If you ran into your hero at a cocktail party, would you talk to him?
If so, what is it about him that would have attracted you to him in the first place? Would it be the way he stands out in the room? Or his laugh? Or his voice?
I'm guessing it's the way he attracts a crowd (other great characters) around him. If he looks like a fun guy, then just like you, others will want to hang with him, and soak up his vibe.
If your character isn't engaging to you, trust me: he won't hold his own with readers, either.
Sure they may finish the book. But that's no guarantee that they will come around for a second book, or recommend it to others.
Those of you participating in National Novel Writing Month know that the prime objective is moving your story ahead each day in November, at a clip of 1,650 words a day. That averages around five pages a day (or 330 words per page). Much of what I've written about in the twelve tips that have preceded this one involves crafting a solid, fast-moving plot, which, if your story were a sandwich, is the tasty bread that holds the story together. But your main character is the meat in the middle:
If he or she ain't tasty, your story is plain. Blah.
It's just dry as toast.
Case in point: There are a vast number of spy novels, but the ones that attract legions of ongoing readers have one thing in common:
Characters who are smart, fun, fearless, and flawed enough that they aren't (in Mary Poppins-ology) practically perfect in every way. (My god, think how boring that would be?)
In that genre, my favorite authors are John LeCarre and William Dietrich, for different reasons. In the case of Mr. LeCarre, I enjoy the tortured backstories of his heroes just as much as the intricacies of his plots, which demonstrate the amount of skill and research that go into his into his novels. I love the flaws that are etched into his heroes.
As for Mr. Dietrich — especially in his Nathan Gage series — his plots are fun romps built around history and mythology, and his hero is a delightful scoundrel and an adventurer.
Both writers are skilled enough at their craft that their characters' backstories aren't “told” to us (show, not tell, as in Tip #5, remember?) but appropriately intercut as flashbacks (LeCarre), or worked back into the ongoing plot (Dietrich).
A strong character wears his backstory heavily in his eyes, his gait, or on his sagging shoulders. It is sprinkled into his conversation, and that of his friends and enemies.
Like all of us, your hero's traits are the sum total of his life experience. They are why he makes wrong choices, and why he seeks redemption.
They are what make him interesting.
It's why we want to hang out with him.
It's why we fall in love with him.
Otherwise, we can be doing something else.
And so can you.
Like re-examining your hero, to take advantage of every opportunity to make him more interesting.
PICTURE: Yep, that is Daniel Craig tux'ed up as James Bond, the iconic spy as written by master novelist Ian Fleming. Your main character doesn't have to be as self-assured , but he or she will have to have traits that allow readers to want to hang in with them, for the three hundred or so pages of your story.
I've got a question for you, and be honest: Have you ever written a character that was so boring that you had to get rid of him/her?
Happy National Novel Writing Month,