On December 10, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you create a personality for your main character? For some odd reason, my main characters just seem to be girls who like to read and who are outgoing, at least for the most part. The side characters all have very distinct personalities, for example, the very proper princess who likes everything to be perfect and can’t stand anything that makes her seem like a commoner. Another princess is a complete rebel- she’s the youngest of three, and both of her older siblings someday rule a kingdom, leaving her to be kind of forgotten.
And then there’s my MC, who doesn’t have much personality. She’s pretty much every other girl.
How can I make her more distinct and unique?
Melissa Mead wrote back, Hm. What about this character made you pick her to be the MC? That could be a clue.
This is such an interesting question!
I’ve had the same worry myself. My secondary characters are generally quirkier than my MCs. And so are those of other authors. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem.
Let’s take Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. It’s told in third-person omniscient, and the narrator has personality along with the characters. But the eyes the reader most often sees the story through are Wendy’s. She’s sweet, kind, somewhat adventurous but also conventional and not very quirky. This allows the reader to slip inside her. I certainly did when I was little, and I still do.
Peter is strange, magical, irritating, brave. His thought process is alien. He’s fascinating–viewed from the outside, because it’s impossible to get in. When I was little, I wanted to marry him! I couldn’t understand why Wendy goes home.
Now I do. He’d be an impossible, unreliable partner. Too quirky!
Or take the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is the POV character because he doesn’t have a big personality, and because, while not stupid, he isn’t extraordinarily smart. Doyle couldn’t put the reader inside Holmes’s head, because then the reader would have to see the steps Holmes takes to reach his conclusions, and the magic would evaporate.
I don’t often read novels or watch TV series with unsympathetic MCs, who always have distinctive qualities. I don’t enjoy being inside them, though a lot of people do–kind, decent people, who think these MCs are funny. So I mean no condemnation toward the writers who write unpleasant MCs. After all, these writers are most likely also kind, decent people, who just want to explore extreme characters. I want to do that, too, in my secondaries. For example, I’m captivated by many of my villains, like Skulni and Ivi in Fairest and Vollys in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.
Having said all this, of course we don’t want our MCs to be ciphers (nonentities). So how do we give them the kind of (probably limited) personalities that our readers can mind-meld with?
We can look to our plots for guidance, which is what I do, because I’m a plot-centered writer. Character is super important to me, but plot is paramount. If you’re like me, you can ask yourself, What does my MC need to succeed in the end and yet also have to struggle along the way? Ella, who has a curse of obedience to contend with, is naturally defiant. Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, who has to face monsters in her quest for a cure to a dread disease, is shy and timid. Aza in Fairest, whose looks are unfashionable, is sensitive about them.
What will bring our MC’s environment into sharp relief and make her and our readers suffer for her? Loma in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, whose life is full of stress, loves the orderliness of numbers and counts compulsively to calm herself. Dave in Dave at Night, who lives in the regimented world of an orphanage, is a rebel, which both gets him into trouble and saves him.
If we’re character rather than plot centered, we start with character. What problem can we give our defiant MC? A curse of obedience! What else? Whatever problem we give her, how else will it shape her? How else can we shape her around it?
So that’s one strategy: use our plots to determine our MC’s quirks.
Let’s look at Ella close up, and I hope I don’t spoil her for anybody. What do we discover as we read? She’s defiant, persistent, has a sense of humor, a warm heart, comes up with clever things to say, and is generally intelligent. Hardly unique. Her lack of uniqueness lets the reader inhabit her.
Let’s go back to Loma for a sec. Her counting obsession is a quirk. If she were a secondary character, I’d probably bring the quirk up often, because I want the reader to remember her. But since she’s my MC, I bring it in only occasionally and trust the reader to remember. For the rest, she’s clever and loyal. Her primary motivator is her deep love for children, especially for her nieces and nephews–a trait shared by many people.
So that’s another strategy: introduce the quirk, remind the reader occasionally, keep the character consistent with it, but don’t harp on it. The reader will remember.
Here are three prompts:
• Try writing a mystery from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. See if you can show the reader how his mind works and still keep his brilliance an enigma. If not, just go with him as he comes to you.
• Your MC is contending against her two brothers for the throne of Saker. The competition has three stages: to fetch a golden feather of the misa bird from the depths of a witch’s forest; to think of three policies that will make and keep the kingdom’s subjects happy; and to cross to the middle of an oiled tightrope to proclaim the three policies to the seven judges of the succession. And the unspoken final condition: to survive long enough to rule. Think about the qualities your MC needs to have to have a shot at success and the flaws that will get in her way. Give her a single quirk. Make the brothers super quirky. Write the story.
• Write the same story from the POV of one of the brothers.
Have fun and save what you write!