Thanks to the recent flurry of blog postings, I've been thinking a lot about character--the ones I'm writing and the ones I have most adored to read.
Piggybacking on Sarah's post on quiet characters (March 10th), here are a few of my thoughts on what makes characters compelling, quiet or not.
1. They fail and keep trying. We don't want to read about people who get everything right the first time, nor do we like characters who give up too easily. Success in the end is so much more rewarding if we've been with the character through failure after failure. And that's how they learn and grow. Hence, a satisfying character arc.
(Sounds simple, eh? But right now I'm having a hard time allowing my mc to fail. I just don't want to write those scenes, or I rush through them so quickly they become eyeblink failures. I haven't figured out why yet, but I'm working on it.)
2. They have unique reactions to situations. I love it when a character surprises me, when they do something I wouldn't have thought to do. It makes me want to keep reading to find out why. On this, the author must deliver. It's not enough to tell me, "she lashed out because she felt trapped." Show me the buildup, so I feel it physically with the character. Then, when she slaps her own mother, I'm surprised, but I understand what drove Miss Mabel Clark to do such a thing.
3. The strange things that happen when I compare them to myself. When I read a character and find nuggets of myself there, especially those things I'm not proud of (or too proud of) or quirks that I try to keep hidden--that I find compelling, particularly when it's something I didn't even realize about myself until the author worded it so beautifully.
Or, there's the flip side. When a character is so utterly different from myself, their mind working in a completely different way, I want to keep reading to find out what this fascinating creature will do next. Of course, there's lots of in-between, but I'm always looking for myself in characters, and the compelling part is either finding it or so totally not finding it.
Which brings me to the thing I need most from a character in order to like them:
4. I need to understand them. Or at least feel that I'm beginning to. This is what the author must do--make me understand. Because the moment I start understanding a character, I feel connected, and it is this connection that makes me keep reading. (I will keep reading for other things--intriguing ideas, a dynamite plot--but it's not the same as caring about a person.)
Even if the character does horrible things, I can roll with it as long as I understand why (and it's a plausible reason). Even if they're completely wrong, I'll likely stick with them as long as they have some fervor to their belief. In Les Miserables your sympathies are with Jean Valjean, the escaped convict who didn't do anything all that bad. But you can also completely understand Javert, the by-the-book police officer chasing the "dangerous" convict. And it's because Hugo made me understand Javert.
I'm sure I have more criteria for likable characters, but I'll stop for now. And of course, we're all different. I have hated some characters that other people seem to love. (I couldn't stand that mamby-pamby Kite Runner mc and would have stopped reading if it weren't for the story.)
But really, I'll stop now.