I thought I'd take a look at some of the most compelling characters I've read about or watched and see what makes them so great.
Elizabeth BennetSomewhere I heard a quote that I no longer can find. It said (roughly) that every woman likes to read Jane Eyre, but every woman wants to BE Elizabeth Bennet. I think that's a fair estimation of one of the most popular and enduring heroines in Western Literature. Let's take a look at some of the reasons she's so compelling:
- She has a keen sense of humor
- She's intelligent
- Her background is relatable (upper middle class, embarrassing family)
- She's fallible and sometimes makes a fool of herself
- She stands up for herself and what she believes
If you like your heroes more on the anti side:
A pitch perfect anti-hero:
- Cares deeply for others (well, certain others: his team, Cuddy, and Wilson)
- Has a sharp sense of humor (often with the same people)
- A rough back story to explain some of his less...endearing behavior (dad's disapproval, motorcycle accident, drug addiction, etc.)
- Has moments of kindness
- Extremely good at what he does
But if you want a likable villain:
There's few crimes more serious than the ones Humbert Humbert commits in Lolita. On my 101 in 1001 list, finishing this novel is one of my goals. I started reading it, got about 3/4 of the way done, and had to put it down. The main reason I could (other than I had renewed it from the library the max amount of times) was that even though he was an awful human being, I still empathized with Humbert. The fact that Nabokov is able to do that is a testament to his skill. So what makes Humbert Humbert so great as a villain:
- He's the protagonist of his own story. Remember, every villain thinks he's a hero.
- Repeatedly admits his faults and feels remorse for them. If he had no idea what he was doing was wrong, he'd just be a mindless monster.
- Very intelligent with a dry sense of humor. The creepiest villains are always the smartest.
Unless you're writing the pulpiest of pulp fiction, keep in mind that your villains need to have some moment of good (or at least less evil) in them, and ratchet up their IQ as well.
By using the writer's prerogative to beg, borrow, or steal from those great characters already floating around, you can one day create unique, compelling characters of our own.