One of my favourite things about writing fiction is creating and developing characters. I’m a bit of a character junkie actually, I like to build reasonably detailed character profiles when I write and I cover some pretty trivial details, I like knowing my characters’ zodiac, their height, where they’ve lived, who their best friends are, all this on top of the basics like appearance and traits associated with the narrative. I’m such a nerd about it that I make spreadsheets. That’s right, spreadsheets!!!
All in all characters are pretty important to me, in fact, they’re the most important thing as far as I’m concerned when it comes to writing a good story (who needs a plot right?) which is why main characters frustrate me soooo much.
Main characters are some of the hardest characters to write. Why? Because they’re so boring! They’re the eyes and ears of the events unfolding around them, take any book and most of the time the most interesting characters are the supporting cast not the lead hero.
Main characters have the annoying tendency to fall into the bland and/or dull category (or at least mine do) even more so if the story is written in first person, you can’t even write interesting description without the character sounding like some sort of creative-writing graduate (no offence to you creative-writing grads)
There are very few books whose lead character can carry the whole story, Harry Potter is something of an exception but in a universe like his you’d have to be a boring little so-and-so not to be a good lead would be a travesty. One lead character worthy of being the lead is Ayla the protagonist of Jean M Auel’s Earth Children series (everyone should read the first installment The Clan of the Cave Bear, I mean it, go and read it…go on!) it’s a real testament to Auel’s writing to say that Ayla is a great lead character because the reader can spend chaters, chapters where Ayla is the only living thing featured let alone the only character.
These are the lucky few characters interesting enough to be considered awesome. That’s not to say that other leads aren’t good per se, but when you compare them to their supporting cast they appear vanilla and bland (or worst of all Mary-Sue ish) a key example would be Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen in The Secret History. Richard is actually quite an interesting lead, he lies about his background to make friends, takes hard drugs and sleeps around with girls he doesn’t even like, on paper he sounds like a strong lead but believe it or not Tartt’s other characters manage to outshine him entirely and steal the limelight. (I’d love to go into the Secret History more as it’s an amazing book, possibly one of my all-time favourites but you might as well go and read it yourself)
When writing my own lead characters I often find myself lamenting the fact that they seems so dull, it can be off-putting when your main character isn’t appealing even to you their creator, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some writers have given up on their lead characters all together. I was really coming to the end of my tether with the lead character Rosetta in my novel St Victoria’s, I write in first person as this character and her constant worrying and inner monologues were driving me crazy. I began to doubt the strengths of Rosetta and it made writing a less enjoyable experience. So I decided to try something a little different in an attempt to try and make amends with my protagonist. I decided to revisit a random scene from the novel, only a few pages, not even an entire chapter, but a scene in which one of my supporting characters was also present. Then I re-wrote the whole scene from the point of view of my supporting character Pippa, and what an insight it proved to be! Not only was it good fun and a nice way to keep the writing fresh but by looking through the eyes of a different character I learned that my protagonist Rosetta is a lot more fun to read about than I’d given her credit for. Her neurosis is much more obvious from an alternative point of view and actually brought some comedy to the piece, also she’s much more of an open book than I realised and the whole experience made me look at my character in a totally new light.
I did the same for Tom another character of mine in a separate story I’m working on and he went from bland and mildly stubborn to the rebellious risk taker. I’d thoroughly recommend any writer do the same, in particular if you’re going through a bit of a block or your lead character is falling out of your favour.
I still think leads are some of the hardest characters to get right but maybe we should cut them some slack, they’re a lot more interesting that we give them credit for…(unless they’re Bella Swan!)