Thursday, November 3, 2011

Character Words: Explained

In my reviews, you've probably heard me use terms like "relate-able", "likable", and more to describe characters. 

But what do they mean?  Are they good, or bad?  Should be my characters be like that?

In this post, I'll explain.

Likable: If a character is likable, it is easy for your reader to want the character to win.  If a character is likable, readers will, well, like them. 

Example: Ron Weasley is a very likable character.  He's funny, and brave, and a super-loyal friend.  He has his flaws, yes, but we still love him anyways. 

Why it Matters: You can have the most well-developed (I'll go into that one later) main character on the face of the earth, but it means nothing if there's no elements of likability to him.  If a reader doesn't care about your main character, then they won't care about the story and might end up just putting the book down. 

Three-Dimensional (or well-rounded, or well-developed): If a character is three-dimensional, they seem like a real person to your readers.  They come alive on the page.  They have their good points and bad points, and everything in between, just like a real person. 

Example: Loor, from the Pendragon series.  She's got her good points, in being almost unnervingly brave and totally dedicated to saving Halla (or the universe, for those non-Pendragon folks out there).  On the other hand, she is often times very cold and seems uncaring.  She's got her good and bad side, just like any real person.  

Why it Matters:  Real people are neither completely good nor completely evil.  They're a shade of gray, somewhere in between.  And since your goal is to make characters that seem like real people, it only stands to reason that you should try to make your characters like this, too.  Three-dimensional characters often end up being the ones readers like most, because they seem so real.

Relatable: This isn't actually a word, but I still use it.  Shh, don't tell!  If a character is relatable, the reader can relate to their actions, thoughts, and feelings.  They've felt similar feelings before, so they can understand the character better.  It's like in sixth grade reading class, when you had to make text-to-self connections. 

Example: Meggie from Inkheart.  For starters, all book lovers can relate to her love for books, obviously.  Though most of us probably don't know what it's like to be pulled inside of a story and live in the book, we've all felt out-of-place at some point in our lives.  We don't know what it's like to go through some of the things that happen to her, but we can understand her undying love for her father and mother, her longing for home, and that identity crisis that inevitably happens to pretty much everyone in pretty much every book. 

Why it Matters:  Obviously most of your readers probably haven't ridden a dragon, or kissed a werewolf, or flown to Jupiter, or whatever happens in your book.  But that's not what I mean by relatable.  If a reader doesn't have at least some tiny little hint of "Oh, yeah, I know how that is", then you'll lose them pretty fast. 

Definite Personality: When a character has a definite personality, that simply means that I know what their personality is.  It's interesting, and distinct.  I can tell who they are, as a person, from their thoughts, words, actions, and narration voice.

Example: Edilio from the Gone series has a definite personality.  Readers familiar with the series will immediately identify him as the level-headed, responsible one.  He knows how to lead people, and he gets things done.  Other characters look up to him.  I can sum up his personality just by saying level-headed, responsible, leader.  That's who he is, no questions.

Why it Matters: Let's face it: characters who don't have a definite personality are boring.  Now, I'm not saying every character has to have a personality "extreme", or stereotype, or something.  I'm just saying that we, as readers, need to know exactly who your character is.  Readers don't like characters whose personalities seem to waver, or blur. 

And there you have it!  Now, it probably seems like some of these are almost identical.  That's because...well, they are.  Each one of these is closely interlocked with each of the others.  When you find a balance between them, that's when you know you have a phenomenal character who has a definite personality, who is likable, three-dimensional, and relatable. 

If you're curious, some characters who have all these traits (other than the characters mentioned above, of course) are: Murtagh and Nasuada (Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini), Eona and Lady Dela (Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman), Froi (Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta), Vo Spader (Pendragon series), Sapphira Adi, Walter Foley, Acacia, or anyone from the Dragons in our Midst/Oracles of Fire series, anyone from Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord, and more.  This is by no means a complete list, but I'd go on forever if I didn't stop myself. 
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