Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite literary leading lady.
I know, I know. Lizzie is probably the most cliché choice for a favorite literary heroine ever, but in my ever-so-humble opinion, Jane Austen created a reader's dream when she wrote Elizabeth onto the pages of Pride and Prejudice.
Lizzie is bright and clever. She holds her own in a society where women are expected to fade into the background, and she's not afraid to call people out on their crap. Lizzie knows she is rarely the most beautiful or talented woman in a room, but she doesn't let that fact make her feel insecure or ashamed.
In short, Lizzie Bennet is the very definition of a strong, independent female lead. And did I mention that Lizzie is also the queen of sass? I mean, come on!
So why am I waxing on about Miss Elizabeth Bennet? Because today I'm talking about how you, as the author of your very own novel, can choose a main character that will rock your readers' worlds, and there is no better example to use throughout our post today than Mr. Darcy's better half.
So without any further ado, let's begin our main character breakdown. Shall we?
A few things to note before we dive in...
First things first, let me preface this post with a few quick notes on main characters:
A) Your main character doesn't have to be your point-of-view character. The hero of a story usually gets the POV, but this isn't always the case. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is the main character, but his story is told through the perspective of Nick Carraway.
This often happens in Lord of the Rings as well, when Frodo's story is told through the perspective of his best friend Sam Gamgee, though I will point out that many consider Sam the true hero of the story. We can definitely have a fun chat about that sometime if you'd like!
B) You can have more than one main character in a novel. This may seem obvious at first, but what I'm really trying to say is that you can have more than one MC in a novel without having to make them all POV characters.
Getting back to our Pride and Prejudice example, you could easily argue that Mr. Darcy is a main character even though he never acts as a POV character. Darcy is present for the majority of the story and his actions deeply affect the plot. At the end of the day, that's pretty good MC material.
C) Your MC can be static or dynamic. Remember how we talked about identifying arcs in last week's post? I touched a bit on static and dynamic characters, but let me rehash that in more detail here.
Most character-driven plots feature dynamic characters, meaning the characters evolve emotionally and/or spiritually throughout the story. The opposite of this is true of action-driven plots. The MC doesn't change at all during the course of the action, making them a static character.
While it's true that most novels are character-driven and feature dynamic MC's, that doesn't always have to be the case. Many adventure stories, spy thrillers, and cop procedurals feature characters whose personalities and emotions don't budge one bit throughout the story. And that's just fine!
It certainly worked out well for Indiana Jones and James Bond. It could work for your MC, too.
Alright. Now that we have all the preliminaries out of the way, let's move on to the good stuff, shall we?
So what makes a main character great?
I'm so glad you asked!
A main character can become memorable and well-loved for any number of different reasons, but at the end of the day, there are two main factors that must be present if a main character is to steal the show:
1. They must be able to carry the weight of the action. A main character must be both proactive in chasing down their story goal and reactive in dealing with the villain's assaults (or the source of conflict, if your novel doesn't feature a clear-cut antagonist).
That's a heavy purpose to fulfill, and if your character isn't physically, mentally, and emotionally able to handle that weight, they aren't the right character to lead your story. Of course, your character may grow into their strength as the story evolves, but they do need to become the one driving the story forward at some point, preferably at or before the halfway point.
You see, if your character is simply being reactive (as in, they aren't doing anything to create action), then clearly someone else's story is being told, and if they are only being proactive (as in, creating action but never facing any conflict), then you're likely crafting a boring plot.
And neither of those scenarios make for a very good story, right?
2. They must draw readers into the story. Readers don't pick up novels to read about the setting or backstory. They want to know about the main character, the struggles they're facing, and the journey they take to overcome them.
That means it's your main character's job to draw readers into the story–not anything or anyone else's.
You also want to make sure your main character suffers relatable struggles. Issues of humanity happen to attract humanity. So when your MC suffers from common human afflictions, readers are going to make an emotional connection with your story that will keep them coming back for more.
Don't forget these important elements...
But those two factors aren't the only factors you should consider when choosing your main character. Here are a few additional elements that come into play:
Discovering Your Ideal Reader.
Who are you writing your novel for? Knowing your ideal reader will make it ten times easier to choose a main character. All you need to do is dream up an MC who will speak to your ideal reader's soul. Oftentimes, that simply means creating an MC who is a mirror image of your ideal reader themselves.
You can check out this post for a step-by-step breakdown of how to find your own ideal reader ASAP.
Identifying Your Story's Themes.
What message(s) are you trying to tell throughout your story? What moral or ethical issues are you raising?
Determining your story's themes will help you choose a main character. Consider what type of character will best raise or confront the issues you wish to discuss, and don't forget to think briefly about how gender, age, occupation, beliefs, upbringing, status, lifestyle, etc. will affect that choice.
Researching Similar Stories.
Chances are, there is at least one novel on the market that you can compare your own novel to. Search this book out and read over its summary and reviews for any clues about the effectiveness of its main character.
Knowing how readers' feel about that MC can give you plenty of insight on what to do with your own book's hero or heroine. Just make sure to avoid creating a carbon copy of an already beloved character. Plagiarism is not cool, y'all.
Considering Culture and Realism.
Your story deserves to be treated with realism, no matter the genre. Yes, your characters will probably have to face way more crap in a week than you do in an entire year, but there comes a point when things get taken too far. That's usually the point where readers bail on the book, which is no good for anyone.
The #1 thing to consider when trying to keep your story grounded is culture. Who holds the power in your story and who is oppressed? What social classes and religions are predominant? What are the politics like?
If you glaze over these everyday realities by giving your MC the power to go anywhere and do anything, your reader is going to doubt the plausibility of your story. But if you give your MC boundaries and social standards to live up to, your story will ring true.
Now to create a well-developed main character:
Look at you!
Already well on your way to creating a fabulous main character. Just as there are many layers to a painting, there are many different steps to crafting a character that readers will love and remember for years to come.
Here are a few additional elements to consider when fleshing out your new main character:
Make Them Unique.
This is a two-fold tip. How so? Well, not only do you want your MC to be different from other authors' main characters, but you also want them to stand out from your story's supporting cast.
No one wants to read about the most ordinary person in the world. It's simply not exciting! That's why your main character needs some unique circumstance, goal, motivation, skill, personality trait, etc. to make them stand out from the crowd.
Need an example? Let's talk about Lizzie Bennet!
Lizzie is certainly a unique character in the P&P world. She doesn't quite fit in among her middle-class neighbors, nor does she flourish among Mr. Darcy's upper-class companions, all thanks to her ability to brazenly speak her mind. Lizzie also turned down an advantageous marriage proposal (twice!), which was a big deal in the Regency era–especially considering her family's circumstances.
Make Their Life Troubled.
Have you ever read a book where nothing much happens over the course of 100+ pages? It's boring, right?!
Such novels clearly suffer from a serious lack of plot, and I will be the first to admit that I have ditched such a book in favor of reading something different. Don't let this happen to your novel!
The longer I've been involved in the writing community, the more I've come to realize that we writers can be classified into two categories: those who love to torture their characters and those who hate it. If you're the former, can skip this step. But if you're a writer who hates to hurt their babies, we need to have a chat.
I know it's painful, friend. I know that sending your characters into the thick of conflict, making them suffer loss or face serious setbacks, can hurt like the dickens. But you also need to recognize that it's those very conflicts–and the ways in which your characters handle them–that make your novel interesting to read.
So raise the stakes. Make your MC's life more and more troubled. Be a little evil, then give your character the strength to roll with the punches and fight back. Lizzie Bennet does this and still has a happy ending. I promise your characters can, too!
Example time: In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie handles adversity when she offends her best friend Charlotte during an argument, when she and Mr. Darcy call each other out on their bull crap, and yet again when her sister shames her family. Through it all, Lizzie never loses faith that all might be made right in the end.
Give Them Faults.
No one likes the person who has it all. Even though those people might not be happy on the inside, their lives seems pretty perfect to bystanders, which can make it extra hard for people to relate. The same goes for your characters!
Consider just how maddening near-perfect characters can be. Have you ever read a romance where the leading couple is angelically beautiful and at least one of them is wealthy beyond belief? It's enough to drive you crazy, right?
No one is perfect. People have flaws, both physical and in their character. And let's not forget about crappy childhoods and less-than-perfect life situations. And who, besides a narcissist, doesn't have some insecurity rumbling around in the back of their minds, waiting to strike in a moment of weakness?
Your MC needs to have faults and to face trials. Period. This may seem frustrating, but it's that very realism that will hook readers into your story, making your flawed characters all the more endearing. So don't be afraid to deal out the hard stuff!
Lizzie Bennet has her own imperfections...
Beyond being described as plain in appearance, Lizzie has a brash personality in a society that prides itself on gentility. Lizzie's life situation is also not ideal. She lives with a silly mother and several frivolous sisters who often embarrass the family in public, not to mention that her family must prepare to lose their livelihood to a distant cousin, putting the daughters in a precarious social situation.
These circumstances might seem harsh, but it's those very flaws and struggles that make Lizzie, and Pride and Prejudice as a whole, a rich and endearing story.
Whew! You made it. Am I going to scare you if I say that all those tips were just the beginning? Don't freak out!
I've just taught you the basics of building a lovable and relatable main character, but now it's time to take that outline and flesh it out into a truly well-rounded character that readers can invest in.
Now let's chat! Who are your favorite literary heroes and heroines? What made you fall in love with them? Do you have any more tips for crafting an excellent main character? Shout out in the comments below!
And in case you Pride and Prejudice fans were wondering, I adore the '05 film with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. I know it's not as true to the novel as other adaptions (and some of you may be cursing me just now), but I truly believe it's a beautiful piece of art. The cinematography and acting are simply stunning!