Over the years I’ve spent working in publishing, I’ve found that I’m usually drawn to main characters that have three things embedded in the core of their character: activity, relatability, and competency. Each one of these traits could have entire blog posts written about them, but I want to give you an overview of how you can use them in your work.
In general, most people respond well to characters with these traits. We enjoy reading characters who make things happen, who are good at things, or with whom we relate. As with every piece of writing advice that you’ll ever hear, this is much easier to talk about than it is to actually implement it in your writing. But don’t let that hold you back! Start working on it now, and you’ll be a master before you know it.
Active characters make things happen, which is the heart of why we’re drawn to activity. The first thing you need to ask yourself is this: how do I make a character active without it seeming contrived? Because you cannot simply throw a character into any random situation and force them to act. Action does have a basis in circumstance, but it has everything to do with personality, temperance, and ability to problem solve. Something you should always keep in mind is that your characters’ actions should most often be the result of their previous choices—how they decide to deal with the consequences of those choices is the basis for their actions.
If you’re stuck in your writing, ask yourself this: “Is my character making things happen, or are things simply happening to my character?” If the latter is true, you should probably find a way to switch this around. Things can and should happen to your character, but as I mention above, it’s all the more realistic and satisfying when the happenings are a result of the choices your characters previously made.
There’s no one way to write a novel—you can go about it many different ways, which is what makes this so hard. But if there were a basic structure to follow, it would go something like this:
- A character with a goal
- An obstacle to said goal
- Action to overcome said obstacle
- Rinse, repeat and build until the climax
- (add complexity by increasing the number of characters and obstacles each must face)
One of the best ways to make real, relatable characters, is to understand that personalities contain multitudes. You’ll seldom ever meet a real human that has only a single personality trait, or a single goal in life, or a single hobby, etc. Most people have more to them than you first realize, and the same goes for your characters. Spend time developing those traits about them that people will attach to—more than just hair, skin, and eye color, what about them is unique? What do they like to do? What do they want in life? What is going to make me want to read an entire story about this character?
At its most basic, relatability is all about emotion. How your characters express emotion plays a large role in how your reader will connect and relate with them. This, however, is something that I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers struggle with. To start, if you have a hard time expressing emotion on the page, just use classic tells and say “she felt excited,” or “he felt sad.” As you revise and refine your writing, you can come back to those moments and sharpen them for more of an emotional impact on your reader.
We all love characters who are good at things. Take Sherlock Holmes for example (the BBC version, if you will)—he would be a nightmare to be in a room with, but on screen? We love him. We love how smart he is, how quickly he can solve things and understand a person just by looking at them. What makes this show so great comes right down to the direction of the character, and his competencies.
It’s important to recognize that while we enjoy characters who do things well, most of us do not connect with characters who are good at everything and have no flaws. This is another reason why BBC Sherlock is a great example—we see clear as day that he has weaknesses, he has faults, and those faults get him into trouble.
Your characters don’t have to start off being competent, either. And really, it may not even be something you want them to achieve in your story. A lack of competency can be made up by strengthening relatability and activity—especially if your character is actively trying to gain competency, which is a very endearing character arc. Take Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series (though far from being a main character, he illustrates this trope so well)—it takes seven years for him to get there, but after being belittled by his enemies and his friends his entire life, he grows into someone who destroys one of Voldemort’s horcruxes—and only Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and Voldemort were the only other ones to do this. And the beautiful part about it all is that he never grew into this super-powerful mega-wizard—he simply gained the confidence that he could.
Your job as a writer is a balancing act. You have to know when to let your characters take action, when to let them get hurt, when to show their emotions and their weaknesses, and when to let them grow and build their strengths. But if you can manage to work that all into your novel (and keep in mind that it doesn’t have to happen on the first try—revision is your friend!), then you’ll have a great main character that we’ll want to follow through the entire book, and maybe even more.