To begin with, we all know great interesting lead characters. Jack Reacher. Harry Potter. Evalle. But what makes them so great. That is a conundrum those of who write deal with on a daily basis as we plan stories, build worlds and layout plot lines. No matter how exacting we are with all the other things, if the character doesn't connect with you, our readers, all the work is worthless. So what does make a good character?
Back story. It's one of the things each character has to have. Who are they? What made them who they are? Where did they come from? What type of childhood did they have? Do they have a family? What traumas or external things formed them. What are their flaws, wants, needs? In short, what makes them tick.
Each lead character needs to be unique in some way. Yes, there are a lot of copycats who take a character and change it minimally and use them in stories, but those end up usually being nothing but poor imitations of the original character. Most lead characters fall into common patterns. The hero. The sympathetic loser. The hard boiled fighter with a marshmallow heart. Etc. So how do you make your lead character stand out?
When you break down what makes you like characters, there are a lot of similarities. Things like flaws and emotions. So what does set them apart. First and foremost is who they are and what makes them who they are when you find them on the opening pages. The back story is the story of their life. It's most of the stuff you may gradually learn about them (or not), but has made them into (almost) real people. As authors we know their favorite color is blue. They like sports. Had a dog named Boo. They were traumatized when Boo died and is the reason they don't have a pet. They like fast food, prefer fast cars, hate snobs, etc. We also know before the book is written if they were the oldest, youngest or middle child or if they were an only child. If their childhood was filled with trauma or happy. Who their best friend was or is, where they work, their favorite foods, favorite hangout, etc. If you don't know their past, you can't build a future. The past will determine how they react, think and make decisions.
Each main character has flaws. Without flaws, they are boring. It may be a fear of spiders or snakes. The inability to make decisions. A fear of failure. So shy they can't talk to strangers. These flaws you and I can relate to in some way. It makes us like them since we sympathize with them. It makes them real even if they are a god, fairy, singer, construction worker, an elf or a hobbit. They become like us, human.
Another item interesting lead characters need is emotions. They need to feel things even though those emotions are hidden to those around them. If they can't feel, they have no reason to do things. We feel emotions. A character should too. They need to show anger, happiness, love and pain. It's no fun when the lead character goes through a whole book without without showing they care about what they are doing. If they don't hurt inside, they don't have reasons to do anything. The internal things is what drives them, making them do things which may be out of character for them. Think Luke Skywalker and how he ended up becoming Jedi and saving the princess. Without the death of his parents, he had no reason to change. Revenge it a good motivator.
Complexity is another trait most interesting lead characters have. They are not one dimensional. Like us, they can be unpredictable. They have more than one side to them. With one person they may be tender and giving, with another hard and unforgiving. Mistakes are not unusual. The hard-boiled detective and a tender loving father to his children. They key here is to keep from making them into a the common and ordinary such as the handsome muscled man with a square jaw. The girl who has a figure to die for and the perfect face who doesn't know she is pretty. These are the normal characters in a lot of books. I don't know about you, but when I see that, I want to toss the book into the nearest trash bin. (Easy to do with an e-reader.) When I see those descriptions, I find most of the time, they are a cut and paste type characters with different names in a similar situation with minimal complexity in the old pulp romance style. These are forgettable characters, good only until you finish the book
The graphic goes over the 25 things you need for for and interesting lead character. (Or any character who isn't a walk-on in your book/film/story) Like people, your characters need to be different. Visualize two friends or acquaintances. If you go over the list, you will see they embody the items on the list. No two are alike. We writers need to make characters almost like real humans because they need to be unique and different for the same reason humans are unique and different. Because each character had a back story which is unique, that person should not be a copy of any other character of person out there.
You want a character who has something he needs to do be it save Pauline from being run over by the train or get that Acme product to work so you can catch the roadrunner. They have to want something. If not, the story can be written in less than three paragraphs. You the reader must want to have them around at least long enough to finish the book because if you don't, the book isn't fulfilling it's purpose.
As an example, in the Jillian Factor, Jill wants to see those who hurt her put behind bars. She is young for a private investigator but her grandfather has been teaching her what he knows and she has become good at what she does, having the ability to remember things others don't. She also has a secret she's kept from the time she was a child. Her history or back story) will affect the rest of her life. As for flaws, she has many including bending the law when needed to get what she wants. As the story develops, you will see anger, fear, love, innocence, naivete and more.
As you read books, you will discover a few of the items on the list may be missing, but most interesting characters will have most of the 25 items. Those are the things which will make the character into a real person for you. The supporting cast will probably have many of these characteristics since those are what make them different and interesting people. If you are reading a book, and the lead characters aren't interesting see what is missing from the list. As for writers, add those items to your characters as you develop them to make them into those characters people don't want to forget.
B.A Mealer is an author and a traveler. This is a person who refuses to grow up and get old.
Books, and more Books
Operation Hail Storm
We Shall Ne’er Be Younger by Mary Ellen Woods