On Characterization…

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On the writing boards, I see people worrying about having likeable characters. Here’s the cold, hard truth: characters don’t need to be likeable, overly identifiable, or anything like that….they need to be INTERESTING! Interesting characters will trump likeable characters every single time. Why was Hannibal Lector’s story so popular? He was disgusting. You know the answer…people found him interesting.

I started reading a book called Splintered. It starts off with the girl talking about her bug collection. I don’t like the girl so far and I HATE bugs, but the girl is interesting, so I’ll keep reading.

I’m also reading White Oleander. I have no idea what’s going on. But the MC is interesting and I care about what happens to her, so I’ll keep reading.

Cases & Point
I had a character named Saira. She couldn’t be more boring. I wrote that story six years ago and I realized just last month why it sucks. I blamed a lot of things…the plot fell apart, it was weird, it was out of my element (not really, but I considered everything.) The biggest thing wrong with that story is the one thing that can’t be fixed without a complete overhaul: drywall and dirt are more interesting than Saira.

She’s shy. She’s weird. She’s a college student majoring in psychology. She works weekends at the bookstore and has a crush on a guy name Kevin who can’t remember her name because that’s how boring she is. All facts, but none of these things make her interesting. (Lemme guess, you totally just zoned out right now.)

I have a character named Demarco. He’s a trained assassin. He’s in a toxic, controlling relationship with a beautiful, psychotic woman. He has to decide between his blind loyalty and doing the right thing. THAT guy is interesting.

Problem? Saira is the MC in her story. Demarco is not. His story is a split view point he shares with a girl named Reagan, who despite being likeable, is not very interesting. I like her. But the reason I love the story is because of Demarco. And we spend the first two chapters with Reagan. By the end of chapter 3, the reader will be captivated by the overall story and it won’t matter that she’s not terribly interesting. Problem is…you can’t get people to chapter 3 with Reagan in the way. Her story is interesting (starting with chapter 3 anyway)…but she is not. Sad, but it’s the truth.

In Conclusion: I wish it were as simple as just cutting the first two chapters, but alas, that’s just not the case. Those chapters would be fine if she was more interesting. Also, cutting them would ruin everything. So a (second) overhaul of her POV is on order and I might have to do some plot tweaking as well. If I insist on starting with her, the story needs to be interesting NOW. People read books to learn something or to be entertained. Interesting people are entertaining. Boring people are not.

Side Note: This is actually a common problem I have. (At least I realize it, right?!) I do have stories where everyone is pretty much on equally footing. But I have an equal amount of stories where my MC is getting overshadowed by a secondary viewpoint character or the supporting cast (usually the latter). I can’t think of ONE previous story where my MC actually outshines everyone else without everyone else being boring as toads (which are scary, by the way). Petra in one of my current projects is the only one in all my years of writing. She came to me one bleak winter evening when I was upset about Reagan. I found her fascinating and spent the next month following her around in my head trying to figure out why she breaking into a vault. I liked her so much that I committed my next project to her. (And I never do this.) Since I was busy, she was super patient and gave me small pieces at a time. Then, when I was ready to do some plot work on her story, she scared me and DEMANDED I give her the reigns. We’re both stubborn so there was a scuffle, but ultimately I gave in. Best decision I could have made for the story, too. She’s awesome on chocolate and easily one the most interesting characters I’ve ever had.

P.S. My birthday is Monday. ^_^
Please don’t ask me how old I‘ll be! Lol! 

10 Responses to On Characterization…

  1. I'm in the middle of reading Silence of the Lambs right now, and I do enjoy reading Hannibal Lector. I feel his personality on the page. Sure, I watched the movie first, but the movie doesn't really convey his or Clarice's internal motivations. Reading about these things are important. Even though Lector has done horrible things, he's a monster, but oh so fascinating!:)

  2. Ah, the whole likeable vs. interesting debate. It's definitely possible to have characters who are BOTH, but I agree that interesting is far more crucial to engaging readers. Happy (early) birthday!

  3. I saw that thread, too. It's definitely possible to have a likeable and an interesting character–I saw Iron Man 3 earlier in the week and I think Tony Stark fits both. I read a lot of romance and most of those characters fall into the likeable rather than interesting category. I think my MC is generally likeable, but I hope he's interesting, too. He's a pretty conflicted guy and part of this third draft's work is making those conflicts clearer.

  4. I've read a lot of romance. There are certain types of characters that show up a lot in those stories. My favorite is the "tall, dark, handsome, & tortured." I would have a hard time finding a romance book I've read that didn't have that in there, but it's in there for a reason: people (including me) really like it.

  5. Thanks! ^_^I always hope for both in my characters, too. And I think the best books have characters that are both, too. I usually have villains that people love! Who says you can't have a likable villain? ^_^Sometimes I miss both though…Lol!

  6. It happened to me in my second novel. The hero was a cookie cutter put upon veteran who got handed a magic sword by virtue of being there where somebody offed his grandfather. The villain(s) on the other hand were urbane, witty, and utterly monstrous. They were far more interesting that the so called hero. In fact, everybody in the story was more interesting than him.

  7. This is going on in a friend's manuscript right now, actually. She has FOUR characters that completely leave the MC in the shadows. I've been trying to tell her this, but she's one of those "I know everything" types and won't listen to me. She's probably not as "boring" as you say, but if she is feeling overshadowed to you, try writing a couple of short stories about her, just for fun, in which you put her in random situations and see how she handles them. Then analyze the stories and see what stands out about her and place it in your manuscript! Should jazz her up some, if that's what you're looking to do 🙂 (again, I doubt she's as boring as you say she is as you have a tendency to be very hard on yourself)PS–emailed!!!!

  8. It's possible I'm being hard on myself. (I'm working on it, I swear!) It's probably just those first two chapters irking me again, but that's a GREAT idea! I'm going to do that before I work on that story to see if anything stands out. If not, I'll just have to deal with it and make the story as interesting as I can to make up for it because I need her!PS–Awesome! ^_^

Hi! ^_^