What Makes a Great Character in a Novel?

Sunday, September 01, 2013
Katniss!! by Pop Culture Geek flickr.com
What makes a great character in a novel? I hope you're not looking here for the magic answer. I wish I had the magic answer. But all I can really do is share with you my experience and my opinion. Then I'm hoping you'll share yours with me, too.

One of my favorite authors is Suzanne Collins--I love both Hunger Games (as does the rest of the world) and Gregor the Overlander (her middle-grade series that is a bit less famous). When I think of favorite characters in novels, Katniss and Gregor immediately come to my mind. I wish I could say something more literary or classic came to mind, like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. But I'm not going to lie. The best I can do with classic is Huck Finn and Wilbur. (After all, I'm a children's writer.)

So, what makes me love Gregor and Katniss and Huck Finn and Wilbur? Well, first of all, they are brave and flawed. They aren't afraid to stand up for what is right, but they don't always do the right thing (well, Wilbur probably does); and sometimes, they are very selfish. They have adventures that I want to have. They make things happen in their lives. But this is true for so many characters. Why, why do these stand out to me? I'm still trying to figure that one out.

And why don't I like some characters? I'm not fond of Bella from Twilight. I've read all four books and will never say an unkind word about Stephenie Meyer; but I was never so glad that an author switched point of view in a book, as I was in the fourth book when we finally got inside Jacob's head. I couldn't take one more second of Bella. Why? She has some of the same qualities I listed above. But for me, she came off a bit whiny and neurotic, too.

I also like humor and intelligence--all of those characters I love have both of those traits. I try to model my characters after the ones I like--their characteristics anyway. For example, in the YA novel I just signed a contract for (YAY!), my main character, Julie, is a fairly popular senior girl who is not going to sleep with her boyfriend no matter how hard he tries. She also is a drama queen and worries about her teeth turning yellow and the sometimes sweat she has under her arms when she's nervous. She is a loyal and good friend. When push comes to shove and her family needs her, she faces her fears and gets the job done. Although my book isn't about fighting to death to feed the people in your district, like in the Hunger Games series, Julie shares some of the same characteristics as Katniss. (Just don't giver her a bow and arrow. . .) As a matter of fact, maybe Jennifer Lawrence will be available to play Julie in the film version of my book, Caught Between Two Curses. (Yes, you should be laughing out loud right now.)

So, obviously, I don't have the magic answer for what makes a great character in a novel. But what I do know is this--the person (or thing or animal) has to have characteristics we can admire and root for, while also having some flaws to work through. The character has to remind us of ourselves in some way. When you find those characters you love, make a list of their traits. Figure out why you love the character and how the author showed you their traits in the story. Then get to work on your own character. Of course, you never want to copy. But you can study and learn from what you already love.

So, who's your favorite novel character and why? 

Margo L. Dill is leading Writing a Novel with a Writing Coach (online workshop) which starts the first Friday of each month (next session: September 6), for people who are ready to write a novel or are in the middle of the process and want some help and feedback. For more information about the class, please go to: http://wow-womenonwriting.com/classroom/MargoDill_WriteNovelWithWritingCoach.php


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Great question (and a tough one). I have too many to mention as "one favorite" but I AM fond of George R R Walker's Captain Abner in his book "Fevre Dream" (a vampire story that is so far from the Twilight stories, it's in another galaxy. This story takes place in the 1800's during the river boat days.)

Why? Abner is flawed, he has desires and dreams I can relate to, and he's written with an authentic hand. (I was in love with Wilbur when I was a kid, by the way...)

I am going to continue to think about my favorite characters and WHY I'm so fond of them, because of your post. Thanks, Margo. (If I lose any sleep over it, I'm going to blame the bags under my eyes on you! ;)

Margo Dill said...

Thanks, Sioux, for sharing with us. And you can write a blog post about losing sleep and why and take a photo of the bags under your eyes. See, instead of blaming me, you should be thanking me for giving you blog post material. :) LOL

Amira Kristine said...

One of my favorite novel characters is Lyra from the Golden Compass. She is who I think of when I think of a strong lead who often makes mistakes and gets herself into trouble. Her charisma as a young girl, her quick tongue and silver lies, and her strength and ferocity, are all characteristics that endear her to me. Nonetheless she all too frequently makes mistakes or is overly arrogant about her own abilities, and I was able to identify these traits as well.

Unknown said...

scarlett o'hara. she never gives up or gives in. very tough lady. will do anything to take care of her family and her home.

Margo Dill said...

Amira: Yes, that's a good one. I was nodding my head the whole time I was reading your comment! :)

Sandra: Oh yes, now there's a classic lady that most of us can get behind--all though at the end, she could have said, "Well, I don't give a damn either!!!" :)

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