At first glance, THE DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, THE HUNGER GAMES, and the Hercule Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie would seem to have absolutely nothing in common, beyond being very successful books. It’s hard to imagine the three main characters (Greg, Katniss, and Hercule) sitting down to a congenial dinner together. If the three were relatives, it would be more like the worst imaginable family meal ever. Greg would be drawing rude pictures of Great Uncle Hercule, while Katniss would be trying to figure out how to steal a turkey leg at the same time she was concocting a plan to dispose of the annoying wimpy kid.
I wouldn’t necessarily want any of these three to be my own relatives, but they are so distinct, they are etched in the memories of readers. The challenge for us as writers is learning to create our own such characters. Many manuscripts are rejected because an agent or an editor will say “I just don’t connect with the main character.” Nothing is more frustrating to hear about a character you created, nurtured, and nursed through whatever disaster you inflicted upon them. You love them, so why doesn’t anyone else?
How you go about creating a memorable main character depends partly on your story structure. If you’ve got a story that starts out with an ordinary character in an ordinary life, whether happy or unhappy, you’ve got to convince the reader your character is actually not quite as ordinary as everyone else. Give the character a sense of humor, an odd way of looking at life, a strange quirk, an unusual hobby, or a passion for something, anything that elevates them beyond average. That’s what author Jeff Kinney did in THE DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. Within the first few pages we know Greg is irreverent, smart and funny. I didn’t need to know the plot; I kept reading just because I liked the character.
If the setting or plot of your story is unusual or exciting, then it’s a bit easier, but you still have to get the reader to root for the character. If you’re going to throw a character into a pit full of alligators, you want the readers to really hope he gets out, not just close the book with a yawn.
THE HUNGER GAMES is both unusual and exciting. Katniss, the main character, cannot be described as warm and fuzzy. She’s tough, she’s led a grim life, and she never shows much in the way of a sense of humor, but author Suzanne Collins does a fantastic job of making the reader care about her. That happens within the first few pages, and it occurs because we see the chinks in the character’s armor. She cares deeply about her little sister, Prim, and that hint of vulnerability drives the plot. As an interesting exercise, I’ve read the first few pages of the book leaving out all references to Prim and her cat. Katniss becomes a much less intriguing character.
Love or hate Hercule Poirot, if you’ve read Agatha Christie’s mysteries, the fussy Belgian detective is an unforgettable character too. In his first appearance, in THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, the reader gets a very clear picture of a most unusual detective in just one page. When Poirot is discussing a murder with his friend Hastings, the juxtaposition of Poirot’s fastidious behavior while he calmly talks about a grim crime is surprising and odd. He arranges his moustache, he brushes off his coat, and he fixes his friend’s crooked tie as he listens to a description of the victim’s dying words. As Hastings says, “I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” Poirot’s quirkiness is the main reason we remember the character.
I had a long path to getting published, and along the way analyzing popular books helped me tremendously. In my own writing for the middle grade audience, I had to find a way to make my main character in WILDFIRE RUN likeable. Luke Brockett is the son of the U.S. President, and with that setup, it would be easy to fall into the trap of making him the epitome of a spoiled rich kid. Instead, I tried to show him as a geeky MacGyver kid, more interested in playing jokes on his friends and building weird contraptions than in taking advantage of all the perks that come with living in the White House. I hope the combination of an unusual setting with a character the reader doesn’t expect makes the book work.
Creating good characters is all part of the process that goes into writing a marketable manuscript, and while it can be a time-consuming job to get it right, it’s hard to succeed without them.