First: this post is not what you’re expecting it to be.
In my first novel, my main character was essentially me — something I didn’t realize until years after I’d started writing. I’d spent so long developing her looks, her thoughts, her entire personality, only to find that I could have just tossed myself in instead. What I find the most interesting about this is the somewhat creepy parallel that both Lavender (my character) and I seem to draw people in with some magical undefined quality that I cannot figure out even to this day.
Lavender is reserved, a little shy, and always doubtful of her chosen path. She is also very naive, though logical. Lastly, because she’s so reserved and because she’s been through a lot, there is a quiet strength that shows itself when necessary. In fact, that strength is so deep in her that sometimes it seems as though she doesn’t feel anything at all. That was me in high school.
I’ve changed a lot since then, while Lavender hasn’t changed except where her own experiences allow. However, even her friends mention that “There was something gentle in Lavender, something that brought out the protective instincts in those around her. And yet there was also something strong, and admirable. In short, she was a child with an ancient soul.” At the time, I thought Lavender’s character was pretty weak and so gave that as the reason her friends attached themselves to her. Other than that, there was nothing special about it.
Now, *mumble* years later, I’m seeing what I can only interpret as a similar pattern in my real life.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been one to approach people; my friends usually come to me, and I’m never really sure why they hang around outside of the obvious “we like the same things and you’re nice” factor. Something must be attractive to them, though; friends don’t squeal and proclaim their love for you if they don’t mean it, especially those who initiated the relationship to begin with. (It just seems to me that, being the initiator, they could pull out any time they want.) But in looking at all the characteristics that make me me, I just can’t find the one that should produce such a reaction. Not that I consider myself a below-par human being, but there are plenty of people with my characteristics and quirks. Kindness, average intelligence, bookishness, a supposedly “adorable” awkwardness — put everyone like me in one place and we’d take up the entire south-east.
Barring my personal reasons for consideration, it’s quite an interesting question for an author. What makes a person likable? Are the same rules applicable to literary characters? As the author, I may have just been getting fed up with Lavender because I subconsciously recognized how similar we were — like when you meet someone in real life who’s a lot like you, and all you can see are your own flaws coming back to haunt you. This also happens in parent-child relationships, by the way, and many mentor-pupil relationships as well.
However, it’s also the case that what’s fine in real life might not be so acceptable in Litland, and vice versa. In real life, a personality like Lavender’s is (evidently) endearing to many people. Readers, however, may not be satisfied by her indecisiveness and general tendancy to let people walk all over her. Conversely, I’ve read a number of books where I really admire or empathize with the character, or find him amusing, but know that if we ever really met I would be fed up within minutes.
Any introductory CRW course or guidebook will tell you that a good character wants something so badly that the entire plot is driven by their trying to get it. This desire motivates their every action, and sometimes comes into conflict with some other desire — perhaps that of protecting someone, or of upholding their core beliefs. Sometimes the desire itself isn’t clear to the reader, or to the character. But it has to be there nonetheless. Here’s the most immediate example that comes to mind:
Everyone in this trilogy fights with the desire to obtain/control the One Ring. This is the bad desire, the desire that conflicts with each character’s original goals: saving the Shire, regaining the throne, winning his father’s love.
But is that conflict enough? Would we still like Frodo if he were more like Conan the Barbarian? Or Aragorn if he revealed a hobby of writing horrendously bad and vulgar love poems? Every personality trait that can show up in a regular human can also show up in a novel, so what are the combinations that make up a good character?
This kind of reflection is something I have been strongly encouraged to use as a language teacher, but I think it’s also good for writers. Once you start becoming aware of the technical aspects of writing, it’s easier to notice the patterns that work and, by extension, why good books become popular.
As to the crappy popular books, that’s a question for another time.