This blog post was inspired by a podcast that Writing Excuses recently ran. I am a huge fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, they cover a wide range of writing related topics and I have been able to take away a lot of good advice from their discussions. The regular cast on Writing Excuses is top notch. They are all “professional” authors, with numerous published books and writing awards between them. I cannot recommend that you check out their podcast enough.
The particular podcast that inspired me to write this blog post was an episode about writing engaging characters. (http://www.writingexcuses.com/2014/03/09/writing-excuses-9-10-engaging-characters/) They talk in the podcast about the villain problem, which is when the villain in a particular story overshadows, or is more interesting than, the main character. This can also occur with secondary, friend and sidekick characters. In the story I am currently working on the villain problem, or in my case the secondary character problem, came up. I certainly didn’t set out to write one of my two main characters as a boring, passive guy, but when my writing group workshopped my first few chapters, from the feedback they gave me it was clear that that is exactly what I had done. When I went back and reread those chapters for myself, I quickly realized that my writing group was right; that main character was by far the least interesting and least engaging of all the characters in those chapters. The problem seemed to spring from the fact that in those early chapters he was mainly observing the things around him. Secondary characters were doing things, saying things, and being interesting, but he was just watching. I had justified his inactivity during the initial writing based on the fact that he was new in town and I was trying to have him, and the reader through him, take in the new surroundings. I realize now that that was not nearly enough though. He needed to be fully engaged in every scene, even if that just meant he was only actively thinking or actively commenting on the things happening around him. A good main character cannot just be the lens the reader is viewing the story through; they must interact with and affect the world around them.
Another thing they talked about in the podcast was, in Brandon Sanderson’s words, “the blank slate of blandness.” This is when a main character has few, if any, distinguishing characteristics and always does what the reader expects him to do. When I think of a character like that, I think of Superman. I have never found Superman particularly interesting; to me he has always been predictable and bland. Batman on the other hand, at least in his most recent incarnations, is a wonderfully dark and unpredictable character. He has flaws and quirks that I think make him a far more relatable and interesting character. In the podcast they talk a little about character quirks and how they can be tricky to get right. Character quirks need to be sprinkled in with forethought and with consequence. A character’s quirks should inform and affect the character’s decision-making and attitude throughout the writing. Batman breaks the law repeatedly but he has a rigid personal code and fights for his own brand of justice. That quirk or character trait makes him interesting. It also informs most of his actions throughout his stories.
I do not think the importance of interesting and engaging main characters can be overstated. Wonderful secondary characters and villains cannot carry a piece on their own; to me they are like icing and it doesn’t really matter how good the icing is if the cake underneath tastes like crap.