The #1 Key to Creating a Relatable Main Character
Welcome to a brand new mini blog series!
With NaNoWriMo fast approaching, it's about time we got around to pre-writing our projects.
And of course, I want to help you guys prepare to the best of your abilities, which is why I'll be running two mini blog series this October: one on creating irresistible heroes + villains and another in which we'll explore the 3-Act Story Structure.
Sound like fun?
Let's get started! Today, we're going to talk about the key to creating relatable main characters.
Why should my main character be relatable?
A huge part of hooking readers into your story is creating an MC they can identify with, someone they can imagine being or that they feel some sort of connection with. And really, this goes beyond main characters.
The more relatable characters across the board, the better!
Now, there are a lot of fun ways we can create relatable characters. We can make them love a certain food or a style of music. Make them super sarcastic or incredibly witty. Give them an interesting hobby or passion.
But here's the thing: not every reader is going to like drinking coffee or listening to classic rock.
Other readers hate sarcasm or think that witty banter is kind of contrived and unrealistic. Or maybe your readers aren't interested in playing baseball or Dungeons and Dragons or whatever fun, "relatable" hobby you gave your characters.
People are unique, different. We have varying opinions and interests, pet peeves and attractions. You name it. So how can you create characters that are truly relatable for nearly all of your readers?
There's one key you're missing, one key that–if left uncreated–can completely destroy your story's shot at success. Dun DUN DUNNNNN...
Have you made this huge mistake?
If readers think your main character isn't relatable, it's almost always because you've created a character that is just too darn perfect. They have struggles and challenges to face, but they do so with relative ease and grace.
They're also often prone to saving the world through skills and abilities that are either unrealistic or simply too quickly acquired.
These characters are called Mary Sue's–or Gary Stu's, for the dudes–and they aren't relatable because they aren't REAL. They don't have any internal struggles or personality and character flaws, which makes them entirely too pure and perfect to be at all relatable.
What are some key hallmarks of a Mary Sue or Gary Stu?
- They are beautiful. Or they believe they are plain, only to have a love interest tell them just how beautiful they really are.
- They don't fit in. Orphaned? Nerdy? Depressed? Lonely? Whatever the case, your Mary Sue just doesn't fit in with the world around them. They were made for something more.
- Their backstory is tragic. They were orphaned. A bad guy killed their friend/family member/teacher. They're poor and starving. They've been bullied. You name it.
- They're SO talented. Your Mary Sue is the bagpipe champion of THE WORLD. Or inexplicably a master assassin by the age of 12. Or something like that...
- OR they're so NOT talented. But for some reason, the whole world revolves around them and almost all of the other characters love them or are in love with them.
- They are the chosen one. 'Nuff said.
- They have no flaws. They may be clumsy, awkward, or have frizzy hair...but besides those "flaws", they're pretty darn perfect.
Want a few examples from film and literature? You've got it:
- Bella Swan. Perhaps the most popular example OF ALL TIME, Twilight's heroine fits every last one of the hallmarks we talked about above–except for maybe "the chosen one" trope.
- Indiana Jones. Another popular example, Indy's only "flaw" is his fear of snakes...and perhaps his stubbornness, which is used as a plot device to get him into tricky situations that he later gets out of thanks to his sheer perfectness.
- Katniss Everdeen. Despite being grouchy and stubborn (neither of which really set her back in The Hunger Games), most characters seem to love Katniss and/or view her as their savior.
- Ender Wiggin. Ender can do no wrong in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and he's the chosen one to boot! Not everyone loves him, but he's still infinitely perfect.
Now, Mary Sue's and Gary Stu's aren't inherently bad. In fact, I like most of the characters I gave as examples. But not you, Bella Swan. Sit down! Mary Sue's and Gary Stu's can certainly be enjoyed, especially in stories that are driven by plot.
But all the same, that doesn't make them any less unrealistic. And it's much harder to create an interesting and gripping story when readers have trouble putting themselves in the main character's shoes.
It goes without saying that this is a HUGE problem. But even bigger a problem is the fact that most authors create Mary Sue's and Gary Stu's without even realizing it.
They simply set out to create an epic hero or heroine who is brave, kind, and compassionate, who swoops in to save the day and is OH SO EPIC. But here's the problem: no one is perfect. No one is without flaw.
And THAT is the #1 secret to creating a relatable character...
Relatable characters NEED real flaws.
Alright, raise your hand if you've ever read a novel where the main character's only "flaw" is their shyness? Their nerdiness? Their plain face? Their brooding nature?
*RAISES HAND SO HIGH*
These "flaws" aren't flaws, not in the least bit. They're quirks! And it is absolutely a good thing to give your characters quirks (or to make them less than super-model pretty). Those things are relatable, too.
But what will truly make your character realistic and relatable are REAL flaws, personality traits or characteristics that hold them back from being the person they need to be in order to achieve their story goal and/or defeat the villain.
Take these flaws for example:
- Anger issues.
- Compulsive lying.
Want more examples? Click here to view a fantastic chart of character flaws I found on Pinterest.
As authors, it sometimes hurts us to give our beloved main characters some of these flaws. We want them to be good people. We don't want them to hurt anybody or to hurt themselves. But characters that are just too good are simply unrealistic.
And honestly? They make for boring main characters in most cases.
One important note I want to add is that you should never treat a mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, anorexia, etc. as flaws. People can't help the mental illnesses that plague them, but they can work to overcome the effects (e.g. self-doubt, paranoia, trust issues).
The key to mastering the key!
Giving your characters real flaws is the key to making them relatable, but how can we make sure these flaws are positioned for maximum impact?
By making sure they play a role in the effectiveness of the storytelling.
Most stories consist of character and plot arcs. Character arcs feature the inner journey of a character as they work to overcome a flaw (or as they succumb to one), while plot arcs follow the character's external actions to achieve a goal or defeat a villain.
So if you give a character a specific flaw, it's important to make sure that flaw serves as an inner setback for the character or that the consequences of that flaw create external roadblocks.
Let's take greed for example.
Say you have a professional thief who gets hired by a benevolent lord to steal from a super evil rival lord. The benevolent lord wants the stolen coin to be used to benefit the common people (yes, I'm ripping from Robin Hood), but the professional thief is a bit greedy himself.
He sees the common people suffering, but he also knows that the amount of coin he's stealing from the evil lord could make him a very rich man...meaning he could leave behind his crappy job and go live on some private island for the rest of his life.
Our thief's greed not only gives him inner conflict to contend with (Do I help these people or give myself a brand new life?), but it may also create roadblocks if, say, the thief does steal the money for himself only to have the benevolent lord send an army after him to regain it.
See how flaws can add so much tension and conflict to a story, while also making the main character relatable? I mean, how many of us wouldn't love to win the lottery–in essence–and spend the vast majority of it on our personal happiness? It's relatable!
And THAT is how you use a character flaw to make a good story absolutely incredible.
(P.S. Someone should rip that story idea off of me. Go write about our little thief for NaNoWriMo or use it as a writing prompt. It'll be great!)
There is certainly room for a lot of discussion on this topic. In fact, I didn't realize how many Mary Sue's I actually liked until I started writing up examples, so they definitely aren't bad!
I've also worried from time to time that my characters' flaws would make them annoying rather than relatable. Using flaws can be definitely be tricky, but I think our greatest asset comes in the form of examples.
Take a look at some of your favorite heroes and heroines from literature. What are their flaws? How did the author tie those flaws into the plot? Did you ever think the characters themselves were annoying or unlikable?
Practice this exercise and you'll soon get a handle on how to create your own relatable and likable flawed characters. It's one of the many reasons why reading is a writer's greatest asset!
Have thoughts on this topic? Share them with me in the comments below.