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What Exactly Makes A Great Character In A Novel?
by Rodney Laws
The novel — today’s dominant literary art form — is a relatively new kid on the block, having been perfected in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain and America. The enduring success of the novel owes much to its ability to explore psychological complexities of character. It is people, and their foibles and flaws, that make novels such rich tapestries.
Great characters have dominated the novels of the long nineteenth century and beyond, but what exactly makes a great character? Why do we love (or love to hate) certain characters? What are the hallmarks of great character development? How do some of the best authors approach character?
The best way to do this, I think, is to run through some key traits that crop up time and time again. From those, you can glean some insight into character construction. In this piece, we’re going to consider the notable characteristics of some great characters. Let’s begin.
Relatable vulnerability (Emma Bovary)
The character of Emma Bovary made Gustave Flaubert notorious. His stunningly accurate portrayal of nineteenth century suburbian inertia in the character of young, bored, and married Emma scandalized France.
His frank portrayal of female desire and dissatisfaction shocked moralists, but Emma is one of the world’s most loved fiction heroines — precisely because of her ‘flaws’. It’s Emma’s relatable flaws that make her such a great character. She is vulnerable and complex. She can be cruel, yet she’s also a victim herself.
Even Flaubert is reported to have famously said about Emma: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (Madame Bovary, she’s me).
What you can learn from Flaubert:
- Flawed and tragic characters are extremely relatable
- Vulnerability can help writers draw their readers in
- A shocking ‘fall from grace’ like the one Emma has will immortalize a character.
Infectious buoyancy (Elizabeth Bennett)
Elizabeth Bennett has a great character arc, and that’s why she’s enduringly popular. She learns from her mistakes, and we like to watch her realize the error of her ways and get what she wants (after some suitable drama, of course, in a plot so influential that it’s cited on a frequent basis — see Jericho Writers on how to plot, for example).
Elizabeth has a zest for life that make her story engaging rather than tragic. She is flawed in her own ways, but not tragically so like Emma Bovary. Lizzie is a great testament to Jane Austen’s own independent spirit as a female novelist in constrained circumstances.
Lizzie also has one of the most romantic stories in English literature: that of two opposed and proud people realizing they do really love each other. It’s the simultaneous character development of both Darcy and Elizabeth that makes their love story such an engaging one to follow, and accounts for the enduring success of Pride & Prejudice.
Mysterious nature (Jay Gatsby)
Complex, always out of reach, tragically blinded by love. Gatsby is elusive, even in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that bears his name, The Great Gatsby. Charismatic and vain, Gatsby is also incredibly warm-hearted and generous.
He lives in a world that seems perfect, but in reality is anything but. The dark side of the Roaring Twenties is perfectly personified in Gatsby’s fragile success and ego. Jay Gatsby is a rich character full of contradictions, and as we slowly get close to the real man, we’re merely blindsided again. Even at the end, Gatsby remains somehow other-wordly.
The distance between the reader and Gatsby is partly due to the unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway — a genius narrative device that makes Fitzgerald’s novel and its characters so deliciously slippery.
Irresistible personality (Jane Eyre)
Jane Eyre is a real testament to Charlotte Bronte’s extraordinary skills as a writer and her innate understanding of character development. Jane definitely fulfils the character development type of ‘extraordinary’ — an extraordinary character and personality “that can make things happen in an empty room”. It’s no coincidence that the novel has her name.
Though from obscure origins, Jane behaves with dignity fitting for a Duchess. Her intense self-knowledge and sense of self make her irresistible, especially in the social context of the novel. Her challenges and pain make her a stronger, more alive version of herself. She is wounded, but strong. She says little, but means a lot. Her character is all about quiet power.
Everyday flaws (Winston Smith)
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great dystopian novel, but it’s also a brilliant character novel. Winston works as a humdrum clerk in a totalitarian dystopia. He seems nondescript and banal, but underneath the surface lives a passionate and brave man.
His varicose ulcers and gin habit make him human (and faintly disgusting). His innate sense of curiosity drives him on. He makes mistakes because he cares. Orwell himself consciously wrote Winston as the everyman character — someone we could all relate to.
Our closeness to Winston makes the setting of the novel all the more powerful and affecting. Reading Orwell’s novel, we all question what we would have done in his place. Winston’s choices become our choices.
Adolescent rebellion (Holden Caulfield)
The brutality and confusion of adolescence is a theme with universal potency, and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most popular and well-regarded novels in history because of the young protagonist’s existential troubles.
Holden Caulfield evidently captures enough universal truth to be a mirror for the reader. How else do you explain his alternating praise and vilification? He stumbles from place to place, searching for earnest human connection but finding a surging disdain for those around him.
Holden doesn’t rebel in an effort to look cool or impress his peers. He rebels from the mediocrities of civilization, choosing to walk away at every turn rather than stick around and accept that people are flawed. His fantasy of being a hero, of protecting children from the loss of innocence, leaves him at war with the world… and the darkness in his own nature.
Ruthless pragmatism (Scarlett O’Hara)
“My dear, I don’t give a damn.” These words (preceded by “Frankly” in the movie adaptation) are firmly affixed to the popular perception of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, but to focus unduly on them is to give short shrift to one of literature’s great survivors.
Scarlett O’Hara, the dear in question, is smart in a time that doesn’t welcome smartness in women. As a wealthy Southern girl, she’s expected to be charming, passive, and essentially vapid — a prize to be won — but only plays the part as needed to get by. Whenever possible, she seeks to express her will, and it’s that will that steels her to hardship.
When war breaks out and washes away her material wealth, Scarlett doesn’t shy away from what needs to be done: she uses her cultural value as a woman (marrying for money) and her formidable intelligence (running her own business) to ensure that she survives.
Righteous courage (Atticus Finch)
The legal profession has suffered greatly in common perception, with lawyers mostly viewed as unscrupulous cads obsessed with money and power, but there’s nobility to be found in the legal field — and to those eager to protect it, Atticus Finch is a worthy hero.
Set in the American South in a time of open racial inequality, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an undeniable classic. When Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white woman, the general populace automatically considers him guilty beyond question. Atticus Finch is assigned to defend him, and defies racist condemnation by determining to represent his client as effectively as he can.
In the end, despite making a powerful and convincing case, Atticus finds that racism is too entrenched in the jury. Thus, his innocent client is convicted. In the process, though, he inspires future generations with his bold defence of reason and conscience, even in the face of inevitable defeat: courage, as he sees it, is “[W]hen you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
Having looked at these great characters, then, what can we glean? The most notable takeaway is that perfection doesn’t make for interesting characters. We’re drawn to characters with flaws and struggles, because we can relate to them. If you’re struggling to write a character for a novel, keep this in mind.
Rodney Laws is an ecommerce expert with over a decade of experience in building online businesses. Check out his reviews on Ecommerce platforms.io and you’ll find practical tips that you can use to build the best online store for your business. Connect with him on Twitter @EcomPlatformsio.”