Trapped in an elevator (or: 8 ways to create compelling characters)
Imagine you're trapped in a lift with a couple of strangers.
One of those strangers spends the entire time sitting on the floor, waiting passively to be rescued, and gives you a headache complaining about the building, the lifts, and how bad things always happen to them.
The other person stuck inside the lift with you shows courage and humour in the face of this tough situation. This person is pro-active, searching for a way to be rescued. Making the best of a bad situation, he or she tells amusing stories to while away the time, is never dull or dense, and most certainly doesn't whine.
Which person would you prefer to spend this enforced time with?
This is the relationship your reader will have with your main character. Since they're experiencing your story through this character, it's a lot like being trapped in a small space with them. If the reader doesn't like and respect your main character, they're probably not going to want to hang out with them much.
Reading a book takes a massive time commitment on the part of the reader. In this age of short attention spans, hectic schedules and ever-decreasing leisure time, asking a reader to give you anywhere from five to fifteen hours of their life to read your book is pretty much like trapping them in a lift. They have other places to be and other things to do. And unlike being trapped in a lift, your reader has the option of escaping: they can close the book and stop reading.
I don't have to tell you that's not a good thing, do I?
You need to ensure that your main character(s) are people who are going to make the experience of being trapped in that lift so enjoyable that the reader won't even think about escaping to fold laundry or run errands.
So how do you achieve this? I have eight simple tips to help you create compelling characters.
1. Your main character needs to be relatable.
Real people with real flaws and real issues. A Mary Sue stand-in for the author is not going to be relatable to most people. Even if your character is a space alien warrior in the distant future, this character must have emotions and experiences readers will be able to identify with. We all have hang-ups and blind spots in our personalities. We aren't all completely self-aware all the time, and we don't always parade those hang-ups to the stranger we meet. And so your characters need hang-ups, blind spots and secrets too!
2. Your main character needs to be likable.
This is a no-brainer. Don't expect your reader to spend precious time with a character who whines, complains, takes no responsibility for themselves, intentionally hurts others, or allows everyone to walk all over them - not unless they have very understandable and forgivable reason for doing so. (And don't think that giving that excuse on page 300 will save you. The reader may never get that far to find out why this character is the way he or she is). Write the kind of person you'd like to be trapped in an elevator with.
3. Your main character needs to be ethical.
Sure, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but even if your character is an amoral, ruthless terrorist, he has to have his own code of ethics which the reader understands and can buy into. That space alien warrior might have killed a great many innocent people - but does he have a conscience about it? Does he want to change? Has he done it because he passionately believes it's the right thing to do? Even serial killer Dexter has redeeming qualities that make the audience care and want to see him succeed.
4. Your main character needs to be multi-dimensional.
Real people are complex. We aren't one dimensional, and we don't all fit a stereotype. One uptight accountant might be a married man who does crossfit training in his spare time. Another might be a middle-aged mom learning to tango, while another might be a single woman who creates patchwork quilts to sell on eBay. Another accountant might not be uptight at all and might moonlight as a club DJ on weekends. Give your characters memorable quirks, traits, hobbies or attitudes that make them more than stereotypes. A few scattered details can make an enormous difference.
5. Your main character should have someone to care about.
None of us like self-centred people, so who does your main character care about enough to put that person's interests ahead of their own? Who are their friends, their family, their lovers?
6. Your main character should have a past.
We are all the end result of every experience we've ever had. Whether or not all of this information makes it into your book, where it's relevant to the current story or not, you as the author needs to know your main characters' past history. Where and how did they grow up, what education did they receive, who were their friends, what traumas have they experienced?
We also all take away different things from each experience. Two siblings growing up in the same household might have very different feelings about the way they were raised. How have the formative experiences of their lives affected them and changed them?
But while you need to know every detail of your characters' lives, it's better that your readers don't. Your reader is on a purely need to know basis. Only include what is relevant to your current story. The hero's favourite pyjamas at the age of five do not need to make it into the book - unless those pyjamas were a last gift from his dying mother and are therefore tied to a very relevant memory!
So why do you need to know all this? Because you will imbue your characters with a sense of having a life beyond the page. After all, every person we meet has facets beyond what we see!
7. Your main character must have a goal.
We need to be able to root for this person. We want them to succeed. Even if that goal is just getting out of the elevator, it's a whole lot more interesting than a character whose sole goal for 200+ pages is to sit on the floor of the elevator and wait for life to happen around them. What does your character want in life? What do they want right now, in this scene?
8. Your main character should learn and grow.
Static characters who don't learn from their mistakes, who don't change in the face of life-changing experiences are (a) unbelievable, and (b) boring. Your character needs to do more than just react to the things that happen around them. Whether they become aware of the flaws within themselves and strive to amend them, whether they learn to sacrifice something to gain something even more precious, or whether they simply learn to accept who they are, by ending your story with a main character who is a better person than the one they started as, you leave your reader with a sense of satisfaction and resolution. And a happy reader is a reader who will buy your next book!
Have you read characters you didn't like or didn't connect with, because of any of the reasons above? Can you think of any other qualities which might make characters more compelling? Share your thoughts in the comments section below...