On Main Characters: Creating People Readers Love

Greetings, all, and welcome to June!

The month is starting off with all kinds of irritation here… If you already saw a version of this post, that’s because I’m an idiot and set it up for the wrong day. It wasn’t even finished yet–only drafted. When I realized, I unpublished it, and then when I edited it, my changes didn’t save. So I had the WHOLE FRICKIN’ THING done, and those changes disappeared into the ether.

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At that point, there was a lot of swearing and possibly a search for exactly the right profanity reaction GIF, but I opted for something different, and I think I should get a little bit of credit for that…

Anyway.

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I finished Red Rising last week, and as I considered whether to keep going with the series, I realized that I just didn’t care much about any of the characters. My lack of investment in their success or failure triggered some thoughts about how to write characters other people care about, and I think that goes hand-in-hand with avoiding the Mary Sue.

 

When It’s Hard to Care

When people say a character is a Mary Sue, they often say it with a tone of irritation, indifference, or even outright hatred. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think it often boils down to just not caring about the character. It’s tough to care about someone who’s too perfect, who talks about themselves too much, or who never seems to fail.

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Here’s the thing: caring about someone requires some level of emotional connection. We open a book asking the author to make us care about the characters. If the characters are too perfect, too self-centered, or too infallible, it makes them hard to relate to. If we sense, even for a moment, that the character is a stand-in for the author, that makes it even tougher to care. We aren’t asking the author to make us care about the author; we want to care about the people on the page.

So in a sense, reading a Mary Sue character is kind of a betrayal of the author/reader contract. As a reader, I want to develop an emotional connection with the characters, and if I can’t, that explains the hatred, irritation, or indifference I might feel.

So how do we make readers care about our characters?

I think, ultimately, we have to create characters that are as close to real people as possible. They have to feel human–with all the flaws that go along with fractured humanity.

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Imperfections vs. Character Flaws

It seems to me that there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about character imperfections. I think sometimes, we think we have to slap a flaw onto a character to make the character imperfect, when in reality, the flaws should grow from who the character is.

Take my grumpy hero, for example. When Connor walked onto the stage, he was already jaded, angry, and prone to rage. I didn’t slap those onto him–he came out of the package that way.

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My job was to deconstruct him to figure out why so that I could ensure any actions he took made sense.

It was a lot harder with Mairead, largely because her upbringing was so tame compared to Connor’s. When a friend of mine read an early draft of Ravenmarked, she pointed out Mairead’s abandonment issues, and a lightbulb came on. When Connor disappeared on Mairead in Bloodbonded, her reluctance to let him back into her life grew out of losing her parents as a child.

I think a lot of immature authors make the mistake of creating a character, deciding the character should be more flawed, and then slapping an easy imperfection onto the character. If the reader senses that the imperfection doesn’t grow naturally from the character, that contributes to the sense that the character is a Mary Sue, and it makes it harder to sympathize or connect with the character.

This is where imperfections are different than character flaws. Connor’s scars are, in themselves, imperfections. The reasons he has all those scars are his innate flaws.

 

The Most Interesting Characters in the World

I think one problem with Mary Sue characters is that they’re too self-centered. They come off as the Dos Equis guy–someone with interesting stories who doesn’t know how to talk about anyone but himself.

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Listening to that guy is fun for a while, but we don’t want to hang with him forever. Who wants to spend several hundred pages with someone who can’t see past the end of his own nose?

But even though it’s tough to care about a character who is too self-centered, there is some nuance here that begs exploration.

One of the best character arcs in any literary genre is the personal growth narrative–the character who starts out self-centered, but grows into someone who finds bigger things to care about. The challenge is to make the character someone we can care about at the same time.

In my books, Braedan was a big challenge on this spectrum of self-centeredness. Braedan was raised as the center of attention. He was the typical spoiled prince–handsome, wealthy, and powerful. In early drafts of Ravenmarked, Braedan was much more of a villain–and a caricature of one at that.

But I couldn’t really resist digging further into his psyche. I needed to figure out why he was doing the things he was doing.

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And there I found tiny hopeful seeds of a better person.

In the final version of Ravenmarked, Braedan is still pretty self-centered at the beginning, and he’s certainly a kind of antagonist, but he’s trying to become a better man. We see him dumping out alcohol or sipping it slowly to avoid overdoing it, because he knows that in the past, alcohol led him to do bad things. He tries to comfort a young maid who was taken advantage of without taking advantage of her himself. And through it all, he’s kind of charming and a little playful, which makes him at least a little likeable. By the end of Unquickened, those seeds have blossomed into a man who puts his country and his love interest above himself.

There’s a difference between a character who is self-centered with hope for growth and a character who never shows interest in anyone or anything outside of his own wants and needs. This is where first-person narratives do a disservice to the story, I think. If we are always looking at the story through the lens of the main character, it’s too easy to see the character as only focused inward, which leads to that sense that the character is a Mary Sue.

I have more to say about this next week, but this is getting long, so let’s call it Part 2. Next week, in Part 3, I’ll wrap up with some final thoughts about creating characters people love.

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