What Makes Great Characters Great

What makes great literary characters great

I was seven or eight when I first read an abridged version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece, Treasure Island. It was such a refreshing change from the squeaky-clean fare I that had been reading till then – I distinctly remember Enid Blyton’s Come to the Circus – that I positively fell in love with the book. More than anything else, I recall having been in complete awe – and in utter dread – of Long John Silver, the book’s primary antagonist and it’s most well known character. Silver, with his peg-leg and the talking parrot on his shoulder, defined the popular notion of a pirate, an image that withstood for generations, one that the colourful Jack Sparrow only very recently redefined in his Caribbean outings.

Long John Silver amazed the reader in me when I was eight. Jack Sparrow enthralled the viewer in me when I was in my thirties. As a writer in my forties, I would happily trade-in my soul to be able to write a fascinating character like Silver or Sparrow.

Or, for that matter, a character like Tyrion Lannister or Tony Stark or Walter White or Lisbeth Salander or our own Shakuni mama.

Characters like these make reading – or watching – fiction pure joy. They are the reason books are bought and tickets are sold. They are why the magic of storytelling is under no immediate threat of unraveling. Because it is great characters that carry a story forward on their broad shoulders… or their stubby Imp-like legs!

Each one of us has his or her favourite set of characters, and strung out in a straight line, it might seem to the casual eye that these characters have practically nothing in common. That’s incorrect. There is much that great characters share in their genetic makeup

1. Great Characters Demand Our Attention:

At heart, many great characters are incorrigible showmen. The world is their stage and they are the spectacle, destined for greater things. Be it Tyrion Lannister, Tony Stark (Tony Stark, not Iron Man; Iron Man is boring!), Scarlett O’Hara, Hercule Poirot or Jack Sparrow, such characters are convinced the sun rises so they can be at the centre of everyone’s attention. These characters often share a streak of cockiness and self-importance that springs from their belief in their own invincibility, and their ability to land on their feet, however impossible the odds. No hugging to the shadows or being wilting wallflowers for this bunch – they are the veritable soul of the party, at least in their own eyes.

Despite their borderline pomposity, what endears them to us is the slight vulnerability in their demeanour, that chink they have allowed in their arrogant armour. They often play their self-importance as a joke for us to laugh at. So when they inevitably and spectacularly fall – almost always because of their own cockiness – they stand up, dust themselves off, give us a lopsided smile to say “yes you were right about my stupidity”’, and walk away jauntily towards their next adventure. And we love them for that. We have seen their failings and their resilience, and that is good enough for us. What we sometimes fail to see, though, is that the spectacular falls were also carefully choreographed to grab our eyeballs. The attention hogging Tyrions and Starks and Sparrows wouldn’t have it any other way.

2. Great Characters Are Unhappy with the Status Quo:

My favourite writing tip comes from Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

If every character wants something, great characters want those things in spades. Think Heathcliff and Edmond Dantès (both thirst for revenge), think Walter White (money, at least initially), think Anand (he wants to conquer the sorrow of premature death), think Amy Dunne (she is done with her husband Nick and wants out), think Katniss Everdeen (she only wants to get out of the Hunger Games in one piece). Think almost anyone in The Game of Thrones (power, what else). Think of any great character and one is likely to find a person who is unhappy with the status quo in his or her life, and is willing to go to great lengths to turn things around.

Even when they are drawn into the conflict with great reluctance (Katniss Everdeen and John Rambo in some of the Rambo installments, for instance), great characters are driven and motivated enough to rebel against circumstance when pushed into a corner. In the process, they even become the rallying point for others in the story. Great characters are the engines that keep the story constantly moving forward.

3. Great Characters Keep You Guessing:

Often, characters that tend to appeal to us more are those washed grey rather than in black or white. Flawed characters whose moral fibre is suspect – which makes them unreliable and unpredictable. There is hardly a debate over what Eddard Stark or Aragorn or Captain America would do when faced with an existential crisis – ten times out of ten, they would choose the right, ethically correct thing. But Tyrion Lannister and Boromir and Tony Stark? Now those three are a different kettle of fish. They would seriously consider what they would gain from the situation, and there is a fifty-fifty chance that this would weigh on the decision they take. Their moral ambiguity is what makes them great characters.

Walter White had all our sympathies as a middle-class college professor facing the prospect of an early death owing to cancer. But he blew us away once his conniving self forced itself into the open, and he began fighting a losing war to remain the decent man that he once was. Little Calvin is a self-centered kid who drives his parents up the wall, but his innocence and good nature shines through every once in a while to keep us on our toes. Gollum is at his riveting best when he is torn between helping Frodo Baggins and killing him to take the Ring. Which version of the creature will win, we keep wondering.

Altruistic characters make good heroes, but the flawed and jagged-edged ones make even better plot points and stories.

4. Great Characters Retain Their Power over the Story:

Stories can have any number of characters, but great characters leave their imprint behind every time they get the opportunity. Gollum is just one of the many characters in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but the character’s hidden menace hardly ever lets up through the three books. Amy Dunne is seemingly dead through much of Gone Girl (a bit like the eponymous Rebecca in Rebecca) but her characters looms over the story like a shadow. Circuit could easily have ended up as yet another funny sidekick, but Circuit made such a shining example of his slavish devotion and loyalty to Munna Bhai that he is now indispensible to the Munna Bhai universe. The influence that a great character exerts over a story far exceeds the character’s role in that story.

5. Great Characters Are a Great Striptease Act:

Every character presumably has a story that stretches beyond the length of a book or a movie, but great characters that make us eager to know more about them. Walking out of the theatre after watching The Usual Suspects, we cannot help wishing we knew a little more about conman Roger Kint, the character essayed so brilliantly by Kevin Spacey. Reading Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot makes us ponder about their childhood and youth, their love life, the causes behind their frugal, hermetic existence. Reading The Devotion of Suspect X, we speculate over what Ishigami’s lonely life was like before he met Yasuko. Great characters invite us briefly into their world, and reveal just enough so we are left wanting more.

Article Contributed by: Shatrujeet Nath

Shatrujeet NathShatrujeet Nath has sold ice-creams, peddled computer training courses, written ad copy, and reported on business as a journalist and assistant editor at The Economic Times. His first book was the spy thriller, The Karachi Deception. The Guardians of the Halahala was his second book, the first in The Vikramaditya Trilogy series. The Conspiracy at Meru, the second volume of the trilogy, is due for release in March 2016. Shatrujeet has recently co-founded JokerStreet, an IP & content-creation company.