Character Traits: Part II

Posted on June 8, 2009. Filed under: compelling characters, likeable protagonist, main character |

Last post, we discussed the kinds of qualities that can make a lead character likeable. Most of us need our readers to like the protagonist. Yet other stories call for a different approach. Compelling characters may not be as likeable, but they command attention and force the reader to see what happens. How do writers create compelling characters?
Writing Tip for Today: Your protagonist may be unreliable (as in a drug addict or a mentally ill character), a snob or superior in intellect. Three ways to keep readers riveted are:

  • A likeable narrator. Moby Dick is a prime example. Captain Ahab is unlikeable, but the narrator, Ishmael, tells Ahab’s story through more innocent and hopeful eyes. Sherlock Holmes has Watson, and TV show’s “Nero Wolfe” has Archie Goodwin telling the story. A likeable narrator can help the reader be involved with the story, feel as if the main character is unreachable while the narrator is everyman, or help us be more forgiving of the main character’s flaws.
  • An unlikeable World. If the character is unlikeable, readers may be more tolerant if that character acts in an unlikeable world. In the movie, Mad Max’s cutthroat actions would seem unforgiveable in a “normal” society, but in a post-apolcalyptic world, we view those actions as necessary.
  • Reader as Rubbernecker. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. We slow down to gawk when we pass a car wreck or some other awful event. Capote’s In Cold Blood has us willfully following murderers, just to see what happens.

Tomorrow: Creating a Redeemable Character.


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