Monday, November 23, 2009

What Makes a Great Character?

I just finished reading Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was a great read and a definite page-turner. But the one thing that really captured me was the main character.

Her name is Lisbeth Solander and she is so unique, you can't help but wonder what makes her tick. She's a skinny 24-year-old computer hacker, with tattoos and piercings, a penchant for doing what needs to be done (even if it's illegal) and a loner. She comes to life on the page. Larsson does an incredible job of creating her, of making her real, yet still manages to keep some of her secrets that really are the backbone of who she is. It's a fascinating technique. As a reader, you really want to know what those secrets are - it makes her all the more intriguing. But Larsson doesn't tell you.

Of course, since there are two more books in the series, I imagine that some of these secrets will be revealed. But it doesn't detract from the power of her character in the first book.

What makes a great character for you in a novel? How do you try and translate this to your own work?


  1. So many writing books mention it's how a character reacts in a crisis that makes him/her great. The reader must feel compelled to route for them, is engaged and eager to see how that character evolves.

    Finn, Jode, Eyre, Barrett, Trask, and Gatsby--all go through so much.

  2. I love a good character. I think what I love most in characters is their flaws and honesty. When I see a flawed character fight hard for what come naturally to someone else, I'm totally on their side. I root for the underdog.

  3. I was just thinking about this. I think I respond strongly to characters that I find both deeply admirable and deeply sad or wounded. I think that's the connective thread between Gatsby, Heathcliff, Darcy, Ellen Olenska, and so many others I love.

    Great question!

  4. It seems like there is a sympathetic element to a great character, where the reader really feels for them emotionally. We have something vested in the story that way. I also like when a writer doesn't paint the entire character, but leads us to certain assumptions, certain traits, without spelling things out.

  5. I love reading for the inherent purpose of delving into someone else's life.

    Reading about characters that go against the grain- are ordinary and extraordinary all in the same breath is what makes it stick.

  6. For me, a great character has to do with being able to just feel their personality leaping off the page. When a character is really defined and stands away from other characters, I just say personality, personality, personality ;-)

    Nice blog!

  7. This book is on my TBR list, I'm glad to finally know someone who has read it!

    For me, a great character is multi-dimensional, not flat, layered. I think there are many books out there with inklings of good characters - without the depth really needed for them. I often come away from those book (OK, so they are published books) wishing for more.

  8. NY Times Sunday Magazine had a fascinating profile of the author this past Sunday -- you can probably access it on the website.

    Good characters, for me, are those who actively participate in the world around them. I have zero tolerance for passive or passive aggressive people in real life, and that extends to the page.

  9. You know-- I am still working on trying to find that character that I really love--there needs to be a certain depth to them and faults but where they can overcome the bad.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. I agree with you about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A terrific read!

    For me, a character has to have kindness and flaws, be willing to act for him/herself, and be the sort of person you would want as a best friend.

  11. The backbone of a good character, for me, is someone who is flawed, who takes action (instead of being passive--I have the same pet peeve as Devon!) and who in some way is sympathetic or likeable. Another pet peeve--unlikable characters I can't relate to. This doesn't always translate to "nice." I always keep in mind Scarlett O'Hara. She's not someone I'd want as a friend, she's not always likeable, in fact, she does some despicable things. But she is definitely relatable. We understand why she does the things she does, and we're fascinated by her.


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