The protagonist’s dilemma must be compelling enough to carry an entire book.
Protagonists must be active in the story, not passive.
Protagonists must have both internal and external motivation, stakes, and conflict.
Avoid cartoonish characters – those that are flat, stereotypical, melodramatic, or defined by one particular characteristic.
A strong protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but they have to be relatable in some way—they have to make the reader root for them and even more importantly, the reader needs to like spending time with them.
Characters need complexity, they need to have inner contradictions, and they need flaws.
Characters also need consistency. One minute they sound like a hick, the next they’re spouting 5-dollar words… that’s not consistent.
Make sure characters live up to their roles, i.e. don’t seem inept or stupid, they have the ability to accomplish what we need them to.
Characters should be believable. For example, if a person has no friends… how is that possible? Make the reader believe it.
A person can be a bad guy without being stereotypical. It’s better for them to not seem so bad, but be truly evil, than for them to appear over-the-top evil.
Don’t leave the reader asking, “How did that character know that?” The reader needs to understand how the characters draw conclusions.
A protagonist needs to have something they’re good at, a special competency, something the reader can admire them for.
Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!)
Make sure relationships ring true. Is there a reason for characters to be with each other? Can we see and feel their connection?
Relationships between people need tension. A push and pull, back and forth. No relationship is always smooth-sailing.
Make sure the dialogue fits each character’s personality, background, and education.
Characters must grow and change. Are the characters – especially the protagonists – being affected and changed by the story? What are the residual effects of the change?
Make sure there are enough secondary characters, that they each play a role in the story, and that they’re intriguing in their own right.
Once you establish a point of view in a scene, be careful to avoid pulling the story out of the POV you’re writing from.
Push your protagonist to their limits and BEYOND. When they think things can’t get any worse for them—make it worse! Ask your characters to stretch beyond themselves, beyond what they thought they could do.
Important note! Editors do not read your book with checklists like this in front of them. Rather, when we read your manuscript and we sense that something’s not working, these are the kinds of things we often identify for WHY it’s not working.
Corollary: These are NOT “rules.” If your manuscript doesn’t meet the princples in this list (or any list) but it “works” – i.e. the story reads well and people enjoy it, then there’s no need to stress. But when there is a weakness in your manuscript and you can’t quite figure out what it is, lists like this are indispensable in identifying specific problems and figuring out how to fix them.
What other ideas do you have for creating great characters?
Is there anything on this list you find particularly challenging?
Anything on this list that you’d like me to devote an entire post to?
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