This past weekend, I fell in love with a character.* Not one of my own, someone else's. And it got me thinking, why do certain characters work for me and others don't? What is it about a character--my own or someone else's--that makes me want to spend time, sometimes endless amounts of time, with those characters at the expense of my housekeeping and my dog and my job and even, sometimes, my relationships with other people? What does it?
And after thinking about it for a little while, here's a (partial, incomplete) list of the things that can hook me into a character:**, ***
1. They have a troubled past. I'm a sucker for a character who has suffered in the past and has come out mostly okay on the other side. Not totally okay, as you'll see from the rest of this list, but mostly okay. Most of the time.
2. They have secrets. I'm a firm believer in the idea that everyone has secrets. Sometimes big secrets, sometimes little teeny ones, sometimes even from themselves. But everyone has them, and the characters I like are usually trying to keep secrets from others.
3. They have a Code. I adore characters who behave in accordance with their own personal code. First, because it provides a sort of constancy to a character's behavior and you can figure out a lot of how they will interact with other characters or in given situations. Second, it's ripe with plot possibilities. A character with a Code obviously needs to be put in a situation where breaking the Code could or should happen.
4. They are not nice. I'm not a big fan of characters that are well-adjusted and nice. I'm not in favor of characters who are totally misanthropic jerks, either, but characters who bristle and complain, characters who get frustrated, characters who hurt other character's feelings (intentionally or unintentionally) are the types of characters I enjoy spending time with. Maybe because they seem more like my friends.
5. They have hidden depths. But as sort of a corollary to not liking characters who are too nice, I'm willing to hang out with nice characters is they have hidden depths. How is this different from a character with secrets? Because a character with hidden depths isn't trying to keep those depths secret. Nice characters are all right with me, if they have things going on (too many times, they don't).
6. They are Alone (or feel they are). I swoon over the characters who feel like they are alone in all the world, even, or especially, when they aren't actually. Why? I think it has something to do with the fact that I write YA stories, because YA is all about characters who feel alone and are trying to make connections with the world.****
7. They have a Moment of Weakness (tm). In fan fiction, there is a type of subgenre called hurt/comfort, in which a character is injured and has to be nursed back to health by another character. The primary appeal of this subgenre is that it makes a normally strong character vulnerable. And I have apparently been imprinted by this subgenre, because I love the moment when a normally guarded or defensive character has a moment of weakness. Obviously, this has to be a part of the narrative development--you can't just have your characters breaking down over and over again*****--but done well, it's an amazing moment.
8. They are in a relationship that with Never Work Out. I don't mean that a character is in an abusive relationship, which is a different type of thing altogether, but when a character is in a relationship that is inevitably going to end, and the character doesn't want it to. It's terribly sad when a relationship is doomed, and watching a character or a pair of characters struggle to come to that realization, it can be awful in the best possible way.
9. They are in/or are they object of unrequited love. Is there anything more dramatic or heart-rending than a character who is in unrequited love? I mean, there's a reason why unrequited love is such a staple in narrative, because it hurts so good. Almost as good is when a character is the object of the unrequited love of another character.******
10. They are, for lack of a better term, effed up. See above. :)
* No, I'm not going to identify the character. And, no, it doesn't have anything to do with Christian Bale. :)
** Despite my objections to the form, I'm going to use the singular "they" for this list, because the character could be either male or female, and I don't want to deal with gender neutrality for every item on the list. From necessity comes compromise....sigh.
*** Of course, a character doesn't have to have all these things at once. (And probably can't.) Even just one of these things, done a certain way, can be enough for me.
**** "Only connect," E.M. Forster writes, and really that's what most YA novels are about.
***** One of the many ways in which Real Writing differs from fan fiction--you can't just publish a bunch of hurt/comfort scenes. There has to be a plot.
****** Note that this is not the same as Forbidden Love. I don't find Forbidden Love very interesting, usually. Mostly because I don't see many things in our modern society as effectively forbidding love. In an historical story, Forbidden Love can be really effective, but in stories set in contemporary times, Forbidden Love usually feels artificial and forced to me.