The most terrible thing in the universe is the “Me Character.” In my first book, I wrote a Me Character called Andrea, a name that I liked and what I probably would have named myself had I been given the choice. (Andrea is much simpler and more common than Adah. By sixth grade I was really tired of new teachers on the first day of school thinking my name was a misprint, and calling me Adam.)
Andrea as a story was written like this: I would daydream up a scene, and then I would think, “Hmm, what would I do if I were there?” And I would write Andrea as ME, myself acting as I would act in that situation.
There is only one problem with this method. Your character will bore the socks off your reader. They will come off as cardboard, or plastic... or so ‘deep’ that they more resemble a puddle than a river.
Why does a “Me Character” come off so badly? Because what you imagine yourself to be is not what you really are. By nature as a human being, Me Characters are you flattering yourself. People imagine that in adventurous situations they will be cool, calm, collected, brave, stunningly heroic, stylish, and sexy. But believe me, if it was really you in that situation, you would probably be freaking out! People don’t like falsehood, and readers can tell when you are bluffing. Remember this: in stories, even in Fiction, only truth sells.
But even if you do manage to represent yourself accurately, having a full-blown human in a story is awkward. A human thinks too many parallel thoughts, doublethink, has too much going on within themselves all the time. That is why most Me Characters seem boring to the reader, because they spend far too much time working out the murky details of their thoughts that frankly nobody but them really cares about.
The truth is, real characters in stories are not human. They have to be a little robotic, more like a shell, or an archetype, of a person to work well. They don’t have to be stereotypical, but a proper character is only a tiny one, two, or three-word caricature of a human being. They are at best an abbreviated sliver of a human (more about this in the How To Make A Character article).
Purposefully keeping the character simple, and allowing the reader themselves to embroider and add to the character in their own mind, is the key to make the character seem very deep and impressive. Let your reader interact with your story! That is why we read, and why reading is so much more fun and gripping than a movie: because in reading we become partial creators. Allowing some ‘room to breathe’ will let your reader insert into your character what they need to fully latch onto and identify with your story, and that need will not be the same for any two readers. You don’t have to tell WHY your character does everything, just have them do it, and the reader will insert their own reasoning.
If you add too much to a character and define absolutely everything, never allowing the reader to have any control or any entry into the character, that character will bog the entire story down and make it—and themselves—BORING. If you rip away all the mystery, and tell every secret, and plumb the absolute depths of the character, your reader ends up rolling their eyes and wishing your Me Character would fall into a pit and die.
Pulling off a Me Character successfully is extremely rare. The only Me Character I can think of that worked was Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Gandalf was obviously Tolkien himself, and yet Gandalf was so hammered out, polished, tinkered with, and redesigned that he ended up pretty cool.
How? Basically, Tolkien started Gandalf out as a classic Me Character and then somewhere down the road, after many years of writing and a lot of experience, he cut Gandalf loose, pruned him down to a sketch, and allowed him to transform and shift into his own character. So in the end, he was no longer technically a Me Character at all. But this is the exception to the rule. Tolkien realized somewhere down the road that he didn’t know everything about Gandalf, and thus he allowed Gandalf to appropriate his own mystery. When the author doesn’t know what one of their own characters is going to do in every situation, that character will be just as fresh and exciting to the author as they will be to the reader.
A real character has to be easy for a reader to grasp in one small paragraph. The really good ones can transfer in one sentence. (Think of the first time you read about Gandalf’s eyebrows, and you know what I mean.) A single, sizzling description should be plenty to get across everything about the character that a reader really needs to know. This is another reason not to write yourself into your story: unless you know yourself as well as God knows you (and I’m being a bit sarcastic there), you probably won’t be able to slap yourself down in writing in one sentence—better yet one word—that is absolutely true and absolutely accurate. Therefore, don’t even try.
What you need to do is completely get away from yourself. I would recommend that all writers—until they are well-seasoned and experienced—NEVER write a Main Character or Hero that shares too many of their own attributes. Change as many things as possible. For example, if you are female, only write male main characters. If you are male, write female main characters. Don’t make them your same age; make them much older, or much younger. If you are rich, make your characters poor. If you are poor, try making them rich! If you are African-American, make them Caucasian. If you are Caucasian, make them African-American! But if you are a 50-something white single woman, don’t write a character that is a 50-somethiing white single woman or she will end up inevitably becoming at least a partial Me Character. (This rule is like training wheels; break it once you are comfortable in the character department and have learned to write characters that are warmly liked and welcomed by the majority of readers.)
A note on Imagination: You might be tempted to think that you can only write about something that you have experienced. For example: if you are a woman, you have never been a man. So how could you write as if you were a man?
Frankly, the human imagination is far more powerful than you give it credit for. You can be literally ANYTHING. You know this is true if you have ever dreamed as a child of being a bird, or a cat, or turning into a super hero! I am pretty sure you never were a super hero or a cat... so how did you imagine what it would be like?
I have heard a story about a little boy who wanted desperately to be a pilot. He would spend his days imagining being a pilot, daydreaming about flying above the clouds, and would spend hours imagining what clouds looked like from above. He became so detailed in his dreams that when he grew up and actually became a pilot, the first time he went up for his first flight he looked down on top of the clouds and laughed out loud, because the clouds looked exactly like he had always imagined they did. In fact, he had imagined the entire experience of being a pilot almost perfectly... without ever having left the ground.
This ability to imagine far beyond your experience has been proven again and again in literary history. For example, Stephen Crane was famous for writing ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, a book lauded by war veterans as capturing the truth of war, yet Stephen himself bragged that he had never seen a day of battle. In fact, he mocked those writers who were famous for war-tales in his day, saying that they were such poor writers that he, who had never fought, could write a better war-story. And he did.
How? In his words, he “had been unconsciously working the detail of the story out through most of his boyhood” and had imagined “war stories ever since he was out of knickerbockers.” There you have it: imagining since childhood, the foundation of true writerly success. Most writers never did half the things they write about, and yet the really good writers can describe a situation or a sensation so perfectly that those with experience are thrilled and exclaim, “Yes! It’s just like that!”
Using your built-in imagination to its fullest potential is just a matter of consistently working the vision. If you hazily daydream a vague, indistinct setting for your world, for instance, you will end up with a vague, indistinct setting in your story. A boring setting. But if you spend months or years designing every detail of your world down to the smallest bolt and stick, you will end up with an extraordinary world. And that level of detail shines through in the story.
The same goes for your main character.
I mention in my Plot article that making a main character (I call this the Hero in most of my articles) is the last step you take in your story-building process, not the first. Why? Because you have to custom-build your Hero to take care of one particular problem, which is the Plot. And you can’t get a really good grasp of your plot-problem until you know the world, the culture, the history, the conflict, and the Villain of your story.
Once you have all of these other, large building-blocks worked out, you can design your Hero. And as I said in the Plot article, you really should custom-design your Hero from scratch FOR the story, rather than using a pre-designed Hero that you’ve been coddling and daydreaming about for ten years. Why? Because you’re going to be more inclined (even unconsciously!) to cheat to help a much-beloved favorite daydream Hero win, which destroys the suspense and the credibility of your plot, while you will play it a lot looser with a newly developed Hero and you will more easily let him come close to failing.
Read more about character making in How To Make A Character.
We’ve established that writing yourself as the Hero is a very bad idea, and that the Hero should be someone outside yourself, someone who is not essentially you at all, even if they share a lot of your characteristics. Since every author has to write from their own experience, every character you make will be like a little piece of yourself, but you must take that piece, stretch it, change it, evolve it, and make it into its own person that is distinct and separate from yourself with different desires, preferences, and even beliefs.
If you don’t use yourself in any form. How do you make a totally unique Main Character that is strong enough to carry a story? Here is a quick run-down on making a Hero:
I have found that male main characters simply work better than females. This is because — modern passions about “equality” aside — men and women’s brains are not wired the same way chemically, nor are men and women anything like one another psychologically. This is a hard-wired, scientific fact that some people may not like, yet it exists. Because of the way male brains are programmed, they make better go-getters and mover-shakers, which is really what you need for a successful Hero/Main Character.
Men’s brains are wired to separate everything in life into little boxes, while women’s brains are wired to group a lot of separate things together into a whole. The result of these two brain-wirings on decision making, leading, snap actions, and dealing with setbacks and trouble is profound.
Women group everything in their life into a single whole. While this is really great for understanding complex systems, sitting back and getting a holistic view of life and the situation, it does not lend itself to leadership. Women make great sages, ‘wise woman’ characters, and councilor/assistants, but they do not tend to push forward along one line of action. This is because they can always see about eight parallel roads and it will change roads from day to day depending on which road looks better at the moment. The female is, to borrow from Eastern theory which I enjoy, a yin or a round way of thinking, deflecting, able to avoid potholes, but she will meander and never take a direct route across the minefield. She is more like Kung-Fu than Karate, using circular motions and fluid, graceful arcs to get what she wants.
Men on the other hand are Karate, and yang: straight-line punches that are more powerful than Kung-Fu, but not nearly as graceful or versatile. While a woman might be the Swiss-Army knife of humanity, men –not women– are the ones who can break a brick with their forehead. Men get the job done, fast, leaving women blinking in bewilderment sometimes. Because he separates everything in life into compartments, that enables him to withstand major blows without sinking. If one compartment gets damaged, the rest of his life is totally unaffected. He can work on the problem without losing hope or feeling defeated; after all, he’s got a lot more undamaged than damaged.
This natural buoyancy and optimism is a profound ‘can do’ attitude in most normal men that never allows them to give up or grow despondent, but forces them to keep pushing forward until they are successful. And because of how the world works, they are more likely to be successful than someone who stops and re-thinks everything from the contents of the fridge to their philosophy on life every time they run into a setback. (Little secret: this is why men don’t tell their woman “I love you” all the time: the “I love you” box is not the same as the “Eating Dinner” box or the “Watching TV” box, so expecting a guy to jump from one box back to “I love you” every ten minutes is going to wear him out! No man wants to live in the boot camp tire-run obstacle course!)
Frankly, almost all situations in an adventure story are going to have to be dealt with in the male direct, fast, powerful, forward-punch-through style for your good guys to be successful (and for your reader not to fall asleep from boredom). You CAN do the same thing with a female Main Character, but she is going to have to be (like some perfectly normal women are) rather masculine in the way she thinks. Everyone is different, and masculine females are just as common as feminine males, without being any less a woman or a man.
A masculine female Main Character can carry the story for a while. But when she runs into a stronger male character who is more able to break bricks with his forehead than she can (that is, smash the evil bad-guy’s evil attacks faster), she will logically want to fall in like a good soldier and follow the more capable leader. So you could start with a female, and then bring in a male hero later on for the really big climax (like I did in the Fadewalker series: the male was her arch-enemy and this made a really great romance sub-plot too).
On the other hand, if you are absolutely determined to make women rule, you will have to totally surround your masculine-female Heroine with weak wishy-washy males... but this will make your story feel very unnatural and contrived, and will probably annoy your readers.
You can have a female leader throughout the story who is officially in charge, however, if you give her a really great staff of strong males who have some socially acceptable rules to follow that keep her in charge. (For example: she is a queen, or she is a noble, or she is higher in a military rank structure, etc.) In this case, a woman is more than willing to stand in front of everyone and make the grand declarations and final decisions, but before she does all that she will spend a lot of time consulting with her staff and will follow all of their best advice. Any woman who stands entirely on her own without any male support is going to feel fake and unrealistic to your reader. Even Queen Elizabeth and Joan of Arc swore without hesitation that they relied upon God (the archetype of the strong, dominant male) for all of their strength and direction in decision-making, and if you study history you will discover that both of them had one or a couple of really strong ‘father figure’ males at her side. My rule of thumb: to make it feel real, if there is a woman in charge, there WILL BE a strong male (even if it is only God) above or very near her that she will listen to without question.
Having pummeled the question of male vs. female Hero to death, let us move on to personality. This depends on the plot, as I discussed in depth in the Plot article. But as a rule of thumb, you really want a Main Character/Hero who is sharp, smart, and somewhat ruthless. You do NOT want them to be “perfect” as I explain in The Hero Is Not Always Right, so they can have a lot of quirks and even be a partial bad-guy, or at least have human flaws and enjoy a few semi-questionable diversions.
You do NOT want an all-wise, all-knowing, mysterious superperson. All that tells me is that you, the writer, are afraid of your Main Character and have never put in enough time to figure out what turns them on. Make them human!! Give them a sense of humor or something! Don’t be afraid of them, cowering behind your typewriter as your scary Super-Impressive Mysterious Hero marches around staring steely-eyed at everything. (Steely-eyed? Honestly, people. Steely-eyed in my real-life experience equals low-IQ.) Get inside their head. Give them something weird like a lucky-item (underwear? rubber band on the wrist? their mom’s barrette?) or an annoying habit.
Yes, they have to save the day; but they do NOT have to save the day perfectly, or without making two or three good whopper mistakes (that they have to scramble to fix) before then.
Let your Main Character be themselves—not yourself. Let them be a different person, let them think different things than you think, have a different philosophy on life. A different morality level. A different religion! The only really important quality that they need to have is the ability to handle the Plot situation effectively, quickly (so they don’t bore the reader), and cleverly (so they might even impress the reader and teach them something). They do not need good social skills (unless that is required to solve the plot), they do NOT need to be pretty or strikingly handsome (how many supermodel Main Characters do we have to endure? Honestly? Zoolander, baby!). The most enjoyable Heroes to write for me have always been the underdogs who started off at the bottom, and only because they possessed maybe one really unusual skill and a little determination, were they able to save the day.
Remember, a story is about learning: you learn when you write, and a reader will learn when they read. If the reader reads about a person a whole lot like their own nerdy, or shy, or frustrated selves becoming a hero and conquering their problems, and maybe helping a lot of other people in the process, it literally inspires us to do the same. Writing solid, believable, realistic Heroes also will give you, the author, a new perspective on life. Learning to make realistic, fulfilling characters is the fastest way for any human being to learn how to see life from different points of view, and to understand people around them. It is a mind-opening experience and well worth all the trouble.