Heroes. Main characters. Protagonists. Just about all great stories follow them. And as readers, when one connects with us, we’ll follow them through Hell and back. But what makes a character worth reading about? We all have those guilty pleasure characters where we struggle point to any objective reason for following, but still do. So what are the qualities of heroes that resonate with readers?
1. Unique Identity
Something about your character needs to stand out. There’s a sea of hero characters out there. To get that resonance with readers, before you can make that connection, your reader needs a way to easily and quickly identify that character. If you think about George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, he has a vast array of protagonists. And not only that but he breaks one of the cardinal rules of naming characters, giving them all similar names. And yet for fans, it’s easy to identify each character. We don’t mix up King Robert Baratheon with the King in the North Rob Stark, even though they’re both “Roberts.” Or look at the massive success of the translation of comic book heroes to the big screen. Spiderman, Batman, Thor, Captain Marvel, Groot… they all have deeply unique characteristics that allow even casual observers to distinguish the signal from the noise. Even a character like James Bond, who Ian Fleming specifically intended as a bland “anybody” character… he stands out from the background because of the extraordinary world of international espionage that swirls around him.
As a “1(b)” it’s also important to recognize that what’s unique right now, might not be in a few years. When a character like James Bond is successful, that character inspires clones. The clones are typically only successful when they have a unique edge themselves. Consider Jason Bourne–the spy with the lost memory.
2. Familiar Struggles
In contrast to the first point, the next ingredient is something deeply familiar. There’s a reason why the Harry Potter books open up with Harry suffering under the care of the Dursleys. The experience of feeling overlooked, ignored, or bullied, is familiar, especially to young readers. It’s the same reason Peter Parker can’t get a date with Mary Jane Watson. Most people recognize that feeling of crushing on someone who’s out of reach. Tyrion Lannister struggles with his dwarfism, and sure the specifics of that particular affliction may not be familiar to most people, but when interpreted in a metaphorical sense, we’ve all felt like the underdog at some point in our education, career, or social setting. Characters resonate with readers when the readers can easily identify with the personal challenges those characters face.
3. An Strong Skill Set
Audiences enjoy engaging with characters who possess and demonstrate at least one strong skill. That said, a strong character doesn’t need to be a world champion martial artist, neurosurgeon, billionaire who climbed Mt. Everest while fostering twenty six refugee children. In fact it’s easy to go overboard on this one. But I think whatever challenges you’re going to throw at your characters, they need to (eventually) be matched to the task. Often this skill can be linked to the first point-the character’s unique identity. And sometimes (often) the skill isn’t that obvious. Take the character of Daniel LaRusso from the original Karate Kid. On the surface one could argue his skill is karate, but looking a little deeper, one could argue that the real trait that defines this character is persistence. He’s willing to wax the cars, sand the floor, paint the fence and the house… to keep showing up regardless of how mundane and taxing Mr. Miyagi’s tasks are for him.
Even Superman has kryptonite. Just as a character needs to have the skills to confront the challenges of the story, the outcome can’t be predetermined. If we know from the outset that Frodo is absolutely immune to the temptation of power the Ring presents, The Lord of the Rings is just a story about a hike through Middle Earth. Vulnerabilities draw into question the outcome of the narrative. And, as with point 2 above, they give the character depth, and make them seem more real.
I got this one from James Scott Bell. One really quick way to define an engaging character is to have them rebel against the status quo. According to the Hero’s Journey dogma, all stories start either literally or at least metaphorically in a regular world where there’s something wrong with the status quo. Harry Potter lives in a closet under the stairs, Panem controls the 12 districts using the Hunger Games, the “Empire” rules the far far away galaxy. In one way or another, characters that resonate with readers ten to refuse to accept that status quo. From the beginning they’re defined by a hope for something better. Being rebellious also suggests that perhaps the character is going to be willing to break some rules to achieve their goals. And though we may not always agree with their methods, breaking the rules draws attention.
6. Something Likeable
Not everyone agrees with this one. But for me to invest any serious time in following a character, something about them has to be likeable. That doesn’t mean I have to like everything about them. I don’t even need to morally approve of everything they do. But if I don’t like anything about character pretty quickly in a story, it’s hard to keep caring about what happens to them.
Usually this is shown by the character doing something altruistic. They have friends they look out for or they try to help someone in need. In Game of Thrones, even though Tyrion is a Lannister, when he first meets John they are two outsiders who bond… all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.
And in the case of anti-heroes, sure, maybe you don’t need to like the anti-hero. But you should like something about the characters around them because that gives you a reason to follow the anti-hero to see whether or not their nefarious goals are attained.
By agency, I mean that above all else the character needs to act, to make choices (even if they’re not always the correct ones), to sit in the driver’s seat and drive the outcome of their story. When a story “happens to” someone it’s challenging to engage as a reader because it feels as if the outcome is predetermined, and we’re just grinding through a process toward an inevitable conclusion. But when characters take responsibility and make those critical decisions, suddenly we’re engaged because as a reader we have the opportunity to observe consequences and potentially learn something.
Agency was something I tried hard to focus on in First Command. The main character, Cassi, and her crew of astronaut cadets end up stranded on an alien world (as a direct consequence of a rebellious decision that Cassi made). The story progresses through a series of decisions… leave the downed spacecraft?… trust the stranger from the pirate crew?… drink the alien water?… all of which have a direct impact on their survival.
Of all the traits that make a strong character that audiences are willing to invest in, I think agency is ultimately the most important.