Whatever the reason the character resonated with you, you tend to remember them, and may even catch yourself mimicking a line of theirs from the book or movie when an appropriate moment arises. A very good friend of mine and I used to quote lines from movies that we had seen together, usually memorable or humorous lines from our favorite characters; the kind of characters you love.
The Stand, perhaps my favorite novel by Stephen King, is a long book and takes a good length of time to read, but I still didn’t want to put it down when the story came to an end. The characters’ lives didn’t end, just the book. I wanted to continue reading more about the characters and follow their lives just a little longer. Simply put: I loved the characters, both good and bad. Even the evil Randall Flagg, the ‘apostate from hell’, was always a joy to read.
The story of The Stand, an epic battle of good versus evil in a post-apocalyptic scenario, is fascinating in itself, but for me it was the plight of the characters under those conditions that kept me turning the page. I’ve discussed this topic briefly before, back in October 2013 (Story Focus: Character or Plot?).
However, in this article, I’d like to probe a little further into why such characters are so necessary, and how authors can create these intriguing characters in their stories. Some characters you immediately take a liking to, and others you love to hate, but either way they are memorable characters, and that’s what’s important.
The character IS the story. The same goes for Superman. As a child I always marveled not so much at the adventures of Superman but rather the Man of Steel himself. I wished that I could be like him and fly, have superhuman strength, see through walls, hear what people were saying far away, ‘be faster than a speeding bullet, leap tall buildings in a single bound’ and so on. In a book about Superman, the story is more a vehicle to showcase the character than existing for any narrative purpose.
The same goes for Spiderman. Wouldn’t it be great to swing through the city like the famous ‘web slinger’, and climb walls so effortlessly? But the point is that readers are usually more fascinated with how that character came to exist rather than anything that happens afterwards. It’s a similar story, so to speak, with Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible HULK, and more recently the X-Men and it’s popular spin-off, the Wolverine. It seems that once the amazing story of these characters’ origins are revealed, the narrative after that usually tends to focus on introducing the evil antagonists that come along to challenge these superheroes.
So what are some famous novels in which the character is the basis for the story, or at least responsible for the book’s success? ‘The Great Gatsby’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one. The entire James Bond series by Ian Fleming is another. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ is an excellent example; Holmes is such an intriguing protagonist that the story is secondary to the character. Recently I read ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, by Stieg Larsson, in which the life story and personality of the main character are vital to the story itself. I really enjoyed reading the book ‘The English Patient’ for the same reason.
What about books that aren’t so obviously about a person in particular? ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, by J.D. Salinger, has some very strong characters, as does ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. It’s hard to forget some of the compelling characters from such classics as Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series, and so forth. It’s the characters that fuel the readers’ enthusiasm.
As readers we are immediately intrigued with the characters in these novels, and the author keeps implying questions about them that we want answered. We ‘connect’ with the characters on various levels, maybe relating to them because of our own life experiences, and hence we feel empathy for them in the tough situations that they find themselves. This bonds us with the characters even more deeply, and motivates us to read more of the story.
Contemporary novels also have their fair share of memorable characters, including Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ or even ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins. But it’s more than the ‘likeability’ of the character, or their personality and nature, which keeps readers turning the page. The reader is eager to know how they cope in tough situations, escape from certain peril, meet various challenges or deal with their current predicament.
Hence, as an author, to truly engage the reader, we must create characters that they can connect with; we need to give our characters a likeable personality, along with an interesting flaw or two, and their own individual idiosyncrasies, perhaps even a tortured past. Then we have to invent scenarios in which they face danger, conflict, drama and tension. And of course we can provide romance, hope, and the potential for the character to achieve their dreams, but not until the very end. Anything happening after that would be superfluous.
If we desire a reader to want to know more (i.e. to keep turning the page) about a character, then we need to create a sense of empathy for that character. Stephen King is the master of writing characters that we can relate to; they seem real, have credible strengths and weaknesses, desires and maybe even a vice or two. They are ‘human’, vulnerable, and have goals and ambitions. They may be hiding a secret, or possess a complex way of thinking, and even appear to show contradictory behavior in front of others or in the face of conflict and tension. Giving the character an exceptional ability can also pique the reader’s interest.
The most memorable characters from my favorite books or authors tend to have a unique voice – you can almost hear their accent or dialect in your head as you read, and you can identify with their attitude and beliefs. They might even have a favorite phrase or habit of speech that immediately identifies them to the reader. Good characters should be passionate about something, or even have a peculiar obsession. Like all of us, a ‘true-to-life’ character will have fears, emotional triggers, and memories (via a back story) that are both happy and sad.
And why is it so necessary to have such characters in your novel? Memorable characters will not only ensure the success of your book, but also your career as an author. The reason many people, including myself, keep buying books by novelists such as Stephen King, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Matthew Reilly and so on, is because we always know we will be introduced to new and interesting characters. It’s like being invited to a party and meeting new friends.
The most important thing is to know your characters (get inside their head), and to ‘love’ your characters, regardless of their flaws or even because of them. If you write characters that you find ‘loveable’, chances are that the reader will love them too and remember them. Give your reader a chance to feel proud of the character or inspired by them, by providing a character arc that shows them develop in a positive way throughout the story and achieve something great or at least have a happy ending.
I’ve been writing and editing my debut novel for so long now that the characters in my book feel like good friends. I know them so well, and I would love to introduce them to you very soon. In the meantime, have a great weekend, take care and best wishes.
See you on the shelf!