What makes a written character interesting to readers? There are plenty of answers, of course, from honesty to loyalty to the ability to laugh at oneself. I think all those rank high on the list, but for me, what makes a character feel real is contradictions. If I am reading about a detective who is trying to solve a crime but also has a deep need to keep secrets, even when revealing one of those secrets will help bring a criminal to justice, I find that intriguing. If a character says they are doing everything in their power to help someone, but we see them take actions that clearly impede that assistance, that piques my interest.
This illogical, irrational behavior makes us able to relate to characters because, very simply, contradictions are in our DNA; they are a huge part of what makes us human. We constantly use our big brains to rationalize our behavior, because what we do—not just the actions we take, personally, but our influence and downright manipulation of others’ actions—so often goes against what we have professed to believe or know, and may even be in opposition to what we believe to be true about ourselves.
That’s why when a character says one thing and does another, or thinks one thing, says another, and does a third, we sit up and take notice. We may or may not empathize, or even sympathize with the actions they take, but we are able to connect with that person on a level that we can’t reach with characters who are so squeaky clean that they don’t even think thoughts they wouldn’t articulate aloud. (Those people may work fine as secondary characters, because we won’t be likely to know their innermost thoughts, anyway, and will have to simply take their actions and words at face value.)
But our protagonist and hopefully, our antagonist as well, should be three-dimensional—living, breathing people who most often reveal their inner yearnings obliquely, not directly; the kind of people who don’t say everything they are thinking at all times, the kind of people we instinctively relate to, because we know them intimately and have been privy to their secrets all of our lives. Our parents, our brothers and sisters, our best friends, ourselves.
So, when your heroine has to make a tough decision between equally compelling arguments—one of which will benefit her more and the other option that is the right thing to do, don’t skimp on the moments when she vacillates. Show the inner struggle before she rises to the occasion and does the right thing (or the wrong thing for the right reason). And if she is required to show courage in the face of danger, don’t skip over the part of her that wants to cut and run, to save her own skin, to protect her precious loved ones at the expense of strangers. Because that is what makes simply “doing the right thing” into something righteous, and what makes a kick-ass fight scene meaningful as well as exciting.
This kind of complicated and contradictory inner life is what makes characters written by skilled authors like Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, and Lily King—I highly recommend Writers and Lovers, pictured here— so very intriguing and so darned likable, even when what they do and say is not always likable.
We humans are flawed. We are selfish, often defensive, and easily scared by change. In an age of better and better artificial intelligence, those foibles might be the final thing that we can cling to, as proof of our kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom. One thing is for sure, though, our insecurities and our self-doubt, and our willingness to rationalize away our bad choices are all a huge part of what make us—and the people and worlds we create on the page—so very interesting.
Keep writing, keep challenging yourself, keep growing.