I read a lot of fiction. A lot. And what keeps me turning the page, besides a well-plotted and -paced story, is a character I’m invested in. Not necessarily because I like him or her–I think we’ve all read books where we hate characters–but because I need to know what happens to him or her.
What makes him or her compelling?
A goal or a need or desire.
In a Broadway musical, the main character tends to define it with what they call their “I want” song. The “I want” song may trigger an incident, it may define a need previously latent. In Hamilton, Hamilton has “My Shot” and Aaron Burr has “Wait for It”. In a novel, this need or desire can create conflict. In The Girl on The Train, Rachel needs to discover what happened to the young woman she used to see from seat on the train into the city each day. The narrator of du Maurier’s Rebecca needs to find out if her husband truly loves her and what happened to his first wife. Jane Eyre’s in a similar predicament. What does your main character want? A home, a love, safety, riches, revenge?
Rachel in Girl on the Train definitely has a secret, well more than one really. The heroine of Rebecca hides her relationship from her employer, until she’s got a proposal in hand. Gone Girl is chock-a-block with secrets. The main characters in Ruth Ware’s and Tana French’s thrillers have plenty to hide. Maybe your main character has secret information no one else knows, a fake name, a terrible past, a hidden weapon.
It’s part of human nature to see contradictions and irregularities. That moment of “one of these things is not like the other”. Some of the most captivating characters have some combination of characteristics that seem at odds with one another. Jean Valjean, the honest thief of Les Miserables. Elizabeth Bennet, judgmental of Darcy and Mr. Collins, yet so accomodating to Mr. Wickham. Boo Radley of To Kill A Mockingbird is insane yet protective and gentle with Scout. Dexter, the lovable serial killer who works for the police. Rachel of Girl on The Train lets her life sweep past her in a blur, but focuses in on this woman and what happened to her. Maybe you take a character and place them in a situation you’d never expect to find them, just to see how they handle it.
There’s something about a softer side or a flaw that makes a character relatable and interesting. M.J. Arlidge’s Helen Grace of Eeny Meeny has secrets, a tough exterior as a female cop, but a soft spot for some of her colleagues. These vulnerabilities are something a clever villain can exploit. It’s why Wickham was able to hurt Darcy so badly in Pride and Prejudice–he knew Darcy well enough to know he cared more for his sister than himself.
Are your characters compelling? Well, first ask yourself if you know all your protagonist’s secrets and firsts. Who was their first love, best friend, pet? The first person they loved who died? What have they never told another soul? Have they ever cheated on an exam? Cheated on a boyfriend or husband? Did they shoplift? Betray a friend’s trust? These things don’t have to be in the book, but should be in your brain, and maybe written somewhere you can refer to them.
Remember, readers don’t have to like your protagonist, but do have to care what happens to them to keep turning the page.