What is it that makes for great characters? When you think back to characters you’ve encountered in TV, film, novels, or short stories, what bar do you use to assess their quality? Is it the most relatable characters that rise to the top? The most memorable? The most likeable? The most real-seeming?
In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood says it’s hard to pin down the essence of character. He proposes several possible criteria. Visible internal workings. Consciousness vs. Unthinkingness. Flat vs. Round. Major vs. Minor.
None of these necessarily equates to great characters, Wood argues. There are, in fact, some very memorable and relatable story people who are not major characters, are not round, or don’t have much in the way of visible internal workings.
The “hot priest.”
That creepy girl from The Ring that crawls out of the TV.
(And let’s be honest: in film/TV, it can be hard sometimes to separate the Ryan Goslings and Emily Blunts from the characters they’re portraying, further muddying the waters of what makes a character great.)
My previous article discussed the essentials for compelling protagonists. They, unlike other characters within the story, need a few key traits—namely a flaw and some enviable quality. Those are the necessary components for getting a reader to identify with the protagonist. And I would argue that identification is the primary response we want from readers when it comes to protagonists.
But I think the hallmark of a great character in general comes from something else. Consider this: 1) not all protagonists stand out, and 2) not all standout characters are protagonists.
So what is it that makes a character stand out? My take is this: great characters evoke a strong emotion in the reader. Delight, solidarity, fear—no single emotional response is the mark of a great character. And to evoke such emotions does not necessitate that the character be round or pensive or relatable or even good.
I’m a big fan of fairy tales and folk tales, and the characters in those stories are often quite flat and lacking in “visible internal workings.” But I still very much find myself drawn to the stories and to the personalities within.
In fact, a lot of children’s lit shows that characters need not have elaborate backstories or deep thoughts in order to make a profound impact on the reader. Think Junie B. Jones or Winnie the Pooh’s entire cast.
James Wood identifies this quality as attitude or presence: “How your character comes across to other characters, how he presents himself, holds himself, comports himself. It is the attitude he carries and the energy he exudes. Think stage presence turned page presence.”
Of course, fairy tales and children’s stories are not the only ones to imbue their characters with page presence. You see it in everyone from Holden Caulfield to Iago. Sometimes, the character is larger than life, like S.T., the crow from Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom (look it up and read the pages available for preview to see what I mean).
But you can see page presence in characters that are much more everyday. One could claim that Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado write stories that themselves are larger than life, but the main characters in Kelly Link’s “The Summer People” and “Secret Identity” or Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” meet their tilted worlds no differently than any of us might meet our summer jobs or high school crushes or marriages.
Still, they do so with attitude. And it’s that attitude, as much as any other roundness or past pain, that makes them seem emotionally resonant.
Here’s the thing about engaging page presence, though: it requires the unexpected. When a character’s actions are predictable, readers may become indifferent. But when characters’ reactions are a surprise, they keep us on our toes.
I think about Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which features a first-person protagonist who says of herself, “I’d no particular ambitions beyond being either widely admired or stealthily influential—I was torn between the two. It hardly mattered, as no major seemed to lead reliably to either,” and “I often felt wild back then; I enjoyed the feeling, but nothing had ever come of it.”
One day, she “grabbed something, probably grilled cheese, let’s say it was grilled cheese, in the school cafeteria. I was in the habit of leaving my books on the chair next to me, where they could be quickly moved if someone interesting came by but would discourage the uninteresting. At twenty-two, I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself.”
So we get a pretty solid idea that this girl is immature, uninteresting, and sort of wandering in a miasma of indecision and inaction.
It is thus a wonderful surprise at the end of the first chapter when she gets herself arrested for throwing a glass of milk on the ground. Why does she do it? We’re not quite sure. But her page presence suddenly crystallizes there. I remember when I read the opening chapter for the first time, I could feel myself drawn to the character at that precise moment of unexpected action. She got interesting all of the sudden.
And lastly, it’s the story itself that makes characters great. It’s what you put them through that helps define them for the reader.
But it’s not just as simple as pitting the character against conflict or making them desire something. Those things are important for the sake of a story, but if we’re really to be drawn to the character, there must be something profound at stake.
Here’s James Wood once more: “The vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, or even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake.”
Perhaps this is why it’s almost easier to make villains memorable and emotionally resonant. Pennywise, Chucky, the Joker, Hannibal Lector, Jaws. They vary in the depth of their backstory and motivations, but they all have clear consequences for the stakes of the story.
That said, stakes don’t need to be about physical survival or the end of the world in order to be profound. Often, what matters more than mere survival is maintaining one’s humanity and the smaller interpersonal connections that allow us to do so. Rue in The Hunger Games illustrates this point. In a story that is all about the characters’ lives being in constant danger, Rue stands out as someone who puts something even more profound at stake amidst a plot that has everyone’s life at stake.
So there you have it. My measures of a great character come down to three qualities: page presence, unexpected reactions, and profound stakes. It’s those traits that lend a character the power to evoke a strong emotion in a reader, that make them stand out. What else would you propose as essentials for great characters?
(Read up on what makes for a compelling protagonist, and stay tuned for a few more articles forthcoming about building characters in your fiction.)