Read Extreme Makeover – Character Edition, Part I here.



By Jeanne Marie Leach

Nothing great ever happens at the “Okay” level.

The better the reader knows the characters, the better the manuscript will be. People are all blends of good and evil, scars and handicaps (some emotional); so make sure you didn’t create perfect characters.

A good novel is about what’s going on inside the character and how they react to change.

Remember, villains must have some good in them and the hero some bad. A few of the greatest villains in fiction have been unredeemable. Think of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. He was rotten to the core and remained so his entire life, all the way to his death. He’s the guy everyone loves to hate. However, he did have one good thing in his life—his love for Catherine. No matter how misguided his love, and no matter that he really didn’t know what true love was, the fact that he was a man spurned by his only love in life gives him a type of endearing quality and allows the reader the opportunity to feel sorry for him. If his rottenness was the only thing we ever read about him, it’s possible this story wouldn’t have any readership. It would have been way too much evil for the average person to handle.

Regarding the hero having a little bit of bad in him–this makes him real. The Bible says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. A perfect character would simply be an unlikable one—someone with whom the reader cannot identify. His negative qualities don’t have to be anything dastardly and could be as small as a quick temper or a struggle to believe that God actually loves him.

Think Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail. He could care less if he put the small bookstore out of business. He didn’t think twice about what his superstore would do to the owner, Kathleen Kelly. He even had a few mean things to say about her until he discovered she was his secret internet pal for whom he had developed a huge fondness. Then he had to convince her he wasn’t as bad as she originally thought. He offered himself to her when he asks, “How come you can forgive this guy for something big like standing you up, but you can’t forgive me for this tiny thing of putting you out of business? Oh, how I wish you would.” He knew he wasn’t perfect, but he also knew he had a lot to offer someone.

Frequently, the character’s weakest traits will be why they change in the end, and the strongest traits will often get them into trouble the most. Joe Fox’s tough business sense is what got him into trouble with Kathleen. Until then, his motto was “It’s not personal; it’s business.” But Kathleen shows him the error in that thinking, because of how his business affected other people like her.

The more unique your characters are, the less boring the story will be. The readers must love the main protagonist early in the story. I’ve edited a book that contained a young heroine who refused to say more than two words to the hero. This went on for twenty-two chapters, while the hero was falling in love with her. I finally send an e-mail to the author and told her I didn’t like the heroine and wondered what on earth this man saw in her. No man would put up with her childishness. And he literally knew nothing about her. How could he have fallen for her if they’d never had a conversation yet? And the book was BORING. She stopped working on that book for the next four years, and when she came back to it, it is now published by a major publisher, and it is amazing.

So remember to develop REAL characters with real life goals, problems, and flaws. This makes them more alive for the readers who will love your characters so much, they’ll wish they were best friends.