a detective agency. She’s independent and not super realistic but it’s a good bedtime read.

  5. angelina says:

    I read that mystery series by Elizabeth Peters with the main character named Amelia Peabody, most irritating mystery I ever read. I’m pretty sure the Jacqueline Winspear series can’t be more irritating than that. But maybe you liked the Elizabeth Peters books? I feel like the main character just missed the mark with me – could have been a character I liked but went over the line in abrasive arrogance and much too self sufficient and never makes mistakes – made me want to hit her. Anyway – I’ll give Eugenides a read. I’m actually fascinated by hermaphrodites and think about how the world must seem to a person of ambiguous or dual sexual organs. So much of life is put into gender specific spheres. Tawna French, I’ll have to look her up.

    I need a book list. I’ve just made a pinterest board to keep track of books I want to read. I have to have a list somewhere or I forget and it’s so frustrating!

  6. Chelsea says:

    Is Elizabeth Peters the writer from Marin? I read a book called the Consequences of Sin (which was rather lame) and I wonder if she wrote that? Otherwise, I’m just a one note reader- it’s mysteries all the time. I think murder and mayhem do wonders for my mood. I mean, if I read books with happy person who finds the love of their life in a quirky romance I’d kill myself. Reading about characters who kill other people keeps me from doing that, seriously.

    I guess that’s rather sad in a way, but it works for me! Plus, there’s another great writer that I forgot to mention who reminds me of Elizabeth George, but he’s Australian. His name is Garry Disher- I think his books are terrific- look him up too. Oh, and Denise Mina, she’s Scottish. She wrote the Garnet Hill series and her main character is ANYthing but perfect!

  7. Angelina says:

    I love mysteries too. My mom and other people have often asked how come I like to read mysteries when I am unwilling to read the news or watch movies with tons of violence that aren’t mysteries. For me it’s very simple – I love watching gruesome murder mysteries because 99% of the time in both books and mystery tv shows -the killer gets caught and/or killed. That’s not how real life is. In real life we don’t catch them at that rate. I find it constantly comforting to see gruesome crimes get solved. Plus there’s all the forensic fascination. My favorite mysteries to read or watch are serial killers and I know it’s because I have a horrible fear of them – I have serial killer nightmares all the time. In real life they go on for 20 years killing and never getting caught and that reality preys on my anxieties but when I watch or read mysteries about serial killers I know that they are going to be caught and it’s very deeply satisfying.

    However, you and I differ greatly in the romance department. I like well done romances for the same reason I like mysteries. I like to see people come together and have the illusion that they will stay together. That’s not reflective of reality which is why I like it in my entertainment. Real life is already full of bad relationships, break-ups, missed opportunities, etc. I am picky to a certain degree about what kind of romance I’ll read. They must be well written and they must be fairly realistic people – no fucking prince charmings and dewy princesses. There has to be a good story with it that isn’t just about boy getting girl. But I really do love a book with a good romance in it.

    Elizabeth Peters didn’t grow up in Marin and that’s just her pen name: https://www.mpmbooks.com/ The funny thing is that I read an essay she wrote for a book about the process and life of writers and I love her personality. Even though I don’t like her main character Amelia Peabody I really like the writer as a person. She has written way more than that one series so I may try one of her other series.

    I started a bulletin board on my Pinterest page for book recommendations so I added all of the ones you made yesterday – I will add these new ones!

  8. fala says:

    I like a big variety of characters, but I tend to especially enjoy the innocent and delicate and/or the grim and dark-hearted. I love wounded characters. Characters who’ve survived some sort of adversity are compelling to me, especially if they’ve coped with the adversity in an interesting or unusual way. I don’t care how young or old a character is, as long as they’re somehow compelling or likable. I especially love a well-written, complex villain. I don’t like characters who are completely black or white, I like those shades of gray. The only characters I always find completely off-putting are cold-fish types, who won’t allow themselves to feel anything (unless that character is a villain, and then it can work. But not for the protagonist).

    My tastes definitely lean towards the grim, awful Dickensian kind of thing, specially if there’s some sort of supernatural element to it, so I tend to like a lot of the tropes that go with that. Bring on the ghosts! The consumption! The orphans and workhouses! Hee hee.

  9. angelina says:

    I think our tastes overlap in some areas but definitely not in the innocent/delicate region. That’s what makes books so interesting – how we relate to different characters and writers tend to write main characters they love (otherwise writing would be a tedious unpleasant activity). I don’t like cold fish characters much in general though I find it interesting that I made Cricket quite reticent, I myself am nothing like that but wish I was. She feels a lot though, she just doesn’t share it easily with others. About villains – the villain in Cricket and Grey started off fairly one dimensional and then I did a character analysis on him and really started liking him. I mean – he’s interesting and I found I wanted to give him a much bigger spotlight. I did find a way to do that. It was fascinating to me because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy writing the bad guys as much but I loved them.

  10. EmmaC says:

    A big ditto on your list, plus I’d add “courage.” Not brave, necessarily, but a character that’s courageous in the face of fear. That’s something that I like about Cricket, too. This isn’t exactly a characteristic, but I really like it when a character learns, grows, and changes over the course of the book, becoming someone older and wiser at the end that she/he was at the beginning.

  11. angelina says:

    I missed “courage”?! Dang. That’s a biggie. I think I know what you mean by it not necessarily being bravery. That’s one of the things I loved about Cricket too. One of the qualities I wish I shared in common with her more. Her big stumbling block is her stubbornness (which, sadly, I have just as much of as her) and her somewhat rigid ideas about right and wrong – but I love that she’s courageous, her simple belief that her safety is less important than helping others, the satisfaction she gets out of her work and doing it well, how comfortable she is spending time alone and never needing to fill the quiet for the sake of making noise. She has a quiet in her I deeply envy.

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