blogging · books · discussions · Shar

What makes a good character?

By Shar

Hi Virtually Readers! A while ago, I asked what makes a good setting; now I’m going to look at characters. 

A lot of people say that characters are the best part of the book. This is obviously subjective, but it makes sense, because we are people just like the characters. Book readers are not places (setting), events (plot) or words (language). I suppose it is easier to relate to anything that is like you, and really, it’s the characters who shape the plot, make the setting interesting, and bring the books’ language to life. In reviews, it’s easy to complain (or praise) characters for their relatableness (totally a word), flatness/roundness, or voice. But what are these things, and why do we want them?

Roundness

I certainly look for roundness in a character. Imagine a ball. You can turn it around, and see it from several perspectives. A round character is like that. They are easy to understand because you see all of them, not just one aspect. Bad characters are often flat. You might see only one side of them or not all of their personality. And it doesn’t have to be a MC for this to happen! For example, with a flat character might like diving. But with a round character, you know their dead mother was a diver, and they feel connected to her when they dive, but also dislike it, as their father pressures them to win all the diving competitions. Another example: A flat character might be ‘nice’ while a round character is kind sometime, but angry sometimes. You see multiple sides to their personality, and understand them as a whole, not just who they present themselves as.

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Relatable

It would be unreasonable to expect to find characters exactly like you in every single book you read about. It would also be boring. But a good character should be understandable. You should ‘get’ why they do what they do and think what they think, and maybe you’d do the same in their shoes. When a character is round, it’s easier to understand them, because you see more than one reason for their actions, more than one thought behind their feelings. Other things can also make a character relatable: maybe they live in a place similar to yours, or enjoy things you do, or react to hardship the same way (going and hiding in a book-filled tower.). So often round characters are relatable.

Moral Greyness

Nobody’s perfect. A good character should reflect this (I guess this is a subset of ’round’). It’s nice to see characters who save the world, but still feel hungry. Or maybe they are trying to be good-but get caught up in a few mishaps along the way. Maybe they’re tempted to do bad things. Maybe they do, but there’s good reason for it. Good characters, including villains, should be morally grey.

Morally grey characters: Frodo, Gollum, Levana, Harry Potter, Snape, Brimstone.

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Voice

This is more relevant to first person books, and also related to the author’s use of language.Voice is the distinct language the character uses to express themself, both while speaking and narrating (Sometimes you can get a sense of it just in the way the third-person narrator talks about them.). It should make the character feel unique and different to the other characters, and their subtle choice of language should help you (the reader) understand the character better. Voice is especially important with multiple perspectives and multiple main characters, and can really help you understand them better in a less obvious way. For example, if they describe their friend as ‘pretentious’ rather than ‘showy’, you might think your character is well educated or likes long words without this directly being stated.

Do you agree? What did I miss? Which books have really, really good characters in them? Which ones don’t? Do you have a favourite character?

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17 thoughts on “What makes a good character?

  1. I think roundness in a character is important. But also, having good characters isn’t what mainly makes a good story for me. In The Great Gatsby, I didn’t like any character but something just DREW me into the book. Sometimes the characters were funny, annoying but funny xD

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    1. OMG yes I just finished The Great Gatsby a few days ago. It was like there wasn’t one element of the story that was stellar, but something around the story (like maybe the theme or something even beyond that) which made it so good. I definitely need to reread.

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  2. Personally, I think the most important thing to me is to have moral grayness and a strong voice in the characters I love. I mean, the other bits are important, of course, but the characters I most incredibly love tend to need those two things the most to make me adore the book. I have fallen in love with very problematic books just because of all this, you know?

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    1. Agreed. Moral greyness makes a character (and a book) *that* much more interesting because you become so curious, and there’s so much, well, grey area. I just watched The Force Awakens and I feel like there’s a lot of that with Kylo Ren.

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  3. Rainbow Rowell does an excellent job of presenting moral greyness in all of her books! I agree with everything mentioned, but I must say that it does stress me out when people try too hard to relate and then it impacts their lives in a negative way, but characters can be great role models when done well, whether they are like you or not. If you don’t want to BE a good character, you probably want to be their friend.

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    1. I agree about Rainbow Rowell (although I haven’t read Landline). I mean, The Insidious Humdrum anybody? I agree- sometimes characters are just as good as real friends. That doesn’t mean, like you said, that you should become the character. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Yes, I totally agree with all of this! I especially adore morally grey characters. They feel more realistic, and are so much more interesting to read about.

    Thanks for a great post! 🙂

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  5. I completely agree with everything you said, although I usually tend to enjoy books in third person or first person multiple POVs more than plain old first person, if it’s done well, that is. I enjoy morally grey characters, but I don’t like when the completely horrible, unbelievably bad villain who everyone hates is turned into a “morally grey character” by transforming them into a complete saint, with a little, teensy bit of moral greyness in their resume. The vice-versa as well, when the person we thought was perfect turns completely wicked, a complete personality transplant. I feel like this is a very popular thing that needs to stop because I like characters that are balanced. (That probably made no sense..sorry) Anyway, Great post!!

    Rekha @ Million Book Mill

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    1. I like morally grey villains, but I agree– they’re hard to hate. And when the good guy turns out to be bad-arghghghghgh because it’s like you like them, but then you can’t and just aaaal the confusion. Obviously, the authors need to listen to you and then you will get the balanced characters that you want, hmmm?

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  6. These are all so good!!! I especially love characters that are complex (I guess that ties into the roundness/moral greyness aspect) because they’re super interesting to read about.

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  7. YES TO ALL OF THESE. I particularly love the morally grey ones because they’re always very complex. Like they want good things, but they get them in bad ways often….so that just makes them complex and intriguing, right?!? But definitely complex for ALL characters. Even secondary ones! I also like characters to really care about something. It makes me care about them. Like characters who are little marshmallows of adorableness to their little siblings or their dog or their mother = SO CUTE I WILL LOVE THEM.

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    1. OH YES THE MORALLY GREY ARE MY FAVOURITE. (And for some reason, this was the only category where I put a list of examples). You’re always questioning them and trying to work out if you can like a bad guy despite whatever they’ve done, or whether you like them for it (maybe ’cause you’re messed up?). It’s hard to hate a villain who phones his mummy every week. and YES to the caring about things!

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  8. I absolutely love this post, and definitely will bookmark this when I finally start editing, or writing again. I agree that characters are so, so important in books, and a book is so much better when I can relate, or feel everything the character is going through.

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