Recently I’ve been doing a lot of jumping between stories. Within my own work I’ve been moving between zombie apocalypses and werewolf romances, between epic fantasies and personal journeys. At the same time I’ve been reading books, watching movies and TV shows, and playing video games. All this going back and forth between different stories with different characters has gotten me thinking about what makes a truly memorable character. What is it that makes a particular person in a book, tv show, movie, or game become this amazing character whom you can’t get enough of? What makes a character great?
I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve come up with three answers, three things that make a character great, in my opinion.
Great characters make you laugh.
Humor is almost a given, isn’t it? Laughter is like a drug, one for which the only side effects are happiness and maybe some pleasantly sore muscles. Mentally and physically, our bodies get high on humor, which is why we love comedies so much, why we appreciate friends and loved ones who can make us chuckle, and why we tend to gravitate toward peers who share our appreciation for what is or isn’t funny. Sense of humor is not universal, of course, but almost everyone will find themselves drawn toward a character who can make them laugh, especially if that laughter is of the deep-down, belly-rumbling, gasping-for-air variety.
Characters who give me the giggles:
Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory – He’s just so absurd and stoic in everything he says and does that it’s absolutely hysterical. I genuinely don’t know how the actors of this show make it through their lines sometimes.
Tyrion Lanister from the A Song of Ice and Fire series (G.R.R. Martin) – I’ve rarely read a character so damn witty. His humor is rude and crude one minute, and exceptionally intellegent the next. Every second line out of his mouth makes me go “HA!”
Great characters make you cry.
Sadness is a little less obvious, but whether you might believe it or not sometimes we crave a good sob-fest. Why else would movies like The Notebook be so popular? The thing is, crying is cathartic; even if you didn’t realize you were stressed out or upset, crying gets all the pent-up bad mojo out, and while no one wants to be sad for real-life reasons, being sad for a character allows you to experience that release of emotions. Being able to feel for a character, to be truly empathetic toward them and experience their pain, releases a host of hormones and chemicals that leaves you feeling somehow refreshed and rejuvinated.
Characters who give me the sniffles:
Dean Winchester from Supernatural – It’s one part great writing and one part awesome acting on behalf of Jensen Ackles, and the combination is a character who has made me exceptionally weepy on more than one occasion (but don’t tell my husband…I always turn to my side so he doesn’t see).
Simba from The Lion King – There is one scene in particular that I’m talking about, and if you don’t automatically know which one I’m talking about you can’t possibly have ever seen The Lion King, so GO WATCH THE LION KING RIGHT NOW, YOU FREAK.
Great characters make you scream.
Fear is another thing entirely. Though there are always going to be some people who run in the other direction when faced with fear, quite a lot of us love it. Fear gives a person a unique rush of adrenaline and “fight or flight” hormones that can be obtained in no other way, and how better to experience such a thing than from the comfort of your own home while reading a scary book or watching a horror movie? When a character makes your heart beat faster, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and gives you a nervous twtich because of the incredible tension, that is something real and visceral that you won’t soon forget. If the eventual result is actual nightmares, the character has really done their job.
Characters who give me the wiggins:
The creepy ghost girl from Shutter (original Thai version) – There is one thing I will give to the Asians…they know how to do ghosts, and this chick in particular had me literally watching the movie from between my fingers. Bonus points for totally freaking out my husband and father-in-law.
The Joker from The Dark Knight – He may not be scary in the “I’m going to have nightmares forever!” sense, but Heath Ledger’s maniacal version of The Joker creeped me out more than I can tell. He was truly, entirely mad, and that is a frightening concept.
There are, of course, lots of other factors that go into making a good character. The protagonist should be likable but also have real flaws, the antagonist should be hateful but have relatable qualities as well… You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure, or if you haven’t I’m sure you know most of the rules without even realizing it; that’s how you as the consumer recognize the characters you like. But in my opinion, the three things I’ve mentioned above are what take a character from simply enjoyable, to positively incredible. And if you can somehow incorporate all three of these types of characters into one story…wow. Just wow.
Character (groups) that have made me giggle, sniffle, and wig out:
The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV) – Fear doesn’t necessarily apply anymore, but I watched this show when I was young and significantly more innocent, so hear me out. Back in the day the monsters creeped me the hell out, the banter between characters (good and bad) constantly had me laughing, and the misery that several of the characters went through made me (on more than one occasion) bawl like a little girl. To me, that is seriously a winning combination, and that is why this show is one of my all-time favorites to this day.
The characters from Invitation to the Game (Monica Hughes) – The characters in this book were witty and amusing, went through a tense, frightening situation that threatened their lives, and experienced a plethora of negative emotions and miseries. I’ve read this book dozens of times and I still experience an emotional rollercoaster whenever I read it.
As a writer I now find myself in the position of trying to incorporate these factors into my characters, which is a much more difficult endevour than simply pointing them out in the books I read and the movies and shows I watch. Humor isn’t my strong point, although I’ve been told by readers of my fanfiction that I’ve made them chuckle a time or two. I strive to incorporate fear into my horror and fantasy pieces, and I hope it comes across, but I haven’t been in the position yet to have anyone tell me one way or the other. Misery seems to be my “thing” (what does that say about me…?), as I love to torture my characters and I’ve had a number of people inform me that I was successful in drawing out those tears. It’s a very difficult thing striking all three, but as other writers will attest, writing is rarely easy and creating excellent characters can often feel like an exercise in futility. Regardless, now that I’ve beaten down exactly what it is that creates characters I’ve come to love, you can be damn sure that I’ll be keeping these three factors in mind whenever I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
What about you? What characters have made you laugh until your belly hurt? Sob like a baby? Cower under a blanket? Are there other factors that make a character great for you? Please share!