Writing Unforgettable Characters

I'm a bunny at heart.

I’m a bunny at heart.

Writers often talk about the importance of a likable main character. Readers must care about a character before they’ll sign on for the story’s journey.  Yet we can all point to characters who aren’t exactly likable yet they are unforgettable. What’s the right tone to aim for in a Main Character?

Writing Tip for Today: In modern fiction, the main or point of view character doesn’t have to be totally likable. Here are some ideas for achieving the right tone when writing a Main Character:

Heroic Sympathies

In most compelling stories, the MC (Main Character) possesses at least some heroic or self-sacrificial qualities. While some writers might lean toward characters who are great-looking, brave or seem to have it all, readers tend to want the “good” in a character to be more altruistic. Generosity, forgiveness and self-sacrifice make better characters than self-absorbed ones. Even a decidedly un-likable character who can show that’s he’s grown past selfishness can hold readers’ interest as long as they aren’t too awful for too long. An example of this might be a writer who believes a character must be exactly like a real person—often called a “dark” protagonist. That real person has had all sorts of tragedies and disasters beset him, so the “dark” character acts out the misery for chapter after chapter. Unfortunately, this approach often results in readers who bolt because they’re too depressed to read on until redemption comes. As Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel, “A character in trouble is engaging if he has sympathetic qualities, e.g. he knows that he is in trouble and tries to change.” A character with at least some admirable qualities is better able to capture readers’ attention than one who is either too perfect or too miserable.

Relatable Struggles

But don’t readers need someone they can relate to? Yes, but if the growth and change your character is seeking only appear at the end of a story, readers may not be able to stick with her until that resolution comes. Write characters who are struggling rather than satisfied, and you instantly up the readers’ satisfaction. How do you write a struggling character who isn’t that “dark” or wearisome protagonist? We all know that life can be cruel and have bad outcomes, but fiction readers read not only to see themselves, but to imagine themselves as they might be.

Vulnerable Emotions

As with most things in fiction, emotions are key for writing compelling Main Characters. A character who is self-sacrificial in some way, who is consciously struggling with something and wants to change, paired with a character who has, in Maass’ words, “self-regard.” This means their emotions are important to them. They don’t discount what they go through. They embrace life and even though they may be portrayed as “average,” somehow transcend their ordinariness and become larger-than-life. The reason for this is that when we identify with a Main Character we also embrace the hope that character symbolizes. We’d rather read a character who despite getting knocked down, gets back up again, one who can do and say things the rest of us dare not. Give your character the ability to feel things deeply and your readers will follow that character with enthusiasm.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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