If you're a beginning writer, especially in the speculative fiction wing of the bookstore, you need to be especially careful to write bold characters who can match the great world you have built.
Memorable characters are outrageous, larger than life, unpredictable, exciting ... and believable.
My secret character crush is Sawyer from Lost. Man, I wish I could have written him. Bright, snappy, wicked sense of humor, anti-social to the core, and had obviously read every book in the prison library. You could hate Sawyer if you wanted, but it was hard because he was written with just enough sympathy that you didn't really want to hate him. He was believable as a con man stuck on a deserted island with a bunch of misfits and do-gooders. You were surprised when he did something good, but not overly disappointed when he followed that with something bad.
Now, you know a guy like that would not survive in today's world. Someone would have slit his throat long before he ever got to the island. But the character is larger than life and exciting, so viewers connected with him and enjoyed the ride. Yet the writer tempered Sawyer's character just a bit by giving him a very believable life history -- Dad gets conned, ends up bankrupt, kills his wife and himself in front of the kid. Traumatized kid grows up to become what he hated. Stir that around a bit and -- instant sympathy for a complex and believable character.
Of course, none of us wrote Sawyer. We have to write other characters who, hopefully, are just as good. How do you do that?
No, seriously, I hope you know because I'm still working this out.
I do know that when you decide you're going to go BIG on a personality, you have to provide balance. Consider my character Shane in Life As We Knew It. I start the story off with a gun under his chin and he's seconds away from pulling the trigger. Later, I turn him into a hero.
I chose to introduce Shane at the lowest point in his life (maybe the lowest point, I'm not done with him yet) to provide an immediate connection with a character who could be hard to love. Shane is -- prickly and dark. I could allude to his depression and suicidal tendencies, but the plot didn't really have room for therapy sessions, so instead I dropped the reader right into Shane's personal crisis in the very first paragraph of the book. Within the first scene I tell the reader that Shane is a mercenary and killer who has a conscience and friends and family who care way more for him than he cares for himself, thereby suggesting there is something worth saving here. I also establish that he is darned lucky. He is a hero, even though he doesn't think of himself that way. He does things that are unexpected, that are dangerous, that could easily result in death or bodily injury, but he's got an element of luck, so when he survives, it's really not surprising. The question is ... can I keep it up throughout the series without losing the realness of the character? I don't know ... or I do and I'm not telling. You'll have to tune in to find out.
Don't be afraid to give your main character unlikable qualities. We all have them. Sometimes those most despictable traits are the very thing that makes someone a hero. Also don't be afraid to show your hero in the dark night of despair or so scared he's wetting himself. Sometimes it's not brave if you're not scared, and a hero who saves the world despite being terrified will make more of a connection with your readers than one who is a hero always who can be trusted to save the day from the very beginning.
One of the most heroic gestures I can think of in speculative fiction is when Sam takes the ring because he thinks Frodo has died. He doesn't want it. He never wanted it. He was there for Frodo, not for the ring. The quest is a major annoyance for him. He'd rather be gardening or cooking. But he takes the ring because he thinks it's the only right thing to do. But more, when he is reunited with Frodo and returns the ring, Sam becomes quite something remarkable. There is no other character in LOTR who carries a ring and gives it up. Galadrial continues to carry her ring. Bilbo is forced to give it up by Gandolf who has the good sense to never touch it. Frodo has it bitten off his finger by Golum who had it stolen from him by Bilbo. But Sam carries it only as long as he needs to and then returns it. It makes me wonder if he could have thrown it in the lava.
In some ways, Sam is the real hero of the story -- Sam, who never wanted to leave home, who really had pretty pedestrian goals, who was only there to support Frodo -- but Frodo never would have made it to Mordor without Sam. That's a interesting lesson for me as a writer to realize that sometimes a secondary character is the real hero of the story.
Don't be afraid to play around with characters and to make them really human while at the same time playing up their more outrageous qualities. The whole purpose of your first few pages is to grab the reader and make them not want to put the book down. Having a believable character who is larger than life can be one of the ways to do that.
Lela Markham is a speculative fiction author from Alaska and contributor to the Booktrap. Life As We Knew It is Book 1 of Transformation Project, an apocalyptic start to a dystopian series. The Willow Branch is Book 1 of Daermad Cycle, an epic fantasy with Celtic influences. Watch for Book 2, Mirklin Wood in the near future.