What Makes a Main Character?

Readers remember compelling main characters. Who could forget Harry Potter? Scarlett O’Hara? Don Vito Corleone? Dorothy Gale? What is it about these characters that makes the reader care so much?

Writers have devoted books, essays and articles to character development in the novel. Without getting into a detailed summary, successful main characters are:

  • Memorable
  • Complex
  • Interesting
  • Possessed with the pursuit of a quest, goal or dream
  • Connected with the reader
  • Compelled or forced to grow and change

Note I didn’t include the term “likeable.” Scarlett O’Hara was not a likeable main character in Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone With the Wind. Sure, there were times when she was admirable. When she protected the pregnant Melanie Wilkes in Atlanta during the Civil War and when she single-handedly saved Tara, the family plantation, Scarlett showed commendable qualities. For the most part, though, she was a selfish, conniving, petulant, domineering fool.

The genius of Margaret Mitchell’s character is that as the reader wades through the 1,000-plus page novel, she finds herself rooting for Scarlett, in spite of her many flaws. The reader doesn’t have to like the main character; she must connect with the main character on some level.

A main character who is likeable, says all the right things, and goes through life without any worries makes for a book readers are not going to want to read. And it is one writers should avoid writing.

Can a main character work if he is likeable some of the time? Those can be some of the best characters. Take Don Corleone from Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather. People know Don Corleone from the Godfather movies, but one must read Puzo’s novel to understand and appreciate the character in all his dimensions. As Puzo’s novel explains, Corleone came to America during a time when Italians (and other ethnic Europeans) were the victims of discrimination. They could not find a job or provide for their families. They took care of each other, often living in crowded tenements. In order to provide for their families, some turned to organized crime. Even Don Corleone had his moral code. Gambling and prostitution, which he described as “harmless vices,” were okay, but he drew the line at pushing drugs.

The discussion about Don Corleone underscores perhaps the most important attribute of a main character: complexity. One-dimensional main characters are flat and boring. The reader quickly loses interest in them. Such characters are often found in novels in which character development is sacrificed in service of the plot. Complex characters have depth, conflicting emotions, and are not immune from the frailties and
weaknesses of the human condition. They are imperfect, like all of us.

Harry Potter might strike some as a one-dimensional character. He is a typical adolescent struggling to make his way in the sometimes cruel teen-age world. But he is different. He’s an orphan. He’s a wizard. Most importantly, he’s The Chosen One. He must bear the burden of defeating Lord Voldemort, while navigating the myriad challenges teen-agers face in the difficult transition to adulthood.

Like Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale is an orphan who was raised by her aunt and uncle, both stern Midwestern farmers. Dorothy dreamed of running away (a classic theme in literature) and she discovered the fabulous and scary world of Oz. What she was running from was the prospect of a dreary, isolated existence on a farm where there was little joy and no hope of a better life. Her epiphany was when she discovered the richness and depth of the love that her family and farming community had for her.

For a more detailed discussion of character types, Victoria Schmidt’s book, 45 Master Characters, is a good resource. Schmidt is a screenwriter who studied character development in movies and came up with the most common male and female archetypes. My only caveat here is that there is a reason they are archetypes: everybody uses them. You might consider drawing a character with the attributes of an archetype but with a twist, such as a star athlete who believes in romantic love.

What are the most important traits of a main character? Who are your favorite main characters in fiction and why?

 

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