What Makes a Story Great? (Part 1)

What makes a good book? You know, the one you can’t put down. The one you tell all your friends about. The one that get’s you fired because it sucked you into its world and staying up to find the missing key so the munchkins could unlock the vortex and finally return home was much more important than getting some sleep and getting up when your alarm went off.

What makes a story that good?

As most of you know, I’ve started writing my first book, so the answer to this question is especially pertinent to me right now. I want to create a great story that will sweep you readers off your feet and carry you away on the grandest adventure you’ve been on.

Or at least not put you to sleep. 😉

Since this is a question some of you may be asking too with NaNoWriMo coming up next month, I thought I’d share my answers.

For the next three post, I’m going to list some things that I’ve noticed some of my favorite books have in common. We’ll go over dialogue, twists, tragedies, and humor.  But for today, I’m just going to focus on characters.

Great books have…

 

An engaging protagonist

This almost goes without saying. Of course the main character needs to be likable and proactive. This is the person readers will spend the most time with so if they are as boring as watching paint dry while listening to a lecture on HTML coding people aren’t going to read it no matter how exciting the plot.

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What is it exactly that makes a character engaging?

Give them fun and likable characteristics, such as being smart, brave, loyal, or compassionate. But it’s also important to give them some flaws. Maybe they are selfish, arrogant, or bossy. Everyone has flaws, and if the main character lacks them they seem unreal and unrelatable. As long as their good qualities outshine their bad or they are shown overcoming their flaws, readers can forgive their shortcomings.

Engaging characters, well, engage. They do stuff. They don’t have to be a catalyst for everything that happens in the story, but they don’t sit back and let everyone else make all the decisions. Yes, there will be things that happen to them. Dorothy didn’t choose to be caught in a tornado and have her house fall on a witch. Frodo didn’t choose for his uncle to give him a powerful but destructive ring. Just like in life, things will happen to the protagonist that they have no control over, but they can still be proactive in how they respond to these events. What if Dorothy decided following the yellow-brick road would be too difficult and stayed with the munchkins? What if Frodo didn’t volunteer to take the ring to Mordor? Not only would the characters be boring but there wouldn’t be much of a story.

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Memorable supporting characters

We’ve all read books with characters flatter than pancakes, and unlike pancakes we don’t like them. Supporting characters are a great way to spice up a story. Give them colorful personalities. Make them opposites from each other. Give one of them opposing views as the main character and watch sparks fly. It’s dull to have characters that agree with everything the protagonist says and does. People don’t all think alike in real life. Why should they in a book?

Another thing to give characters to make sure that they are memorable is dichotomy.  Dichotomy as explained by the dictionary is “a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.” If you want your characters to be dichotomous, give them something that is totally unexpected and is opposite what the rest of their personality traits are.

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Think of Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He is a peg-legged, bloodthirsty, treasure-hunting pirate. His affection for Jim Hawkins doesn’t seem to fit with his cutthroat pirate personality, but it’s this is what makes Long John Silver so memorable.

Dichotomous characters don’t have to be as dramatic as Long John. Maybe it’s someone who has to keep everything in their house immaculate, but loves mudding. Maybe it’s someone who hardly talks at all, but once they get on stage they transform into an eloquent speaker. Maybe they hate animals but continue taking care of a dog because it was their mother’s who passed away.

Which leads me to the third thing that makes characters memorable: secrets.

Who doesn’t like a good secret?

Hiding something in a character’s past will make them intriguing and unforgettable. And just like in life, the best secrets are the ones you have to wait a while to learn. If a character did hate animals but continued taking care of a dog, don’t tell readers right away that it’s because it is his deceased mother’s. Let them wonder for a while. It makes the character more interesting.

And it’s just fun for authors to torture readers.

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Coming up with characters for a story is one of my favorite parts of writing and it’s probably because I love exploring all the character’s differences, personality, and quirks.

So what do you find makes characters interesting? Who are some of your favorite characters from books you’ve read (or movies for all you non-readers out there 😛 )? 

I’ll be back next week with some more elements that make a story great. Until next time! Keep dreaming Epic Dreamers!

 Part 2

 

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11 thoughts on “What Makes a Story Great? (Part 1)

  1. Wow, insightfully selected elements of story-writing, clearly expressed with great engagement. Your discussion of dichotomy is informative and sound; Long John Silver is a well-drawn example. The hobbits as protagonists I guess are meant to be relatable, since they are most like us, even more than the human characters. But I often draw closer to the characters who accompany the heroes. They are my way into the story. Merlin more than Arthur, the nephew more than the uncle in A Journey to the Center of the Earth. I guess a clearer case might be made for Nick in The Great Gatsby. Who understands Gatsy? But Nick–well, he’s more normal (the normal-est character and perspective in the story). Faiza for me in the Hashna tale.

    Thank you, Megan, for having us go with you in the process! Write on!–Christopher

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad you found it insightful. I’ve heard that most people do find the sidekick character more relatable. I guess because usually they are the character more like us: the ones without a magic ability/magic jewelry/prophecy. Their more likely to be ordinary people like us.
      You are very welcome! I enjoy giving a glimpse of what’s going on.

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  2. Hi Megan. Good post. I like to make characters strange for extra intrigue. Maybe it comes from a teenage period of reading Discworld and Hitchhiker’s guide. One good one I read recently were the characters in Kirsty McKay’s Undead series. I wanted to hate yet another zombie story but her characters were really good.

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  3. I completely agree with you! One of my favorite things about characters is their flaws. These are what I find I relate to most (maybe I’m just a super flawed person haha). But I think a great story consists of a character either learning to overcome their flaws or having to succumb to them, and the relationship of character to flaw is something I really like to explore. Really intriguing post!

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    1. Everyone has flaws. 🙂 That’s why we can relate to characters with them as well. We sympathize with characters who succumb to their flaws and it is inspiring when characters overcome their flaws because that means there is hope for us. 😉
      Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A very insightful post! Yep, I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m asking myself these questions too. I was thinking of characters as well a few days back and since I mostly write fantasy, I was wondering how it is that I could relate to the characters in an altogether different setting such as Middle Earth or with awesome powers such as Vin from Mistborn. I believe that even though the scope of the story maybe epic, the characters need to retain a sense of humanity. What I’m trying to say is that your MC might be a frog, but giving him a human flaw such as hating his own voice makes him more relatable to readers. That’s the aspect I like the most in the books I love – the ability of the author to make an average person understand the minds of epic characters.

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    1. Very well put, Nandini. We can relate to characters that are actually quite different than us (even if they are a frog 😀 ) if the author gives them the sort of traits or emotions we can all relate to. We all know what it’s like to dislike something about ourselves, or to face something we’re afraid of, or to believe in something enough to fight for it. Even if the characters have powers that we will never have or have been places we never will, we still sympathize with them because of their humanness.
      Oh, and I love Mistborn. I just finished the series with Wax and Wayne. Loved them!
      So with Mistborn on my mind, it isn’t surprising that I use some examples from those books in my next posts. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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