Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a good novel and realize you’re just not that into it? The concept appeals to you; the conflict advances the story well – but something’s just not right.
It may be the main character. You’ve got to like or admire or feel empathy for the “good guy” or the story will advance like a swimmer wearing concrete shorts.
What may sound counter-intuitive is also true: the bad guy, in most instances, should have some redeeming qualities. There are exceptions, but when considering that even Satan can appear as an angel of light, then most villains have a happy face just under the surface. How else are they able to dupe innocent people? For me, there’s not much worse than a bad guy who’s a “cardboard cutout.”
When I write a main character, that character is going to be flawed because, well, I don’t know about you, but I have a flaw or two… or eight or ten. In Children of the Sun, David is loyal to a fault. He also has Teenager Brain (anyone who has every raised a teenager understands that). He cannot imagine how anyone – especially his best friend – could sacrifice a friendship.
In Dead Dreams, Donald is driven by a hatred for his brother. He can’t let go of the past. He’s become a prisoner to his own weaknesses.
Yet David and Donald have to be likable characters. If the reader doesn’t like them, can’t root for them, then he will put the books down. Those flaws and weaknesses are important, but they cannot make the main character repulsive.
Put it another way. Benedict Arnold was a fascinating, heroic figure who, had he died in battle, would have been the subject of books and movies – as the hero. He would be an American legend. This is literally true because of his Revolutionary War record. Instead, he is remembered for his treachery. His weaknesses ate him up until they overcame him, destroyed him.
Arnold would not be a good main character because he’s not likable. Readers would not be rooting for him.
Where do I get my ideas for characters? I get asked that question from time to time. The truth is, from all around me. I’ve known some entertaining, interesting, ahem… different people. But so have you. I take pieces of people I know and add those qualities together. You’ll almost never see a character actually be one person from my life. For those who know me, you’ll never see yourself, not intentionally. Characters are composites of life experiences.
Fictional stories, even sci-fi or fantasy stories set in other galaxies or dimensions, are all based in human experiences, magnified – or warped – through the lens of the writer’s imagination. And all stories have basic elements: one of which is a likeable main character.
Until next time, I remain…
Brian W. Peterson
Somewhere on the edge of the Great Plains