Don’t Admire Yourself in the MirrorEach of us has a character that we know the best: ourselves. In our own minds, we are the most reasonable, rational, and sensible people that live. I don’t say that in jest. It really is true. If we don’t believe that we are reasonable, rational, and sensible, then we change our minds.
As writers, we inherently put ourselves into the characters that we create. This is something that we cannot avoid any more than an actor puts something of himself into the characters that he portrays. The problem comes in ourselves. What is interesting to us as writers is not necessarily what is interesting to our readers. Even as we are putting ourselves into the lead character, the reader is also putting himself into the lead character. When we create a lead character that is based too much on ourselves, we leave no room for the reader.
As the writers and creators of stories, we are also all powerful and all knowing. Since the lead characters are projections of ourselves, these traits bleeds over into our lead characters, and they appear to the readers as all powerful and all knowing. Again, our readers have no place to fit themselves. As the lead character is unchallenged, so too is our reader unchallenged.
As normal human beings, we writers don’t want to embarrass ourselves. We don’t want to look bad. Most humans go to ridiculous lengths to avoid looking bad. Subconsciously, as writers, we do the same thing in protecting our lead characters, for we protect them as ourselves. This leads to lead characters who, like spoiled children, get coddled by our own over-protective egos. Again, there is no place for the reader to go. Like good parents, we must let our characters go, to stand and fall on their own, and in the course of things, get a few skinned knees. Only then will our readers be willing to follow.
Our own inner desires can be useful in character creation, but just as easily, our own fantasies turn out to be just that: our own. We all want to be powerful, capable, charming, sexy, successful, and most importantly, dominant. That’s a natural state of affairs for a human. When we write, we project all that into our stories. That’s called wish fulfillment. Wish fulfillment is bad when it matches what we as writers want. Again, we leave no room for our readers. Wish fulfillment works well when it matches the wish fulfillment that our readers want.
So when making lead character, step away. Ask yourself how your lead characters are different from you. Once they are different, once they make different decisions than you or I, once they gain the ability to fall, your character gains something to risk, and risk is where any story gets interesting. Risk, uncertainty, doubt, trouble, and tribulation are all effects that open your character up to the reader and lets the reader project themselves onto the character.
In essence, any lead character is a cooperative game between you and the reader. Your words are an invitation to play, and your readers use those words to play to create images and feel connections. When you do that, you have an effective character.