Walking on the Wild Side: What Makes a Character Engaging?

On my occasional trawls through the millions of writers’ forums that infest the interwebs, one of the constant discussion threads is: how do you create a character that truly engages the audience?

I’ve read (and answered) the question a thousand times, but today I thought…’Bugger it! I actually have a blog for this kind of thing…why not say what I reckon there and just link to it in the future?’

So here goes…what makes characters engaging?

For me, the answer has to lie in the link between the main character(s) and the plot. My main characters are always born in the same moment the basic story idea crystallises in my head. There is always some quirk or feature of the character’s condition that fits naturally with the premise and incipient plot – the one couldn’t exist without the other, and both evolve from there.

Accordingly, when the reader first perceives what the central drama is (or is likely to be) they must at the same time perceive the main character(s)’s role(s) and therefore look forward with pleasure to the way they anticipate the plot unfolding plus the character’s likely journey.

One of my most frequent criticisms of books and movies is that they seem to promise a great deal, and then don’t deliver. The characters do not have the journey the writer apparently promised – which can be deeply disappointing. I try to make it a cornerstone of my ‘style’ that I promise a lot, and then deliver far more than was promised, mainly through the gradual expansion of the scope of the story; ie, the tale grows in the telling and the conclusion is always bigger and wilder than anything a reader might have guessed at the start. (At least, that is my hope.)

Therefore, presuming the reader is engaged by my premise, they must also be engaged by the character’s part in the unfolding and resolution of that premise. Once they have some kind of emotional or intellectual investment in the resolution, they will like being with the character, even if they don’t particularly like the character. This is the essence of both the hero’s and the anti-hero’s attraction.

So what sort of characters do I tend to create?

I’ve had three novels published (or almost published) since 2010. One main character was an ordinary man with one extraordinary skill which had been thwarted for a range of vicissitudes of life reasons (Mr Cleansheets). Another was a very ordinary man who finds himself by accident in extraordinary circumstances and has the most incredible journey imaginable (THEM). And the one about to be published (next month) is about an extraordinary man who has an extraordinary obsession…which gets him into all sorts of trouble (Straight Jacket).

Morgen Tanjenz (Straight Jacket) is a particularly problematic main character because he gets up to all sorts of antics which some readers will find disturbing. On top of that he’s rich, breathtakingly arrogant, and worst of all…he’s a lawyer. It’s not necessary for the reader to like Morgen, but it is absolutely critical that the reader enjoys being with Morgen as he undertakes his journey.

And this is where the deeper levels of engagement come in. When the reader finds him/herself spending time with a character who is challenging (ie, responding to situations or challenges in ways that the reader would not…or even in ways that the reader finds distasteful, immoral or downright evil) the reader is obliged to review his/her own natural inclinations, especially where there is a plausible reason for the character’s actions within the rules of the world of the book. Might the reader have done the same thing? Given the same circumstances? And even if they wouldn’t, they might get a deeper insight into why some people would.

In the right storytelling hands, readers of a particular alignment can find themselves hoping things they would never hope in real life, on behalf of a character they would absolutely shun, or run screaming from in real life.

Flashman is such a character. The Flashman series by George McDonald Fraser features one of the most engaging characters in the history of literature. Brigadier General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE, publicly, is a heroic and celebrated soldier of the Victorian era but, in reality, he is a coward who runs shrieking from one crisis to the next while raping and thieving his way to fame and fortune – and telling his tale in such a smug and condescending fashion, that we can’t help but love him to bits.

This is masterful storytelling. To create such a dreadful character as Flashman and have the reading public clamour for more over thirteen books and five decades is a real tribute to an absolute titan of popular literature.

Another such anti-hero is Renton in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – a thieving junkie utterly remorseless in his pursuit of money for drugs, but even we white-bread, bourgeois types can identify and sympathise with Renton, due probably to the amusing and complex philosophical narrative which accompanies his earthy adventures and invites the reader to achieve the same intellectual heights despite the appalling depths into which the story must wallow.

So what does this say about modern, bourgeois, well-adjusted readers? Are we somehow programmed to enjoy the Dark Side when the writer is able to press the right buttons? If yes, then this is powerful knowledge in the hands of skilled creators, as the writers of Rake, Breaking Bad and Dexter are obviously aware.

But what about the good characters?

What about the Frodos and Bilbos out there, with clear goals and pure motives?

They’re also engaging, for some, but I am always bored by the uncomplicated good guys. Indeed, when I read The Lord of the Rings I wanted to know more about Sauron and the orcs. And Gollum, of course. I suppose Frodo was tempted by the Ring – towards the end – and that’s when he became briefly interesting.

To get back to my own characters (and I’d never dream of suggesting that this method ought to work for anyone else but me) it’s the clear goals I always like to screw with. And in fact, I’d never thought about this until today…my characters NEVER achieve their original goals. They always achieve something, but not what they hoped for at the beginning of the story. There’s always some sort of ambiguous dalliance with the Dark Side, as the goalposts gradually shift.

Mr Cleansheets was offered a huge amount of money and the opportunity to join a major professional football team – but that would have meant him abandoning the hero’s journey that the reader desperately wanted him to fulfil. Lasseter (in THEM) has numerous opportunities to accept fame and fortune at the expense of his true destiny.

And as for Morgen in Straight Jacket? You’ll have to read that for yourself.

But I promise you’ll find him engaging.

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1 Comment

  1. […] an example of the blog I have in support of my website: Walking on the Wild Side: What Makes a Character Engaging? | The Book Hammer 'If God is too indifferent, or too non-existent, to take care of His creation, then clearly […]


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