a sketch of Jenny F.‘s character, Golden Lion Boy (that’s not really his name)
There’s a common type of character I like to refer to as the Shell, and the Shell is all too common. It doesn’t matter what genre the book is or who the target audience is, at least fifty percent of the time, the main character is said Shell. What is a Shell?
It’s an empty character designed specifically to insert the reader into the book, because they identify so much with the Shell. Take Bella from Twilight as a classic example. (I never thought I would write ‘Twilight’ and ‘classic’ in the same sentence, but here we are.)
Bella is a clumsy teenager with no distinguishing features and no distinguishing character traits. Any teenage girl picking up the novel will immediately identify with Bella because there is nothing to mark Bella as her own character. She’s designed specifically for readers to hop into, so they can wear the Shell and experience the novel through Bella’s own lukewarm personality.
I did this to a certain extent with Ginny in Paper Crowns, but that was more or less an accident and I’ve (hopefully) given her a personality that stands by itself during the revisions. The Shell annoys me, because it feels like lazy writing (even if it isn’t intentionally so).
However, the series became hugely popular – in large part because of the Shell that was Bella Swan. (I could make a few remarks about the intelligence of the Twilight fanbase in general, but I won’t. I’m personally a Jasper fan although I hate the series, so.)
But how important is it, really, to identify with the main character? Is it necessary to write a popular book?
I would say yes and no.
No: The Shell is not necessary.
Yes: Identifying with the main character is necessary….in a way.
One of my favorite book series is The Riddle-Master trilogy by Patricia McKillip. While I’m mostly there for Deth and Astrin, the main character – Morgan – is someone I love. I would follow him to the ends of the earth on his journey, but I have nothing in common with him. I don’t have mysterious stars on my forehead, I’m not the heir to anything, and I probably wouldn’t take myself on a miserable journey away from everything I knew just because I had an itch of curiosity.
But I do connect with Morgan, because he’s well-written. I don’t connect with his situation in life, but I connect with his emotions. He’s a very human character, despite the far-reaching, magical plot. I identify with his need to know, with his stubbornness, with his temper.
He’s very much his own person, but I identify him on a human level. I identify with his emotions.
This is where the vital connection point is. The emotions. My Musetwin Arielle and I have a code phrase – ‘feel what I feel’ – which we use when attempting to make the other person listen to a song, watch a drama, or read an article that made one of us feel strong emotions. This, I believe, is the most important point when writing a main character.
The main character of my Salvation series, Skata, does not have much in common with…well, most people I know. He’s bitter, revenge-driven, and single-minded. He’s not very friendly, he’s purpose-driven, and he’s hard to get along with.
And yet he had the largest response I’ve ever had from readers saying I identify with him so much. This surprised me, because – well, because I wasn’t writing him so the reader could identify with him. I was writing his story, not the reader’s. But when I asked about it, the readers didn’t identify with his aforementioned character traits – they identified with his pain, with his drive, with the soft heart and protective instincts he tries to bury.
They felt for him, and in doing so, they connected with him emotionally.
I don’t need to identify with what a character looks like. I don’t need to identify with their character traits. I don’t need to identify with the plot they’re starring in.
I need to connect with their emotions. I need them to make me feel things. If I can feel for a character, if I become emotionally invested in them personally, in their journey, then I will follow them to the ends of the earth to find out what happens because I care. Not because they’re a mirror.
Am I saying you shouldn’t write characters everyone can identify with? No, but I don’t think it’s possible. You can’t please everyone, and so I hold that you should write your character for your own character’s sake and not so he can reflect the reader. Still, this is personal opinion and you may disagree with me.