Characterization: What Makes You Care About a Character?

The tortured hero? The brilliant villain? What makes you fall in love with a character? What makes you stick with them for 100, 200, 300, even 400 pages with rapt interest? There are quite a few theories about this phenomenon, and my favorite is that there’s something about our favorite characters, even those we love to hate, with which we identify. Sometimes we see parts of ourselves in them. Sometimes we wish we were more like them in some way. Oh, and the action figure above is my hero from "Dark Sentinels" Book Two: Torin DuMont. Right now, he's a work-in-progress.

One of my favorite characters of all time is Hannibal Lecter. No, I’m probably not a murderer, and definitely not a cannibal (ever notice the rhyming thing with the character’s name and one of his major offenses?), but despite major psychosis, let’s face it. The man is brilliant, has great manners, and he’s actually quite likable as long as you treat him with respect and you’re not too afraid to hold a conversation with him.

A common thread for me is intelligence. I don’t care how good-hearted or good-looking a dumb oaf happens to be, I’m probably not going to follow him through an entire novel – maybe for a few minutes, but that’s about it. Stupidity is sad to me, and not entertaining in the least. Ever seen the movie, “The Edge,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin? Hopkins is a brilliant, but average-looking millionaire with a beautiful wife, and Baldwin is a tall, handsome lothario who wants that wife for himself. The two are pitted against one another when they get lost in the wilderness. It’s a classic example of brains vs. beauty. Which one did you root for? Which one did I root for? The brain, of course! Great movie, BTW!

 Other than intelligence, there are other common threads that most of us are drawn to. I’ve listed a few of my favorites here that we all tend to love (you know me and my lists). Tell me what you think, and feel free to add your own in comments.

1.     Redeemable villains
2.     Stoic heroes
3.     Tortured lovers
4.     Underestimated underdogs
5.     Lost (but not stupid) souls
6.     Emotionally vulnerable warriors
7.     Survivors


Of your list, I like the last three. I think we all root for the underdog and want him or her to win.

And they're all underdogs, aren't they?

Dariel Raye said…
Thanks, Janice. Yes, in a way they are. It's our job to help them win :-)
Unknown said…
I completely agree with you! Having main characters both, protagonists and antagonists, who have characteristics we can identify with is crucial. Without relatable components, characters become bothersome to read about, and we are less likely to continue with a series or complete a book.
Unknown said…
Well-written, relatable characters are the backbone of any good book in my opinion. Whether it is a loathsome villain or a sassy heroine, characters need to be fully developed. I enjoyed Hannibal Lecter's charater as well, and I am by no means a cannibal (or a murderer!) He was well-mannered, intelligent and articulate. I love complex characters. I also like to champion the underdog in any book. Characters I can stand behind or relate to are the differnce between a mediocre book and a great book :)
Dariel Raye said…
So true! I like it when they're as multi-dimensional as we are. No one is all good or all bad. It's always impressive to me when a writer can make me start to like a character I want to hate, like Phaedra in Jacquelyn Carey's "Kushiel Trilogy" :-)
Fire Shadow said…
A bit late to the discussion. I agree with you (to an extent) that what makes me care about a character is how much I identify with them.

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" is what comes to my mind when I think of fictional characters demonstrating their intellectual prowess. To me, a villain doesn't always have to be redeemable. If all of them were, then a hero (or protagonist) wouldn't have to go put them down.