Believable, empathetic characters are central to a novel. Oddly, though, they can get short-changed by writers. We know that readers look for characters they can relate to and root for. Then we deliver generic, oddly bland protagonists. Why?
Generic or Genuine?
I think it’s because writers bring an assumed empathy to their central characters. They imbue them with an unquestioned magnetism. Everything we know about driven, memorable people gets added to the psychological shopping cart we push through the novel. Problem is, it never gets on the page. This results in a generic major characters. They may have a few personality quirks (or not even that), but they aren’t deep. They’re honorable. They do the right thing. They’re quite decent people, except when confronting injustice, when they’re allowed a bit of a bust out. Sound familiar? Is this your protagonist? If so, revise, revise.
Empowering Event, Wounding Event
One way to deepen your central character is to give her a past event that motivates her or wounds her. Here is your opportunity to distinguish your character, beginning the process of rounding out personality. You have a lens through which you can project her reactions to events as well as her penchant for ordering her life in a certain way. In the back story for my novel Maximum Ice, Zoya Kundara experienced the exploitation of children in time of war. She became a generation star ship’s Ship Mother, casting her protection over her Romany people. In The Seeds of Time, Clio Finn as a teenager watched her parents murdered by the new Gestapo. She’s been on the run from that identity ever since; she’s learned not to get close to anyone.
Your back story event (usually not brought on stage) sets up the internal story that meshes with the external plot. You want to tell an inner and outer story in all but the most commercial stories; and sometimes even then. Look at the protagonists of mysteries; they are seldom generic and predictable. In the Elizabeth George mystery, Careless in Red, the hero is emotionally shut down by the early death of his wife. George brings us into the story by setting up two questions: Who is the murderer in the current story and how will he be found? And: Will the inspector open up his heart again?
The Empathetic Event
In pursuing a possible traumatic history for your character, make sure the event is something with which the readers can easily identify. This is because you won’t normally show the event; we have to “get it” right away when it is described. (Be careful of melodrama, though: favorite pet, sick child… these topics require great restraint.)
A traumatic back story will boost your plot. It will allow your character to take believable missteps that will in turn worsen his situation, give the antagonist more to work with and increase the suspense. In other words, it provides the matrix for the character flaw. So, rather than pumping up the opposition to make the conflict last, let your hero make things worse. These missteps are not just simple mistakes but choices that make sense for his internal goals but not for his external goals. For example, in Bright of the Sky, Titus Quinn sandbags his mission when he forms an unwise friendship with an alien child. Why does he do this? Because he’s still trying to deserve a child’s love. Why? Um, back story.
Perhaps your protagonist comes to life right away. His personality is so vital and quirky that nothing more is needed. No wounding previous life, nothing psychological. If so, you’re set. If not, revise for deep character.