Characters are the heart and soul of a story. Any book, no matter how good the plot, how interesting the setting, or how clever the twist, must have characters that are distinct, believable, appealing, and imperfect. Yes, imperfect. Readers need to relate to the characters in a book within the first few pages. They need to be able to identify with the character. And one way a writer can do this is to give a character flaws.
We’re only human. Right? Well, the characters in a book should be too. No one likes someone who is wonderful in every way, because none of us are. And having a flawless character will turn off a reader quicker than they can turn a page. We all have good and bad qualities, talents and limitations, strengths and weaknesses. And we like to read about characters that are like us–flawed and human.
A well-known and well-liked character such as Harry Potter is a perfect example. Harry is likeable not just because he is kind and friendly, but because he’s just a little messed-up. Harry is an orphan, he is mistreated by his aunt and uncle, he hangs out with the geeks of Hogwarts, and he has a dark side that he constantly has to wrestle. We like him because each one of us can see a tiny part of ourselves in him. All of us feel alone or rejected at one time or another. Every person feels neglected by friends or family on occasion. Very few of us are popular and hang with the “In” crowd. And we all have a not so nice side that we struggle to overcome. We identify with Harry Potter, and that is why we love him.
Love or hate the books, we can all identify with the characters from Twilight, as well. Bella is an ordinary girl who wants to be extraordinary. She is clumsy and insecure and sees herself as plain and unattractive. Sound like any teenage girl you know? But Edward, the handsome, dangerous, bad boy finds her irresistible. Even Edward, the two hundred year old undead vampire, appeals to our human side. He is seen as evil by most of the world, except by the one who loves him. And he struggles with his carnal urges because he is inherently good. Don’t we all? And of course there is Jacob who must protect the one he cares about knowing he will never have a real chance with her. He also struggles with his carnal urges and even sides with the enemy to protect the one he loves. Stephanie Meyers, for all the flack she has taken about her books, has the human psyche figured out.
And what about the characters of the Hunger Games? Can’t we all relate to one or more of them? First there’s Peeta? He is kind and good, but not so athletic. He is a great talker, but not so skilled with weapons. You just can’t have it all. Then there’s Gale. Gale is the strong, hard working, good looking guy who has to sit back and let the girl he loves make all the decisions. He’s not in the driver’s seat, and he knows it. Sounds like marriage material to me. And of course, there is Katniss, our heroine. Katniss is your typical strong female character, but with a twist. She, like Bella, is in the middle of a love triangle and must balance her feelings with her obligations to family and friends. She is stuck in the middle of the Capitol’s plans for control, and no matter what she does, she is set-up to hurt someone she cares about. Talk about a no win situation. I’d say that Suzanne Collins has our human nature pegged, as well.
In my young adult novel, Island of Tory, Arella Cline is the main character. She struggles with your typical teenage angst. She is an only child who has trouble relating to her parents, and when her parents are killed in an accident, she feels regret and loss. Arella doesn’t like rules or authority and rebels against them every chance she gets. When she is forced to attend a stringent academy, she breaks the rules and then quits. But in the end, Arella must make a choice. She must decide whether to side with good or evil, and she knows that no matter her choice, someone she cares about will get hurt. She is caught between a rock and a hard place, in fact, between a wishing stone and a cursing stone.
So a writer must keep in mind that readers like their characters flawed. Readers want to rub shoulders with fellow narcissistic, insecure, rebel loners who redeem themselves in the end by putting others’ needs first. That’s what makes them human to us. They are a reflection of who we are, or at least, who we strive to be.
Island of Tory is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble online, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers online. Autographed copies are available on this website.