Friday, June 29, 2012

The Challenges of Making Characters Come Alive

A secondary character can be a trusty sidekick. Or the quiet, mouse-like kid that needs protection. Or the bossy, bullying one that always seems to be listening in on the heroine’s plans. My secondary characters always seem to be full of personality. So much that they often threaten to steal the scenes away from my main character. And there’s my problem. Why is it that the main character is so much harder to bring to life than a secondary character?

You can start thinking about the main and secondary characters in the same way. They have strengths and flaws, personality traits, physical appearance, etc. But there’s a lot more pressure on a writer to create an engaging main character.

While the main character has to change and grow throughout the story, the secondary characters can just hang out and have fun, appear when they’re needed and disappear when their bit is over.

In a compelling story, the main character cares about something so much he or she will do anything to have it, and writer has to convince the reader that the wanting it is worth it. Secondary characters can care about it too, but it’s not like their world will end if they don’t have it.

One of the strategies for writing a compelling main character is to try to put yourself in the main character’s shoes. Oddly, what this helps me with is bringing to life my secondary characters. In real life, I’m always making observations about other people—their mannerisms, their emotions, their choices. When I create secondary characters, these details emerge naturally in my writing.

But when I’m standing in the main character’s shoes, I have to turn that same lens on myself. Analyze my own (or my main character’s) strengths and weaknesses. It’s so much harder. Especially since that main character is not quite me, but some made up version that is part me/part the-heroine-I’d-like-to-be/part the-person-whose-flaws-create-the-most-conflict.

The part that is me doesn’t really like probing into the sensitive stuff that I’d normally cover up so I don’t have to deal with it. The heroine part wants to…well, be a hero. She doesn’t want to think about her flaws and bad choices. And the flawed part of the character would rather not remind anyone of her shortcomings, even if they do help to create a good story.

All this makes it so difficult for me to create a main character that really comes alive for the reader.

What do you think is your biggest challenge in breathing life into your main character? Do you find it harder to create your main character or your secondary characters?


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. The main character gets to observe and judge the secondary characters. We get a one-two punch: what the secondary characters do and how your main character reacts to it. The main character, meanwhile, is less likely to see her own flaws or even the traits that make her special. This might be a benefit in multiple points of view. You get to see your main characters from different angles.

  2. What an interesting quandary. I've had the same problem in my latest novel; my secondary character is a lot more quirky than my mc! Maybe you're right, and it's because we try to make our mc's somewhat like us. I'm not sure for me it's about flaws, but maybe just that I'm too restricted when inventing my mcs. Maybe if I let my imagination run wild, tried to create the most fun character possible, rather than one I understood automatically, I'd end up with someone a lot more unique. Interesting... Thanks!

    1. I think you may be onto something there, Anna. The next time I write a novel, I'm going to try to be more imaginative and find elements that are a little on the edge of my own experience (not too far because then I don't think I could make them authentic enough).

  3. I have the same troubles as you do in secondary vs. main characters. I'm struggling right now as I try and figure out the main character in my new story. She just won't talk to me! I think you nailed it with your mc being so much like you that it's hard to see them clearly. Which version of yourself will star in this story? I only find that time, and lots of writing, will tell.

    Thanks for bringing this up! I needed to hear it today.

  4. I've noticed in books I like that good writers can use the secondary characters to develop the main character: by what they say about the MC, what they expect the MC to do or say, what surprises them about the MC, how the MC makes them feel. If your secondary characters are so interesting, then what is it they like about the MC? What do they get out of hanging around him/her? What drives them crazy about the MC; what makes them loyal to him/her?

    This works even if your POV is limited to the MC, because the secondary characters' feelings and motivations can be revealed in words and body language--what's really great is when authors show secondary characters from the MC's POV, and the readers can tell how the secondary characters are feeling even if the MC doesn't notice. Great way to create dramatic irony.


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