What makes for an interesting character?

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What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Blackrock on Wed Jul 25, 2012 2:57 pm

Before I even begin, I just want to say that I fully realise this is a very subjective question. We all have different views on what qualifies as "interesting" and I don't believe we can rightfully claim there is one, all-encompassing, answer for this. However, I do think that there are some common features that must separate a weak, mediocre character from a truly well-written one. This discussion will attempt to ferret them out.

Without a doubt, a strong character cast is essential to any story - be it classical literature or something that came out recently - more often than not, it is those characters that are a driving force behind the book (or movie, or game...the medium is not important). You might have a well-thought out setting and intricate plot, but if the persons living through that are bland, then your otherwise excellent elements are going to be completely marred.

So, we come to the question itself - in your opinion, what makes for an interesting character? What qualities must she or he possess that piques your interest? What makes you flip through page after page, wanting to see what happens to the character? (without a doubt,the plot is crucial here, but if you don't care for the character, I can't see the same level of interest develop) Is the prodigal knight in shining armour or the utter villain enough? Should character be multi-layered and if so, in what way? Do certain traits of character (oops pun) need to be exaggerated and larger than life, so to speak?

What about appearance, how big a role does it play? Do inner wrongs reflect as outward ugliness (as in the Illiad, for example) and do strengths manifest themselves as good looks? Perhaps its the opposite that makes it interesting? What motivation must the character possess? Something larger than life or something mundane and personal, making it easier for us to sympathise? How important is their backstory? Does social class and age matter? Do you look more favourably on an average Joe, rather than some hero straight out of a prophecy? Do you prefer "grey" characters, that are morally ambiguous?

I can go on and on with my list of questions, due to the simple fact that a person is many-faceted marvel that can be explored through virtually any view-point. A good character, in my opinion, should at least strive to be as diverse. But the fact of the matter remains - how does this amalgam of qualities and failings solidify into a character you truly enjoy reading about? What makes the magic work?

---------------------------------------

To keep the above clean, I tried to make it as impassive as possible; now I'll express my own opinion here.

For me a character needs to be, above all, someone whom I can sympathise with. While not always the case, this generally means that he must have a world-view at least vaguely resembling mine. They must have something that can make me go "yeah, I can see myself going down that route if this and this happened to me". As I said, it's not always the case, but it's a good foundation.

After that, something which is equally as important - I don't like perfect beings. I can't stand unfailable people, they don't exist in real life and neither should they in fiction. If a character feels like they are in control of the situation all the time, so good that nothing can threaten them - what's the point in reading further? On a similar note, I hate "stagnant" characters, let me explain. A book, or a story in general, is a journey - whether it's a physical or a psychological one is besides the point. A journey which the character undertakes, a journey which changes them - there are few things I dislike more than seeing a character being the exact same at the ending of a story as they were in the beginning. Like the previous example - if nothing changes, what's the point in reading? Both issues may sound different, but at the heart of it is the same thing - lack of change. In fact, not only a lack of change, but a detachment from the plot and setting itself. The things that happen HAVE to have SOME effect on the character, otherwise what's the point of the story itself?

The above were overall obvious pet-peeves, I'm certain that they are a near must-have for any sort of interesting character. Something more personal is an established sense of humour in a character, the darker the better. I have a generally cynical and grim outlook on life (no drama, just being a realist) and I like characters who share the same. In fact, I absolutely adore characters who manage a joke and a smile even in otherwise bleak situations. In my humble opinion, nobody - fictional or real - should take themselves seriously all the time. That's not saying that I like going in the realm of the absurd - in fact I often frown on such, because I believe it's overdone. But a stone-faced judge rarely receives my sympathy.

As I said above, life is grim and dark - and I like characters who can make their way in such a world. Scoundrels, thieves, vagabonds and, in general, people on the fringes of society are what often catch my attention. Not bad people per se, but decent guys and gals who sometimes have to get their hands dirty in order to survive. Whether the wandering minstrel with a sly tongue and an eye for the ladies or the thief with some distorted code of honour, those characters typically rank among my listing.

Above all, however, I am a huge fan of the average man. Not a great lord or influential politician, not a master swordsman or a high-ranking officer, just someone with an ordinary life who gets caught up in something bigger than him or herself. (although the "bigger" part may differ, it doesn't have to be world-altering) These characters should make their way through the story not with plot devices - such as prophecies or destiny - but with their own, inner resources.

Lastly, another element which I enjoy is that of the learned person. I often like setting my stories in an, overall, ignorant setting - where knowledge of matters great or small is often limited. My characters have more know-how than most in their setting, but due to one reason or the other they haven't been able to get far in life. (the son of an impoverished noble, who spent time in his dad's library is a favourite of mine) Thus proving that knowledge =/=power in some cases.

A character doesn't need ALL of that to be labeled as interesting in my book, but the more the merrier, eh? I'm not saying I don't enjoy high fantasy, with events and people great than life (Fingolfin from The Silmarillion is my favourite elf character for one, due to him battling something greater than himself, a hundredfold) but everything is relative, as Einstein said. The journey needs to be hard and perilous for the character, so they can come out changed in the end. But the journey is not just a love-child of the plot and setting! The character is the prism which refracts all of that; and with a flawed prism, you aren't going to refract anything.

I'm sure I've missed something, there's a lot of ground to cover, perhaps when I read others' thoughts something else will come to mind. Looking forward to seeing what other opinions I come across here Smile
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Wed Jul 25, 2012 3:19 pm

Perseverance despite imperfection.

It's hard to make a perfect character interesting. I suppose the reason this is true is that perfect characters are predictable. Deep down, we all have basically the same idea of how a perfect character appears and acts. We already know what they're going to do.

What makes a character interesting is their idiosyncrasies. A character that has something which sets him apart, makes him unique, or gives him a certain advantage or disadvantage. Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, with his long nose and complex of pride/sensitivity about it. Take a character like that and apply him to the world.

Then bring in the plot.
It's more than just what the character is, it's what he does.
Does his uniqueness defeat him, or does he use it to overcome, or overcome despite it?

We root for the characters who press on, whatever is in their path. And when they have a weakness or a flaw, we understand them better, because we have flaws.

Wan apply this to all different character types.

Villains. Obviously imperfect. They are where they are because they're persevering despite their flaws, or perhaps because of them, using them, but not in the right way, not toward growth. Those are the interesting villains, not the mindless forces of darkness.

Comic relief. The comic characters can be quite interesting. Sometimes they are bland, but sometimes they are gold. What are the gold ones like? Well, C-3PO comes to mind. (Probably because he's golden? *badum tish*) But it's the ones who keep going despite, or perhaps because of, their humor.

Heroes. I probably needn't explain, but let's take a perhaps less obvious choice, Elric of Melniboné--more of an antihero, in fact--a frail, albino, sorceror-emperor. That's quite a number of imperfections. He's an interesting and much-loved character because he perseveres through them.

Sidekicks or Wingmen. Probably the easiest example of all. Who doesn't remember the -& robins, -& little johns, -& clanks? They persevere alongside the hero, but they have to be next to the hero and provide contrast, so they're often given interesting imperfections to work around. And we all remember them for it. They're interesting, especially if they get some attention and show a little growth in the odd episode or spin-off.

Heroines tend to be more universally beautiful, but even they aren't very interesting if all they are is a mary-sue out to storm the world. The interesting ones have a special situation or imperfection--oftentimes mere self-doubt--that they need to overcome to win and grow. Anne of Green Gables comes to mind as a more interesting heroine. She had the bookworm compulsion and the red hair complex, but she had an unbreakable spirit and she grew past her shortcomings, affecting everyone around her.

And it also helps to reward their perseverance with awesomeness.
Be it of the affecting-everyone-around-you variety,
or the "He can do THAT, nobody's had that ability in millenia!!" routine,
or the final pedestal of victory after a long, long battle.
The capstone on the pyramid can seal their interesting-ness for posterity.
That's why readers will hate authors who kill off characters at the end for no reason other than to 'be different.' We want our interesting characters to stay interesting and be rewarded properly for their efforts. It's where cliches come from. But cliches are cliches for a reason. Wink

So I think, at its core, what makes a character interesting is perseverance despite imperfection.
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Digital Muse on Wed Jul 25, 2012 5:56 pm

Interesting characters…in a word? Flawed. As Blackrock mentioned, no one cares to read about a character with nothing at stake. And we can’t relate to perfection. One of the best heroes? Samwise, friend to Frodo. He had no destiny, no special skills, he was just an ordinary man (Hobbit) who, while he didn’t want to be away from home and everything he knew, stuck with Frodo to the very end and never once was tempted by the call of the Ring. He was the only reason Frodo made it to Mordor at all.

Another favorite would be Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files series. Sure he’s a damned powerful wizard, but nothing electronic works within yards of him. He has no hot water or electricity because he keeps fritzing things out. He gets hurt physically and emotionally again and again, but he keeps getting back up and trying his best to do the right thing. He’s someone very relate-able. He makes bad choices and has to live with them. It’s something we’ve all done ourselves.

For me another large component of what makes a character interesting is their back story. I want to know where they came from, what shaped them, and what makes them unique. They arrive on page 1 fully formed, how did they get there? For my taste, I need at least 1 thing that makes me go, “Huh…that’s interesting. I wonder how that will play out?”

Plot and setting are lovely backdrops. But a character’s psychology is what drives my interest the most.
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by quakernuts on Mon Jul 30, 2012 12:18 am

What makes an interesting character? That's a damn good question.

The way I see things, a character has to have a few things for me to be able to tolerate and learn to love them. A few of them are pet peeves, but a few more are simply my style of seeing things.

First off has to be their ability to move on. This may sound ambiguous, but I mean this in the sense where you get a character, and he/she is constantly hinged on something that has happened in their previous life. "Oh my sister/mother/brother/son/father/etc died because of this person! I must have revenge!" Alright, I can see that being a driving point, but when it is constantly brought up as an excuse to be down and sad it drives me crazy. They need to be able to rationalize, to push it away when the time comes, and use it as a character development rather than a roadblock. I prefer the one where something has happened to the character, most likely life changing, but it is very rarely brought up. You know it happened, you know that it made the character the way he/she is at the current moment in time, but it's not constantly drudged up nor is the character constantly blaming everything that happens to them on this single event in their life. If they can't move on, they can't develop. If they can't develop, I don't care about them.

Another one of mine is one that's already been touched on, and that is comedy. Pulling from personal experience, I've always found it harder to play the stoic and stern faced character without a shred of humour to his/her name. It's near impossible for me to not go around and have their pants randomly catch fire while singing the YMCA. There needs to be a point in time where the seriousness drops, the setting is temporarily forgotten, and everyone can simply have a laugh and look at the characters rather than the situation they are in. Regardless of being words printed onto paper (or in this case, typed onto a word document) they need to be seen as human. Sure, I've met people in real life who had no sense of humour to speak of, I don't like those people...I've called one a douche bag to his face and they didn't end well. So if I don't care about the humourless people in real life, why would I care for the ones in a story?

Flaws. We all agree no mary sues or supermans, but when I talk flaws I mean them in a bigger sense. We can all say "Hey, my character is afraid of spiders." Ok, that's a flaw. When I think flaws though, I think larger. Something that has to come into play somewhere along the line and something you know is a huge deal for the character. "Oh hey, I'm scared of spiders because I happen to be deathly allergic to something something on their skin and whatnot."

Not the best example, but you get the gist.

It needs to define them and weaken them at the same time. That's right, weaken, not strengthen. Everyone sees flaws as something that a character overcomes and eventually is made stronger. No, a flaw to me is something that perpetually makes you think "This is such a huge flaw, how is he/she going to get over it." It is not a strength of character, it is a flaw and a weakeness, that is it's point.

Last thing to me is knowing that the character doesn't know how to do just about everything. I realize jack of all trades are good to have, but a Marksman Sniper who can manage to pull off a shot from miles away should not have the time to practise expert demolitions at the same time. You want them to be extremely good at something? FIne, but don't expect them to have had the time to try anything different.

That's my thoughts anyways!

QUAKER! AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Blackrock on Wed Aug 08, 2012 5:51 am

Interesting opinions, guys - thanks for sharing them. I think that, overall, we can agree that there are a few qualities which make a character interesting.

1) Flaws. This goes both ways - on one hand, it provides an interesting character building tool, giving them something which must be overcome throughout the story (whether successfully or not is another matter). However, it must also be a real flaw in itself - it's not only a crutch which the author should use, but something which is very much a part of the character themselves. If they can't swim....well, then the part where they have to cross a river to escape pursuit became that much harder. And yet, this shouldn't be the end of everything ("oh no, I can't swim, I'm doomed" ) but merely another opportunity for the given character to surprise us with their otherwise redeeming qualities. Of course, the swimming bit is simplified - it could be something much more sizable, such as a personality flaw. If you have an asshole of a character, then don't expect them to befriend everybody, BUT there should be the opportunity for them to finally open up and make friends with another character.

2) Uniqueness. There's only so many hooded strangers in the corner or young peasant boys with a great destiny set before them that we can stomach. That much is obvious, but sometimes writing a unique character is harder than it first appears. Even if a characters doesn't fall in the stereotype, they still fall in a certain archetype - say that of the stoic warrior. And for me, personally, when I have to write a new characters I spend a great deal of time thinking how to portray what I want, without actually falling for a role that's been done to death. This ties in with the above point, as flaws are often a sure way to make a character stand out. That said, I think we can agree that too much of a good thing is also bad, make a character so unique and otherworldly that we risk losing a connection with them.

3) Moving on/perseverance/humour. It may look strange, but I've put these three in the same category because I believe they actually portray the same thing. It's about character progress and not getting bogged down in one part of their (back)story. Whether the character pushes on because they are just stubborn as hell; because they have something more important occupying their mind at the moment; or maybe because they just smile and laugh away the troubles of the day, the important thing is that they advance, they grow, they develop. Without trying to speak for everybody, I think this one is key in all the posts so far - being stagnant kills the interest. Whether its overcoming a challenge laid down by the plot, an old nemesis from one's backstory, or something more personal like an over-inflated ego, the character needs to somehow change according to the given circumstances. Whether its for the better or worse doesn't matter, as long as they don't remain the same as they did in the beginning.


I'll leave it at that, hopefully more foggers will come share their thoughts.
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Spectre on Wed Aug 08, 2012 11:58 am

This won't be long, but something else that seems to bother me.

What about your average kid? Average parents, nobody beats them, and nobody has come to kill their parents. Their sole choices. Maybe coupling with something Digital Muse said. They made 'x' decision and now they have to live with it. I'm just kind of tired of seeing all these excuses of these peoples' backgrounds for their actions and choices.

I mean i get that that's sometimes how real life works, duh. But I am a fan of free will. I think this may be in a blended category of people being able to 'move on', as well. But, to me, back story is fairly important, but it shouldn't justify who the character is, and will be.

Where i love me some Batmans, Oliver Twists, Hamlets, Anakin Skywalkers.... I tend to enjoy more about the average people who have to make big decisions, take drastic actions, go into uncharted territory. I like free will, and I think that a lack of biased childhoods tends to illustrate free will a little more than begrudged poor backgrounds, or privileged youths. I think that becomes too predictable.

I always think it's cool when extraordinary stuff happens to someone who is just like everyone else, to turn them into someone who is more. Or their random choice has landed them to an enormous situation, etc.

Not always, mind you, but for the most part.

just a quick input. All I have time for right now. I'll probably elaborate and add more later.
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Eternal Phoenix on Wed Aug 08, 2012 4:02 pm

I do agree wtih Digital Muse for on psychology being very important. What I do is contrast. I don't mean in some cliche "the badass big guy is actually a softie" kind of way. I mean that character should have layers to them.

Let me give you an example. One of my personal favorites. John Thompkins. World famous superhero by the name of Starman (yes, DC has a few too, but I didn't know that at the time of creation). On the surface, he's a superman. Invincible and unstoppable. But when his allies are grinning, celebrating a big victory, you won't find him smiling with them. He doesn't like being a superhero. Never asked for it. Doesn't want it. All he wants to do his paying job and go home to his wife and kids. So why doesn't he? Ethics. Morality. He can help. He can save people. He may not care if some random person is harmed or killed if he couldn't do anything stop it from happening, but if he could have done something? Stopped it? Saved that random person? He'd act, not because he likes the spotlight. He couldn't give any less of a expletive about fame or fortune. It's not because he gets a thrill out of it. Sure, beating people up can be fun, but when the amount of beings in the entire universe who are at your power level can be measured on one hand? He's not a killer, and holding back isn't fun in the least. World of Cardboard speech, you know? It isn't that he can't stand to see anyone hurt. He's seen good people die during his Army days in Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn't bother him anymore. So then why? Why would any man given his gifts use them the way he has? Because standing aside when you could have made a difference is wrong in his eyes. So he saves people. He fights supervillians, gods, and monsters. He does things any rational person would never do.

I'll throw you a shorter example. Kalli. Elf girl. Berzerker with two swords. From the way she acts, you'd think she was a man. Or a man in a woman's body. But you'd be wrong. She just likes to drink, fight, and sleep with women. The rest can get rather girly at times. She's smart, but almost always acts without thinking. She doesn't follow orders, but she'll help almost anyone if they asked.

That's what I mean by contrast. Character psychology, boys and girls. It is everything. I could go into Vincent Mortelini, my all time favorite, but we'd be here all day.
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Re: What makes for an interesting character?

Post by Blade Barrier on Fri Aug 10, 2012 8:13 pm

I just kind of skimmed the topic, so if I make any points that have already been pointed out... forgive me. I'm just short on time.

one trait that I find that makes both antagonists and protagonists more attractive to me is when they seem human. They don't have to make the same choices I do, but it helps when they can show a variety of emotions and are motivated towards a goal, and there's a reason behind that goal. I know we're talking novels, but magneto is one of my favorite bad guys both on screen and in comic books because although he COULD just be a generic "bad guy who wants to kill everyone", You understand that his experience with humans has taught him that they will never co-exist with mutants. Vincent Brooks from the video game Catherine is a prime example of an excellent protagonist. He gets drunk and has a one night stand with a girl... and he's already in a relationship with a woman who wants to marry him. He spends the rest of the game dealing with his guilt, as well as the pressure of trying to balance two relationships, his empty wallet, and strange, torture-some nightmares. He also undergoes a radical change from a sobbing wimp to a macho man.

I guess understanding the character makes them interesting, not necessarily being able to relate. I've never wanted to kill humans and I've never cheated on anyone, but their pain is easy to understand, and they are in turn excellent characters.

moving away from dark, realistic characters, happy fantasy-like characters use different skills to draw you in to them. Drizzit from the dungeons and dragons will be the example this time. the characters get their charms from their witty remarks and prowess in battle. We may be able to understand magneto or Vincent brooks, but we want to be Drizzit.

Also, I feel that a characters "uniqueness" has nothing to do with how much we like them. It might make them more interesting from a cosmetic perspective, but there's really nothing unique about being a drunk cheater or an elf that wields two blades. A good personality is all you need for a compelling character.
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