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Building Attractive Characters

by Chris McMahon

It’s strange which characters end up snaring you as a reader. I often wonder why some of the characters I have loved have appealed to me so much. I’m a sucker for the underdog, it hooks me in every time and often drives my own fiction, but lets put that aside for the moment.

It’s no secret I’m a die-hard David Gemmell fan. I think the man was a genius. OK, so he wrote pretty much the same thing every time, but he did it extremely well. His action was great, and good action is always driven by character. He was a writer who knew how to draw a character and how to get out of the reader’s way. His prose is deceptively simple and immediate.

The classic David Gemmell hero is tough and uncompromising. He would think nothing of stepping into the fray and knocking heads if it was the right thing to do and would not give a moment’s thought to the consequences or the bruises and blood – or deaths – that might result. An almost total lack of introspection, except of course for being tortured by guilt over something in their past, which drives them to merciless self-sacrifice.

Reflecting about that sort of character, I would have to admit he (or she – Sigorni in the Hawk Queen books – Gemmell didn’t discriminate) are pretty much poles apart from me. Perhaps we might share a similar sense of right and wrong, but where I would sit wondering whether I should say something the Gemmell hero has already leapt in and moved on. Would I love to be able to act like that and not be tortured by hours of introspective replay? I sure would.

One other character that fascinates me is Dexter from the TV series. Again, here is someone who has a total lack of worry about the consequences; except perhaps only as they might impact on his eventual freedom and lifestyle, but otherwise he feels no remorse or hesitation over how his actions will affect others. If not for his code, he would be an indiscriminate killer. There seems to be no barriers to action in Dexter’s world. I think that is another thing I feel so attracted to. At various times I might feel passionately driven to certain things – at others I will struggle against internal demons or even conflicting passions to get into forward motion. None of this for Dexter. No amount of action or work seems a barrier to him – there are no emotional blocks in the way. There must have been a thousand times I wished I could have waved a magic wand and turned myself into some sort of robot that just got the job done – or at least pop some sort of pill that switched off my emotion. I think this underlies my attraction to characters like Spock.

So do opposites attract? Is it wish-fulfillment that drives our connection to characters? Wanting to live their lives? Or is this connection different for everyone?

7 Comments
  1. I suspect we wouldn’t like their lives if we were really in them, but from a “reader idenitfying with” distance, I suspect we make them enticing to ourselves, and hopefully the readers.

    My Characters tend to be all over the place, physically and personality-wise. With probably more of them the opposite of me than like me.

    November 18, 2011
  2. Hi, Pam. You know I have never really spent all that much time thinking about how my characters compare to my own personality. The ideas for them just emerge from the story. Then I try to make sure they are fleshed out as ‘real’ people. I never really see them as reflections of myself. Come to think of it – that could be scary to consider!

    November 18, 2011
    • Especially for me, with a tall, skinny MALE character insisting on being written. I don’t _think_ I subconsciously want to be a wizard in military intelligence.

      On the other hand, there is “The Fat Chick and Beauty Queens.” Oh. Dear.

      November 18, 2011
      • The one that worries me is my character Raziin from the Jakirian series – that guy is one seriously twisted piece of work!

        November 18, 2011
  3. Synova #

    I’m reading the Liaden books again and trying to decide why I like them so well. Yes, it would be nice to be ridiculously wealthy and beyond all thought innately skilled, but the characters are actually rather mild. Not only that, but they end up with plenty of misery, like anyone else.

    I think that part of the appeal is that the misery isn’t the ordinary sort of misery involved with day-to-day bill paying or trying to decide what course to take that might turn out slightly better for you, and showing up to that nasty job, yet again, because you’ve got no choice just now. My husband has been saying lately that he’d like the possibility of dragons waiting to eat him when he stepped out the door in the morning to get in the car and go to work. If we really faced something so dire it would be pretty horrible, but I do understand what he’s feeling.

    Perhaps we don’t read to avoid troubles, we only read to avoid our own troubles.

    November 19, 2011
    • Hi, Synova. The escapism is certainly a big motivation for me!

      What hooks people into characters or makes them work so well remains a bit of mystery in most cases. I think you can build it deliberately – i.e. wealthy, attractive, skilled, leading exciting lives (yet with traits that link them to us) – but when it really works – something else beyond our control has steppedin. Once it happens, I think the writer can sustain that – like Gemmell did, or Ian Flemming with James Bond – but part always remains almost subconscious.

      I would not mind a few dragons around the place myself!

      November 20, 2011

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