So I was browsing through my old blog posts and trying to find some inspiration for this weeks (easy to do by clicking the archive button above!) and I stumbled across the list of the four intended Virtual Writing Seminar outlines I gave to you guys almost a whole year ago. The one for Character Development read like this:
Character Development: what makes some characters pop and others just fizzle?
That sounds like a simple enough mission statement, right? And yet I’m realizing I didn’t quite deliver on that. The existing VWS’s on Character Development have been great, but they don’t quite reflect my original (flawed?) intention of the series. So that got me thinking: what does make some characters pop while others are just stale? I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have spent the better part of my life examining and dissecting what makes one particular character great: Xander Drew, star of the Black Womb series. So let’s take a look at that and see if we can see what makes him “pop,” and along the way maybe we can see what makes main characters pop in general. VERSATILITY One thing that I think works great to Xander’s benefit is that he has the ability to work well in many different situations and in many different genres. So many characters in fiction aren’t versatile enough to be put in different situations. They’re humorous characters that don’t work in serious situations or serious characters that don’t work in humorous situations, or any number of other bad combinations. Not only does this limit the character, it’s not very realistic. Nobody in real life is just one things. Almost everyone is capable of behaving in different ways. People are capable of even behaving out of character, even though that’s traditionally chalked up to bad writing in literature. Xander isn’t like that. While he can be both funny and serious (often at the same time, taking a cue from my own personality), he’s also versatile in many other ways as well. It wasn’t planned this way, but he can function and even thrive in almost any genre or situation (in my humble opinion). He can work in sci-fi stories, action stories, crime dramas, fantasy / horror stories, and even straight up dramas and romances. The only type of story I can’t imagine him in are westerns, and that’s only because Ellen has used her power as partner to veto time travel stories within the Engen Universe. We’ll see what the future holds. 😉 This not only means that he can be believable in no matter what scenario the reader finds him in, but also it helps you. I don’t understand how one writer can write the same story (or a close facsimile) over and over again. Whenever I get bored with the type of stories in the Black Womb series I can simply change what the series is. Life is free and flexible. So should your main character. If they are, your series can be too. The Everyman You’d think this would stand at odds to the last point, but it doesn’t. People like a character who is an Everyman. People like a character with humanity. They have to be relatable to the reader(s) and have relatable problems. As dramatic as it can be to have your character save the entire universe from exploding, it’s not something that John and Jane Q taxpayer can really relate to. Not saying that that means you shouldn’t write your universal-explosion story. It does mean that it probably shouldn’t be in your first chapter though. That’s why Xander starts out fairly normal, and why most of the books start out with some shred of normalcy.
Relatability is key to creating a great main character. I think the opposite of this would be a Mary Sue (a term I only learned recently). Because even lucky people in life (Brad Pitt, Ricky Gervais) still have days when they think nothing is going their way. We all do. They even may feel like nothing goes their way, because sometimes that’s the way a person is. I imagine these people get told off by their friends if they exist. I know I do. Anyway, off point. If your character is too perfect and too often amazing than its hard for people to relate to him, and they need to be able to relate to him to be properly engaged in your story.
Okay, for those that don’t know, when you feel “bad” for a character, that’s pathos. This isn’t necessary, as there have been many anti-heroic or just plain mean characters that don’t generate pathos in me and I still loved the book. That said, there are also plenty of anti-heroic and mean characters that have generated pathos in me. Want an example everyone’s heard of? Gregory House. He’s an ass, but we feel bad for him.
Pathos is a great thing, an is one of the only “real” emotions you can get from a reader consistently (I find). It doesn’t mean the character has to be upset or weepy all the time, it just means that people are going to feel for them and their situation.
In Black Womb, a great deal of the pathos comes from Xander’s relationship to Sara. He’s Young and he’s got the ultimate case of unrequited love. Everyone has been there at some point in their lives, and may even be there at the time of reading the book. This also goes back to Relatability. See how it all links up?
I can’t take credit for this. Actually, I can’t take credit for any of this, as these concepts all go back to Robinson Curusoe and the first novels. But this one, as many have noticed, was learned through a childhood fed mostly on the work of Stan Lee.
He seemed to like giving his protagonists failings. Major ones. Among them: guilt complexes, uncontrollable rage, romantic difficulties and physical impairment. Or all of the above. Life was not easy for his characters. And that is great for pathos and reliability. These things really are one giant thing, which is why they’re all in one post.
I’m ruining myself by saying this; but Xander has yet to have a “pure” victory. Did you notice? He’s either sacrificed his personal life for his professional one, his professional for his personal, or he’s just plain demolished both. While I don’t plan on this happening forever (he is young after all, he’s learning), it is easy to get behind the underdog. I think Stan Lee knew that, and it’s one (of many) lessons I’ve learned from growing up on his writing.
So, those are my theories on what makes a good main character. Hope you found it helpful. I also hope anyone out there who hasn’t given Xander Drew a chance yet will so… He deserves it, in my opinion. 😉
But then, I’m biased. 😉
Never Look Back