What Makes Great Characters

So I was tagged in a blog tour (again) by Lyn C. Johanson. I seem to be imminently taggable. Maybe that’s because I almost never say no. In fact, I suck at saying no – which probably explains some of my life choices (but I digress). Or maybe someone stuck a “tag me” post-it note on my back. But blog tours are usually fun, and I saw this one about Meeting My Character as an opportunity to both answer the questions, and then consider what makes great characters.

Photo Credit:  Ian Wilson  / flickr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ian Wilson / flickr / Creative Commons

Then I had the challenge of trying to actually pick one of my characters. I did consider Robin, the main character in my upcoming Tales from Pennsylvania novelette, which I am exceedingly excited about. I mean we are talking Michael Bunker here. But since I don’t want to risk any spoilers associated with Robin, I decided to go with Abbey, the main character in my fantasy science fiction adventure series (could I add any more descriptors there?), since the second book in the series, A Quill Ladder, is coming out this fall.

Blog Tour Questions

What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Abbey Sinclair. She is fictional. Some people think she is me of course – friends often seem to do that with writers. But I’m not nearly as geeky or accomplished in science as Abbey… well I hope I’m not quite as geeky anyway. (Some of the main characters in my other books are strippers, alcoholics, murderers and adulterers – so I’m hoping that the friends thinking the main character is me is short-lived).

When is the story set?

The story is set in the present day. But it is kind of intended to be timeless.

What should we know about him/her?

Abbey loves chemistry and physics, is fourteen, delicately pretty with red hair, has an IQ of 165 and is sometimes a bit socially awkward. She has a twin brother named Caleb and an older brother named Simon. She also may be a witch, but she doesn’t really believe in that.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Having just returned from an adventure using the time travelling stones that allow people to see their future, Abbey must decide if she is going to use the list of clues her future self left for her to try to prevent the event that apparently caused the world to split into three futures. But solving the clues would probably mean using the stones again, which she has been forbidden to do. And of course the witches she helped free from Nowhere keep dropping by looking for her help, and offering to teach her about magic, and her mother is sneaking out early in the morning to use the stones herself...

What is the personal goal of the character?

Abbey wants to keep her family safe and prevent the future catastrophic events that she now knows are coming. But she's also very curious and can’t help but want to solve the mystery and learn about her future. Her natural caution sometimes gets in the way though.

Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
It is called A Quill Ladder and I will have a cover reveal and blurb up next week. But for now here is a sneak peek at the cover as I am once again so excited about the amazing work of Andrew Brown at Design for Writers.


When can we expect the book to be published?
October 31, 2014

What Makes Great Characters

Okay so which of these are important for writing great characters? Hint: The answers to questions 3, 4 and 5.

It should be obvious that the answer to question 3 is important. Great characters have to have personality, quirks, flaws, and strengths. They also have to be complex and fully realized to be interesting. Abbey’s favourite colour is pink. She has a crush on Orlando Bloom. She is very brave, but she does not believe she is and gets sarcastic when she is afraid. She likes to reason everything through, whereas her twin Caleb operates more on emotion and instinct. It is important for the writer to consider a lot of detailed aspects of their characters, even if those details don’t make it into the novel, such as – what is their favourite book (Abbey would say The Principles of Chemistry, but really it is Prince Caspian), what do they wear to bed (pink polka-dotted flannel pajamas), what are they afraid of (spiders), and do they like bacon (Who doesn’t like bacon? Just kidding. Abbey does, reluctantly, after she failed at being a vegetarian).

Questions 4 and 5 relate to what is driving the character both internally and externally. Great characters have to have motivation and agency, and generally must experience both internal and external conflict. Motivation pushes them along. It is about what they want or need. Agency is how they go about seeking it and responding to the internal and external conflicts. Agency is about being active, not passive. The internal and external conflicts are the obstacles and challenges they experience along the way that act as both inciting incidents, leading them to the initial action, and the continuing call to action.

Not included in the set of questions is another key component of great characters. Great characters also have to be capable of change and growth. Most people read books to see the main character change or learn something as a result of their actions in the book. Books are often not just about the external adventure, which is often the main plot arc, but also that internal character arc. Abbey will change in important ways in terms of how she views science, intuition, emotions and witchcraft over the course of the Derivatives of Displacement series – the derivatives of displacement in physics are ultimately about rate of change over time.

Also not included, but important, is that great characters have to have a history and backstory. They did not just drop from the sky into your book. Unless you begin your novel on the first day of their lives, they had important life-altering events that took place before the time period of your novel. And while you should not necessarily provide your reader with a long and boring description of that backstory, their history should come into play and affect their responses when they are in a wide variety of situations.

Finally, great characters should be mostly internally consistent, but still able to surprise. Writers must think about everything they make their character do. Would their character do that? Is the character acting in character? Readers get upset when characters act randomly, unless randomness was a main element of the character from the start. At the same time, if characters are too predictable, they become boring. It is a fine line and writers have to walk it. You can never allow the reader to be too sure what a character is going to do, but it is also bad to completely shock them.

Of course there are other things that writers believe contribute to great characters such as larger than life qualities, a great and suitable name, a unique look, friends, secrets, and likability, and I could write a whole post on the necessity of writing memorable characters versus good enough characters (and perhaps I will), but the character attributes above are the essentials. Great characters need to be complex, real, motivated and active, capable of change, internally consistent but not predictable and they need to have a history. They also need to face internal and external conflict, because really that is what a story is all about.

I am glad I was tagged in this blog tour as it has been a good exercise in checking in on Abbey and making sure she is as great a character as I want her to be.

I also have to tag someone else in my post so I am going to tag Susan May, an Australian writer, who can be found at http://susanmaywordadventures.blogspot.com.au/ and recently released a novelette, Back Again. Here is the blurb:

A tragic accident takes Dawn’s only child right before her eyes. The following surreal days are filled with soul-destroying grief and moments she never wants to live again—until, inexplicably, she finds herself back again, living that day. It’s a chance to save her son. But changing fate is not as simple as it first appears. Between life and death lies fate.

Back Again is going to be released as a novel in the fall. Check it out!