Following up on my post about character change, here are some more thoughts about what makes a good character. When a character feels inadequate or has low self-esteem, it’s very hard to motivate them to care about their situation or the story. Another alternative to this scenario is a character who doesn’t want to be involved in their particular circumstances–they couldn’t care less about taking over the family business, for example–and so they try very hard to convince themselves and the reader that they simply don’t care.
What Makes a Good Character: Do They Care?
This is very difficult to forge into compelling fiction, and usually results in boring characters. After all, I hold that the basic aim of writing fiction is to make the reader care. So if a character doesn’t care, my first objection is that they’re making it that much more difficult for me, as a reader, to get invested in the story. It feels a little unfair. After all, I’m working so hard to get into the book, suspend disbelief, latch on to a character, inhabit a point of view, hear a voice…that I want the protagonist to be in the same boat. You’re ideally creating someone the reader can get invested in. And if it’s an antihero type or someone stewed in apathy, who won’t invest in their own life, that’s a tough sell; it’s not what makes a good character.
It’s realistic, sure. It happens in life, and it’s very full of deep and real emotions. But it’s hard to pull off well. So if your particular writing challenge is creating a compelling character who just so happens to be detached, pent up, hidden behind defenses, or just a straight-up nihilist, you need to crack those walls at some point, and soon. Even if it’s for a minute, even if only the reader can see it because it happens in interiority…some measure of vulnerability needs to happen, or you’ll end up with boring characters your readers can’t connect with.
What Moves Them Forward?
And then, there needs to be something that compels the character to move forward. Whether it’s a very personal motivation, a private objective, a small bit of light at the end of a dark tunnel, whatever, it needs to pull them forward into the story; it’s what makes a good character. One thing I won’t do as a reader is suffer through a manuscript where it seems like the boring characters are being dragged along, kicking and screaming. Facets of this idea are discussed in my post on the inciting incident and “character buy-in,” which becomes an important concept here. It doesn’t just have to do with suspension of disbelief, it has to do with the character finding their own reason to engage with the story.
Finally, if your character really does care but they say they don’t care, you better make them an active protagonist ASAP, because ain’t nobody got time for that! Protest less and get into the real telling of the tale!
Hire me for my fiction editing services and I’ll help you tease out what makes a good character that readers care about.