To get back to our character discussion, I think it’s time to discuss a few of the traits that all great characters have in common.  They are (in no particular order):

Anne of Green Gables may have red
hair, but it’s her love of drama that
is the important character trait.

  • Significant Details
    These are not things like a characters hair color, eye color, or make and model of his/her car.  These don’t actually tell us anything about the character, they simply help the reader visualize the character’s outside.  What we are interested in are the things that tell us about the character herself.  Does your character rub the inside of his elbow when he’s nervous?  This can be used as a detail every time he’s in an uncomfortable situation.  That way you don’t have to tell “David is nervous.” Instead you can show him rubbing his elbow.

    You can tell the difference between significant and insignificant details pretty easily.  The insignificant ones are the ones that are completely inconsequential.  If I never told you that my character was a brunette, it would not change the story at all.  In fact, if I make an insignificant detail signifcant (for instance the hero is blond), I have probably succumbed to stereotyping, a big no-no.

  • Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle
    believes herself to be the
    stereotyped oldest sibling
    from a fairy tale.
  • Avoid Stereotypes
    Obviously bad stereotypes based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. are absolute off limits, but you should avoid good stereotypes as well. (Example of a positive stereotype: people with glasses are smart.)

    Sterotypes have the unfortunate effect of making a character seem two (or even one) dimensional.  It also does the character a grave disservice by grossly oversimplifying him/her.  You never want a simple primary character, even in a picture book.  All of the best characters (including PB ones like Olivia or Fancy Nancy) have layers.  Like a parfait.

    Of course, occasionally authors deliberately make use of a stereotype to debunk it or to prove some type of point.  That however is different than just using a stereotype for your main character and then moving on.

  • You don’t get much more flawed than
    the anti-hero Artemis Fowl.
  • Have Flaws
    The best heroes have flaws.  I don’t just mean the grand “tragic flaw” you learn about in school that inevitably leads to the heroes demise at the end of the Greek play.  No, I mean sometimes big, sometimes little personality traits that make the character’s life just that more difficult.

    There are a couple of reasons you want a flawed character:

    • They are more interesting. — Flaws create drama, and drama is fun to read (and write).
    • They are more realistic. — No one is flawless.  Not even me (or you).  Sorry.
    • They are more sympathetic. — There is literally nothing more aggravating than perfection.  People who appear perfect tend to make you want to slap them, and perfect characters in books make me want to tear them out of the pages and hurl them across the room. 

Cearly I feel strongly about flaws.

© Copyright 2006-2011 Madeline Smoot. All rights reserved.
May be excerpted and duplicated for educational purposes.
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