Reprise: What Makes Good Characters


Vision 76


Reprise: What Makes Good Characters 


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So what makes good characters, both heroes and villains?

About 12 years ago I asked this question of Forward Motion members for an issue of Vision: A Resource for Writers (What Makes Good Characters?). I posted on the current Forward Motion boards to see if there are new insights or changes in how authors approach their characters.


I tend to like Protagonists and Antagonists who are grey in some way. The hero with a little darkness of some kind. The villain who has a little good in him, even if it's hidden.

My favorite character from the Harry Potter series isn't any of the trio of heroes. I like them all just fine, and I have no problem rooting for them, but my favorite has to be Professor Snape. Early in the series, I always felt uncomfortable with the MCs' assumption he was the one doing evil and that he was unequivocally evil/bad. He was, throughout the early books in the series, my favorite antagonist, and I felt glad when things about his past and motives started coming out in the latter part of the series. He's a complicated character, and I liked the revelation of his motives and the greyness of his characterization. I think he's actually one of the better secondary characters in the HP series for this reason. And he has a pivotal role, which I liked.

My second favorite antagonist from the HP series is Draco Malfoy, because of his potential to grow into a better person.

I'm a long-time fan of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar/Velgarth books, and I discovered her writing not with her first trilogy, Arrows of the Queen, but with what was actually her second or thrid trilogy, set earlier in Valdemar's timeline, The Last Herald-Mage. Vanyel is a more tragic character in some ways than those who usually populate the Velgarth books, and that's what makes him one of my favorite characters. He undergoes a massive tragedy in the first book, which results in him becoming a Mage. And he's not perfect. Not in any of the books. He is, I think, one of Lackey's strongest Herald characters because he goes through so much emotional hell--these books were (all three of them) the first and so far only books I've ever been afraid of continuing on without my attention, like a TV show or movie, whenever I have to close them to do something else. That's how compelling I found Vanyel and his story when I first read them in high school, and how I still find them today. I also happen to like Vanyel's aunt Savil.

It's the greyness, the in-between, of characters which make me like them. Don't get me wrong, I have no trouble rooting for good, moral characters who stick to their goodness and morality regardless of whatever comes their way, but I remember best the books which have some character who walks the line between good/moral and evil/amoral, or who has some tragedy strike them. Those characters are the most real to me.



As a reader I've never thought much about why I like a character. Brainstorming here, Hans Solo is a favorite. He's on the edge, a little bad, a little good. The newest James Bond character, Daniel Craig, is much more appealing to me that the suave, over hair-gelled previous incarnations. Again, he's complex, searching, human.

So maybe that's what I look for. Human characteristics. Heroic but not insufferable. People who have flaws, make mistakes, feel bad about those mistakes and try to make things right.


I've actually been recently thinking about this, having just read a book with really awfully done characters and subsequently another book with excellent characterization. So what makes the difference?

Good characters are real characters. Real? But don't fictional characters have to be larger than life? Yes, they do. They have to be interesting, they have to stand out of the ordinary, they have to be memorable and make us love them or hate them: in that they have to be larger than life.

But they also need to be real. We have to believe that character could exist, whether their world is just down the street or beneath the oceans of a planet in another dimension. They have to have contradictions and quirks and little things that make them unique and make us remember them.

Larger than life, real characters aren't easy to figure out. They may fit a stereotype, or they may be rebels, but like real people, they're unpredictable. Think of anyone you know really well, so well you always know what they'll do. Now put them in a completely unthinkable, impossible, improbable situation. Do you know exactly how they'll respond? Chances are, they'll surprise you. That's human nature.

People are seldom either one thing or another. They're contradictory, and often irrational, capable of astonishing good as well as astonishing evil, depending on circumstances. Even the most ordinary people.

Good characters in fiction have complicated, conflicting unique personalities just like real people, and that holds true regardless of whether the character is a human being or something completely other.

Finally good characters are consistent. Yes, consistent. They can be unpredictable and contradictory, but they also need to be true to their personalities and story and setting. This goes back to the believability factor. What that means is: even when a reader is staring at the page and yelling "oh my god, no way!" the reader still cares about the character and believes that the character can and would do whatever-it-is they're doing, based on everything that's come before.

In the end, a good character is one that I'll think about long after I've read the story.



As many have said before, characters have to be larger than life. They can be ordinary people but they must be subjected to extraordinary conditions. We want to see what actions their personality causes them to take when presented with a variety of external stimuli, and then we want to see the consequences of those actions. Compelling characters are those that make exciting, shocking or otherwise unusual decisions, whether brave, foolish, malicious or clever. Through those decisions we get to know the character, and changing patterns in their decisions show us how they grow throughout the narrative.

To be believable, characters must be consistent. Not chiseled from marble, but subject to their internal logic. Any individual is the product of an infinite number of experiences, and a character's decisions must reflect their past. If they deviate from their internal logic, it must be precipitated by a significant event that forces a change in their thought patterns.

Therefore, a character's background is very important. To show a realistic range of internally consistent responses to stimuli, a character must have a corresponding range of life-shaping history to draw from. Boring characters are one-dimensional because they either have too little back story or what they have lacks sufficient impact to significantly shape the character.

Impactful background + internal consistency + external pressure + personal growth = compelling character.

I'm writing this as much to organize my own thoughts on the subject as anything else. My weakness has always been characterization (when I think of a story, I think of what happens before I think of who it happens to) and I would love to see further discussion on the topic.


Weird Jim                           

I have no examples to offer, but I feel that good character and good story are intertwined and that it's not really possible to have one without the other.



I am one of those people who can overlook horrible plot flaws if there is a character in the story who holds my attention, but it is harder to define the character qualities than it is to recognize them. I tend to like outcasts and flawed characters. The flaw cannot, however, cannot be something so dark and evil that I can't believe their actions when they are doing something for the good of others. I don't like dark characters; vampires, werewolves, etc., rarely draw my attention. I also like characters with a sense of humor.

A character who is hiding secrets (either from other characters or even from the reader) can be fascinating, as long as it's handled well.  Consistent actions by the character is a must. An occasional small step away from the 'good cause' can work, but a character who swings back and forth from one side to the other becomes more annoying than intriguing. So maybe I should add steadfast to the list of character traits.

Do I look at this when I'm writing? Not specifically. I don't work from a list of traits because a character has to grow with the story and fit it -- and the story has to fit the character. There is room to play in both areas, and when it all fits together (for me and for the people I read), the story and the characters are fascinating.