Monday, April 26, 2010

Characters We Can Connect With

Recently I’ve stumbled upon several reviews that all point out a similar problem within fiction. The common line is, “I liked the story, but I couldn’t connect with the characters.” Have you ever had that happen? It’s a problem for both the reader and the writer.
As I writer, there are few things more frustrating than having someone hand a manuscript back with the words, “I just didn’t connect with the main character,” but the experience has helped me understand what works and what doesn’t.
The funniest thing I’ve discovered is the differences between heroes and heroines. For instance, when I write an anti-hero (either a guy with a bad attitude or a full on bad boy), people generally accept him, find his flaws amusing, and cheer on his redemption. Anti-heroines, on the other hand, get rejected as “annoying.” :P I’ve noticed this both with my fiction and several well established authors. Heroines are generally judged harder than heroes. So, I try to stick to more sympathetic female leads.
Of course, there is always a certain amount of personal preference that comes into the equation. Some people like outgoing, brave heroines and some people like ordinary-girl types. I’ve written both and find they each have their merits, though, as of late, I prefer writing the ordinary-girl type. There are risks taken within the “good girl” zone too. I love to work with characters that have deep weaknesses and throughout the story overcome them, but sometimes stronger-willed or outgoing people just won’t connect. Sometimes I feel like saying, “Can you at least try to understand people who are different from you?!” ;)
As a reader, I personally like a wide variety of characters. I love the selfless wall flowers like Fanny Price as much as the witty and brash Elizabeth Bennet. (Both Jane Austen characters, btw ;)
The only ones I don’t like are the “Super Girls.” You know the type. The writer begins to set the character up as a normal girl…then suddenly has to add she’s got a masters degree, spent two years on a mission field, exercises regularly, snacks on celery, never has chocolate cravings, and, oh yeah, speaks multiple languages. A lot of times these things don’t really have much to do with the story. It’s like the writer just feels a girl can’t be a hero if she doesn’t have tons of credential behind her. That’s about the time I disconnect.
So, what about you? What types of characters do you connect with? Is there something in particular that keeps you from connecting with a character? If you’re a writer, is there a type you like to work with?

31 comments:

Karen Lange said...

I like regular people for characters, ones that I can relate to. I don't care for the 'Super Girl' types either. When I create characters, I like to keep them real and unique enough to hopefully be interesting:)
Blessings,
Karen

Sarah Scheele said...

I think the dislike for faulty heroines comes from readers feeling challenged by them. Most readers want the heroine to be a fantasy instead of a real girl, cute, successful, and always right. So any heroine who is shown as a realistic, struggling person will annoy because she destroys that illusion. And it's not just the fiery girls who get this--Fanny Price has suffered criticism for years as "too nice" and "the dullest Austen heroine." Why? Because she is ordinary and often trampled, instead of polished and popular.

I, on the other hand, find the wish-fulfillment heroine humorless and false, and I love to read about girls who live and behave as real people do!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Heroes, heroines, sidekicks, and villians each need to be well-balanced for me. Overly evil villians bug me. Unless they are meant to be a "stand-in" for Satan in a fantasy book, I like villians to have some strange good quirk that is unexpected, or some "reason" for their evil that seems reasonable to them even if it doesn't to anyone else.

The same goes for heroes and heroines, they have to have something that they aren't exactly good at, or some fault that they have to struggle with during the story - I feel that this makes them more likeable.

Sidekicks need personality too, but then I've had a few sidekicks take over stories when I've imbued them with too much personality.

In an old writing group, I heard over and over again that one of my heroines was just "too clueless" and that one of her sidekick friends should have been the heroine. I still haven't sold that story yet. It's like I just can't get my heroine to be heroic enough . . . one of my struggles.

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Karen: Real people can be very interesting, especially when the circumstance they are facing is out of their comfort zone. :)

Sarah: I'll just never get peoples' desire for perfection, but perhaps like you said, they'd rather not deal with reality.
...And I don't get why people don't love Fanny! But I guess she's just too real...

Tyrean: Balance is a great ingredient when it comes combining all the different characters. I agree about villians too. Even evil people have lives that effect them and make them who they are.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Emily -

I'm not into the Super Hero types, either male or female. Flawed, at times scared, uncertain, and recognizing their need for God and others - they're the ones that connect with me.

Blessings,
Susan :)

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Susan: The fact of the matter is, that's who we all are! So why not write characters who can be encouraging in the way they handle the same things we battle?

Karen said...

Oh, I definitely like the quirky, passionate type character with problems and overcoming in spite of them.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

I like regular people for characters too. I believe you can place these people in extraordinary situations and get amazing results. Not the whole superhero thing, but the kind of situations that challenge them and make them grow as people.

Emily Ann said...

Karen: Quirky = Just plain fun. ;)

Lindsay: That's exactly what I like. Extrodinary circumstances vs. the average person. :)

alicia said...

As a reader I like to think that I like all types of characters. Except of course those annoying super girl types. In life I tend to always root for the under-dog, so that's usually who I like to see come out on top. I think that offers up hope to normal people.

Kara said...

I like the ordinary characters too, that have endearing traits and strive to overcome their weaknesses:)

Deborah Ann said...

I give you sooo much credit for your writing! I haven't gotten to the point of writing a novel (yet). It seems like so much work to make up all the characters. A friend of mine actually gives each character a personality based on one of those personality tests (can't think of the name of it...Brigman something?). Think I'll finish my book of devotionals, and then maybe think about taking this big step.

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Alicia: You know, it's sort of American to vote for the underdog. Besides, most of us have a little underdog in us. ;)

Kara: Endearing traits are what bring a character from fiction to real. :) Humans have those traits. ;)

Deborah: Don't worry. It's not as hard as it seems. I found once I got started it was addictive. :)
I usually start with a particular personality trait and build from there. :D

lbdiamond said...

Flawed characters are definitely more interesting. So are underdogs. :D

Lydia Kang said...

I don't think I like really passive heroines, or ones that are so aggressive it doesn't seem like they have any fear.
Great post!

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Diamond: The question is how flawed can a character be and still connect? I'm of the opinion that they can be really flawed!

Lydia: There is definitely a balance. I think it's good when a character is very dynamic. Hence, perhaps very passive in the begining, but ends up strong enought to handle life.:)

Jill Kemerer said...

Oh, I need characters I can relate to. And frankly, if I don't connect with the characters, I stop reading.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I like the quieter girl and the one who's witty, but mostly in her head. Oh wait! I think that's the kind I write about, too. Go figure! ;)

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Jill: Yes, I have a tendency to put down books I don't connect with too.

Stina: Lol, well then that's a good place to start. ;)

Bernadine said...

I like real characters that I can connect with also. A heroine who always says and does the right thing bores me. I like to see character traits that I can identify with.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I like characters who are intelligent, resourceful, determined to reach their goals, and witty without being cruel. I agree I probably do judge heroines more harshly than heroes, probably because I do find some common traits (too much chip on her shoulder, too concerned about name brand clothes) in urban fantasy heroines annoying.

I think your "Super Girl" sounds a bit like a Mary Sue--a perfect version of the author that all the other characters love.

You may remember we discussed this topic last month on the blog chain. As an SF writer, I do create characters with extraordinary talents, but they still have flaws. You can find my post here: http://ulbrichalmazan.blogspot.com/2010/03/back-on-blog-chain-holding-out-for.html

Jen said...

I just had a few crit partners give me there critiques on my piece, one thing one of them said was that they hated my character, couldn't get along with her and found her really annoying.

I made her a snobby rich red head, she hates her hair and her life at the moment. I know plenty of red heads whom I adore but she hates it. Evidently for one crit partner it made her annoying, selfish and in that respect unrelatable. I don't want my characters to be annoying or having people hate them but my other crit partners and friends didn't feel the same way so I'm thinking with one I'll have to take the grain of salt, but it will be something I'm aware of.

I love the down to earth characters, unique and yet relatable because us as people are normally unique in our own right.

Sarah said...

Entirely evil villains irritate me to no end; there should be some conflict in their minds, they should have the quirks and little human qualities that are always allowed the "good" characters.
On the other hand, "good" characters that are too perfect are even more irritating. I have the highest respect for someone who, for example, can take a character who is on the unattractive side of average and make a powerful hero or heroine. If they have to depend on extraordinary looks, bodies, credentials, mental powers (or magic powers) to keep the reader's interest, they need to go back to... the street corner, and watch people for a while.
You can always tell which authors have studied writing and which have studied people... the first may be important in order to be published, but the second is essential to creating a character who lives and breathes and catches the heart of the reader.

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Bernadine: True. Perfection is highly over-rated: ;)

Sandra: I agree with what you said in your blog post. A "larger than life" character doesn't necessarily mean a perfect character or an unrealistic person.

Jen: I've learned that if several people like something and one person doesn't, I need to listen to the larger group. There are a certain number of people who will never like what I write. ;) ...And I like red heads!

Sarah: You'd think it would be easy to write characters that are real, considering we're real people. ;) I think we just let our imaginations go a little crazy sometimes. :P

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Emily! I gave you an award over at my blog!

Tory said...

Hi, Emily! I thought of you last night because I stumbled across this lit. agency named: Moritmer Literary Agency, and thought you might be interested.

Also, thank you for following Catie's book review blog. Now, she sees how much work being a blogger is, but I hope she will continue with it.

As for character traits I connect with, I tend to like strong-willed teenagers, willing to stand up for themselves and their beliefs. I also like those who are thoughtful and risktakers (the leader in the pack, so to speak).

Hope you have a great Humpday! Tory

Emily Ann Benedict said...

Tory: Wow, you're a wealth of information. I'm actually collecting names and researching agents right now, so THANK YOU for a new name. :D

I hope you're daughter likes blogging. It is work, but it's a great way to connect with people who share the same interests. :)

I haven't read much teenage literature, but I can imagine the leaders would make good role-models!

septembermom said...

I tend to connect with characters that have a heightened sensitivity to others around them. I like to "feel" what the character is all about. I think it must be the poet within me that searches to connect with those kind of characters.

Emily Ann Benedict said...

SM: Sensitive characters could be a result of good writing. A more indepth writer will give you a better sense of how the character connects with his environment. :)

CMOM Productions said...

I love an underdog! Personally I tend to look for a character that doesn't realize how wonderful they are at first. While going through challenges placed in their lives, the MC finds strength/humor/etc and embraces their imperfections.

Emily Ann Benedict said...

M: I really love it when there is humor in the character's developement. :) I think we all have a little bit of underdog in us, so we connect with them. :)