Creating a lovable main character

What do you remember about the books that you’ve read? Long after you’ve finished reading, what do you remember most? Not the glorious prose, not the description of the landscape, not even the plot. No, it’s the people in those stories. It’s the people we remember most. It’s the characters we fall in love with. We want to spend time with them, don’t want the book to finish, look frantically for another book with that same character in it.

The main character has to be lovable so I’ve been thinking about how to do this and reading what everyone has to say. Here are my thoughts so far.

1. Love your main character.

You yourself have to love your main character. You have to love her so much that you just can’t wait to get back to her any time that you’re away. It’s where you most want to be. With her (or him). This is the most important first principle. It’s like giving a talk – if you’re not interested in what you’re saying, then your audience won’t be interested. Or playing music. If you’re not enjoying playing and singing – your audience won’t be with you. And most of all, it matters with the characters in your story – if you want to be with them, your reader will want to be there. If you care about them, your reader will care, too.

I’ve felt this over and over again with Dani (the main character in the Dani Connections series). I miss her when I’m not writing. I think about her all the time. I’ve looked at girls her age in buses and wondered what she’d think of their clothes. Is that what she’d like? I’ve watched films and thought about her. Would she like that? Would Dani do that? It’s the same with Aulani, my other main character. She’s in The Saulie Bird. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Dani and Aulani met.

2. Strengths & weaknesses – don’t make them perfect.

Imagine someone who is honest and ethical. Someone who always behaves well towards everyone and does the right thing. Is that how you would like to be? Answer – probably, yes. Is that how you are at the moment? Answer – probably, no.

In order for your story to be successful, you need to create a protagonist with whom your reader can identify. Your character needs to be far from perfect.

3. Goal – give your character a realistic goal.

Your protagonist has to be striving towards something. Whatever it is, the goal can change or it might remain the same. But it needs to be realistic. Believable. Something your reader might strive towards. Your character needs to be relatable.

In book 2 Getting Left Behind that I’m proof reading at present, Dani’s goal is to stay with her mother. To begin with, she wanted to stay with both her mother and her father, but as that became impossible, she revised it. If she could just manage to stay with her mother, she would be happy.

4. Give them a past.

Your character needs a past. Without a past, she will be a cardboard cutout. Flat. You can do this in the form of memories or flashbacks as well as referring to previous narrative.

In book 2, Dani is only two years old at the end of the story, but she still has a past and the past changes how she thinks and behaves. How she feels. Our experience changes how we feel.

5. Avoid stereotypes

Stereotypes are boring.  But don’t confuse them with archetypes. Archetypes are what we all relate to – they crop up in different guises in stories throughout the history of the world. Think of Oedipus, for example, and how many times in how many guises he has cropped up. An archetypal character shares key features with the archetype but is made interesting by a new setting, by new details. 

A stereotypical character is boring because she is oversimplified. Anything that is oversimplified becomes boring. Think of a plot summary, for instance – the story with the details stripped out. Try Goldilocks – A little girl breaks into a house where 3 bears live and eats some of their porridge and tries out their beds.

Would you want to read the story? Probably not because it’s the details that make a story interesting.

It’s the same with the character in your novel. It’s the details that make them interesting. It’s their feelings, what they know about, what they’ve learned from their past. What they find hard. Who they love. What they care about. What they want and ultimately the realisation of what they need – which is mostly not the same thing.

6. Create secondary characters who will provide obstacles and contrasts.

Be careful! Your secondary characters need to provide relationships that will demonstrate your protagonist’s struggle towards her goal. If all your secondary characters are supportive, your reader will get bored.

If one or more of your secondary characters has problems and goals of their own with which the reader sympathises more than with those of the main character, the secondary character could steal the show. The reader will get confused.

A reader can fall in love with only one main character. (I can hear you disagreeing with this, but think hard about it – and do post your comments on this or on anything.)

7. Give your character some peculiarities (perhaps)

This is not essential. For example, I used to be terrified of heights so I sometimes have characters who are afraid of heights. But once again, proceed with care. How does this fear fit into the plot or the character development? Don’t include red herrings (even in crime novels, red herrings need to be handled with care).

8. Give your character obstacles so that he or she grows in understanding (essential)

This is the most important task that you as a writer have to fulfil. Your reader is reading to experience with the main character their spiritual journey. If everything is easy, then there is no journey. The reader’s enjoyment, fulfilment, chance to learn with the main character depends on your telling of the spiritual journey.

‘We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.’ (from Story Genius by Lisa Cron)

Character Development – Self publishing School

6 tips to avoid writing cliched characters – NY Book Editors

8 ways to write better characters – Writers Digest

Story Genius (2016) by Lisa Cron

top image – Christina Gottardi at unsplash.com