What makes a good literary character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the elements of a good character

Once again it is a wonderful day outside. I am convinced that one reason for putting up with the oppressive heat and humidity of the deep south during the summer season, is anticipation of a lovely fall. Indeed, this year the fall season is exceptional.

Elements of a good character

I want to talk a little today about what makes a good literary character.

NOTE: I am continuing yesterday’s It’s all about character article.

A good character, is not necessarily one that is irreverent, irascible, or irritating – although they may in fact possess those characteristics. But what makes a good character is are they believable.

Now, I do not mean that the character must conform to some arbitrary psychological profile, rather, does the sum equal believability in the particular world created by the writer. When Luke Skywalker picks up the light saber and is able to hit the battle drone while blind folded it is believable because of elements of his character brought up earlier in the movie.

When creating a description of a character, do not just recite facts such as he was 250 pounds, six feet two inches tall, had blue eyes and blond hair. This tells nearly nothing about the character. If one must describe the character in physical terms, a great way is to do something like Rex Stout did in the Nero Wolfe novels where he described Nero Wolfe as an eighth of a ton. Goethe’s Dr. Faust is not described in terms of appearance, but in terms of what he knows – and more importantly in terms of what he wants.

For Dr. Faust, these two elements, knowledge and desire, are important in his characterization because they lead to his hubris and eventual downfall. For Nero Wolfe, his size is likewise important for his characterization because it explains why he is so reluctant to leave the brownstone.

Here are some elements of character, that when used judiciously, can help to move a story along.

  1. Desire. What does a character want more than anything else.
  2. Fear. What does a character fear? Will the character overcome the fear, learn to deal with the fear, or succumb to the fear.
  3. Normal routine. What a character does on a normal basis is useful when contrasted to what becomes the “new normal.”
  4. Habits. Either known or unknown to the character. For example, a character who says that they “hate gossips” and yet is the worst gossip in the entire story is revealing something about their inner truth.
  5. Dreams. This differs from desires in that desires are usually known to the character, whereas dreams may be unacknowledged. This can become really interesting when the character actively peruses one thing, but desires something else … especially when the character does not know that it is what they really want. When placed in terms of people and love, it can make for a fun and interesting love triangle.

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