Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Makes Characters Special? And the Big 3 of Rules

I can sum up my favorite thing about books in one word:


    It doesn't matter where they take place -- New Pretty Town, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Panem --, it's always the characters that stand out to me, no matter how cool any setting is.  So I always ponder what makes those characters special.

    And the truth is, I don't really know.  Probably no one does.  There's just too much in a great character to really express -- kind of like you can't sum up a person with words.  You can try, you can get close, but there's some sort of residual essence you just can't translate into print.  Since I think of characters as people, I figure it's that same principle that keeps me from completely taking the characters apart and seeing what's so great.  Circumstances and backgrounds play a pretty big part in them, I'm sure. 

    What I can do, though, is go through and analyze traits of the Greats that contribute to their characters, their personalities.  Of course, since favorite characters and "good" qualities are really subjective -- I know some people who don't even have favorites, which my brain just can't fathom --, we're not all going to agree.  And that's okay.

    For today, though, here are some main rules that I figure everyone can agree with:

    1)  Your characters can't be all good.  Really, they shouldn't come close, either.  Nobody likes a Goody Two-Shoes in real life, and that trait doesn't come across so well in print, either.  (That's probably one of the biggest reasons I can't stand the character Eragon.  Again, personal opinion.)

    2)  On the flipside, your character can't be all bad.  Sure, an evil character might not be as annoying as a perfect character, but s/he'll still be really flat, boring.  Some of the best books have the best villains -- I'd name some, but that sounds like another post to me.  Shades of grey need to be included in all characters, but this is especially neglected in villains. 

    3)  Your characters need to have weaknesses.  Probably kind of obvious, but the above two weren't exactly top-secret, either. 

    Actually, this post is getting sort of long, so I'll leave it at that for now.  Up next?  The character analyses, or whatever you want to call them.

    What about you?  Do you pick favorites -- and if so, what qualities seem to stand out in them?


Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great points. In the publishing industry, the first one is called Mary Jane. Hmmm. Or maybe it's Mary Sue. Either way, you want to avoid her because she's BORING. ;)

Kari Marie said...

I'm continually analyzing what I read to decipher what I like and don't like about them. You've nailed it here though. Flawed characters are the best because you can construct a character arc to support their growth and because flawed people are interesting.

Jenna said...

Stina -- I didn't know boring characters had a term, but now that you've mentioned them, both names make sense. Thanks for sharing!

Kari -- I think that last part of your comment points out my favorite aspect of not-quite-good and not-quite-bad characters. For me, they're much more fun to read about and try to figure out.