I’ve had characterization on my mind lately, and I got to thinking about my favorite characters in my preferred genre: fantasy. I got to wondering what I loved about them, what made them so real to me, and I realized that almost all of these characters are characters I had debated about with friends, or they were from books I wished someone I knew had read so I could have such a discussion.
A really round, really thought-provoking, really true character is one that different people might feel differently about. (Now a quick disclaimer: as a fantasy writer, I know who are the good guys and who are the bad, and I need readers to agree on that point and be rooting for the same side. However, there should still be aspects of characters people can disagree about, while both holding valid points of view.)
One of my favorite examples: Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books. Holy mess, I had so much fun waiting for the next Harry Potter book to come out after one was published, because my friends and I–and people online as well–had such heated, wonderful discussions about Snape. Who was he really? What was he after, at the end of the day? Did you trust him? Should we trust him?
Another example: Draco Malfoy. How much should we pity him, after all we see in Book Seven? How much are his parents responsible for who he is, and at what point do his actions and decisions throughout the series really become his own? Is he genuinely coerced?
Even in a novel that’s not a series novel, you should still strive to make characters real enough for people to interpret them differently. Readers should be able to focus, as they will, on different aspects of a character’s personality, because a good character has enough facets for readers to decide what resonates with them and what doesn’t. What’s cool is, such debates aren’t something you need (or should!) think about consciously as you write. If you focus on giving your characters genuine strengths and weaknesses, heroic as well as embarrassing moments, this will come about naturally.