Cross-posted from The Pen and Muse Book Reviews
A great character is memorable: like Katniss Everdeen or Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, like Jane Austen’s Emma, Harry Potter, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden or Mary Janice Davidson’s Betsy the Vampire Queen. Or, moving to other media, like Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man or Spike from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series.
A great character, as in Spike’s case, isn’t necessarily heroic or sympathetic. In fact, some human – or inhuman – failings may be one of the necessary ingredients to making a character memorable.
Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Similarly, well-adjusted characters have a certain bland similarity, while flawed characters each have their own unique quality of quirkiness. Generic good guys may be wonderfully heroic, but lack the idiosyncrasies to make them memorable characters. Katniss was more concerned with survival than with being a good person. Frodo was overwhelmed by his burden. Bilbo was timid. Emma presumed to know what was best for others – and these are all good and sympathetic characters.
One of the reasons I’ve read the Lord of the Rings trilogy over and over again is because Tolkein had the gift of making me care about his characters. If he had told the story from the perspective of a powerful character like Gandalf or Aragorn or Galadriel, I would not have cared so much. The hobbits didn’t start out as heroes, but they were great characters: good natured people concerned with homey comforts, leading relatively simple lives until they were drawn into the great affairs of their world. They didn’t start out as heroes, but grew into their heroism as they rose to meet their challenges. As a fairly ordinary person myself, I could relate to the hobbits while Gandalf et al were too far beyond my ken.
To sum up, I’d say that what makes great characters is a combination of their unique human failings and how easily the readers can relate their concerns. My own characters tend to be regular people who are caught up in extraordinary events or are gifted with extraordinary powers.
In Wonder Guy, the first full-length novel in my Fairy Godmothers’ Union series, Greg Roberts and Gloria Torkensen start out this way. They’re regular people, just living their lives. Greg is more into the world of science, comics, his head than the world around him. Gloria is overly concerned with conventional practicality, and is at risk of losing the chance at a life that will fully engage her passions. The events of the story – which include magic, superpowers, a murder mystery, giant mosquitoes, dinosaurs and evil fae – force them both to grow, to realize their greater potential. Greg involves himself in the world and becomes a true hero; Gloria discovers her capacity for truly passionate, selfless love.
In my first full-length novel, Spirited, working artist Amelia Swenson accidentally unleashes a djinni and an evil succubus demon into the world and must deal with the consequences, seeking freedom for the handsome djinni and a way to save the world from the dangerous demon, traveling to the ancient past and rediscovering a capacity to love that she’d thought lost forever.
My Team Guardian stories involve people whose lives were changed forever when a Probability Bomb endowed them with special powers. They band together, the only ones capable of policing the rogue Talents among them. Thrown together while confronting these rogues, various members of the team find love and meaning in each story.