Characters With Universal Appeal

From time to time I see free books offered in one venue or another that obviously appeal to a limited audience. I try to imagine, for example, a teenage boy reading a book with lots of pink and lace on the cover or with a picture of an elderly couple, no matter how “with it” they might appear.

Covers, of course, can be overcome with favorable endorsements and other positive promotion, but to generate genuine buzz about a book, there needs to be a character with whom readers connect–a character with universal appeal.

Strangely enough, according to writing instructor Donald Maass in his latest book Writing 21st Century Fiction, creating a character that fits with what we think readers will like, is the wrong approach.

First, keep in mind that characters, like genres, follow trends.

In any literary era, there are trends in characterizations. Whole decades have been defined by characters who were blithe, survivors, or edgy. The evolution of young adult protagonists makes this particularly clear. In the first half of the 20th century, children from Horatio Alger to the Hardy Boys were plucky and alert with derring-do. In the 1970s, pervasive problem novels celebrated teen angst. More recently, the norm has become snarky detachment. (excerpt from Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 104)

The problem with such trends is that writers begin to follow what seems to be the yellow brick road to the land of publishing Oz. In other words, they join the pack and write a stereotypical character that fits the current trend, assuming that this is what readers, and editors, want.

Unfortunately those characters grow old quickly. There’s nothing memorable about them, nothing unique, and in the end, nothing universal. Readers, and before them, editors, will grow weary of these copy-cat characters.

Earlier this year, I discussed stereotypical characters in “Characters Can Be Cliches Too,” but Maass makes the point that in creating unique characters, writers are actually creating ones with universal appeal.

These characters do things that are not typical of people we know, but their emotions and motivations will be ones we recognize.

I recently read a young adult fantasy with a protagonist who was unique. She was the youngest daughter of a king and happy that she wasn’t heir to the throne. She was willful, interested mostly in keeping herself entertained with her friends, but fiercely loyal to her family. Consequently, when her sister lay dying, she started on a trek to find the one thing she believed would save her. Never mind that the king told her not to go. Never mind that she would be returning to a land where one of her friends had killed a young man and his brother had vowed revenge.

Whatever we may think of this character for doing what she did, she still touches on universal emotions. Who among us hasn’t felt helpless in the face of a governmental or parental or corporate restriction? Who among us hasn’t loved so deeply we would travel to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to save the life of the one we loved?

Maass states the key succinctly:

The secret of standout characters is their uniqueness.

In other words, none of us should be trying to write the next Katniss or the next Harry Potter or the next Bilbo Baggins. We should aim to create a character like none we’ve ever read before.

Maass suggests writers start with our own uniqueness:

In a way, making a character different than any who’s existed before begins with making that character like you, only more so. The store of individuality at your disposal is your own incomparable self. Borrow it, but blow it up. Let yourself loose. The more singular you become on the page, the more your readers will see themselves there too.

I’ll admit, I have some reservations about this advice. I’ve read books before where I thought the main character was transparently patterned after the writer. In addition there’s the issue of writing book after book with a character just like … you, only blown up. It seems that approach would have its limitations.

Still, I think the principle is sound. In the same way that each one of us is a unique person, with our own DNA and blend of beliefs and experiences that shape us, each of our characters should be original creations as well.



Filed under Characters

4 responses to “Characters With Universal Appeal

  1. Lady G.

    It can be easy to fall into the ‘Mary Sue’ or ‘Gary Stu’ territory when it comes to writing characters. While I like the idea of adding yourself to the character sometimes that does present limitations based on your values and beliefs, etc. But on the flip side you’re definitely right – writing them based off your experiences will keep things unique, just gotta be careful that all the characters aren’t the same. Excellent post!

  2. just gotta be careful that all the characters aren’t the same

    Precisely what I was thinking, Lady G.

    From what I understand Donald Maass to be saying, he wants writers to once again “bleed on the page.” We are the main source of emotions, so we need to tap into those.

    I can’t disagree with him, but I think that’s got to be a starting place, not a summation. Otherwise we’re too limited.

    Thanks for taking the time to interact with this subject.


  3. Very interesting. Not having read Maass’s book, I can’t remark on it, but I think the reason different ages have different types of characters that attract people is that we all share culture. Isn’t that his point when he speaks of the Hardy Boys and Horatio Alger and the other trends? So while I agree that we’ll stand out by being unique, we also need to be “like” enough for customers to buy us. There are common loves in generations.

    What I’m struggling with is being a fifty-something woman trying to reach a generation that is very different from mine. I can be me all over the page, but unless I put me into a snarky, detached character (or whatever the latest trend is), who’s going to read me?

  4. Sally, that’s a great point–there is often a cultural reason beyond fad that causes a generation to be drawn to certain heroes.

    About reaching a different generation, I think Maass would say it’s our emotions, not our circumstances that we need to put into our characters. So teens may chafe under authority, and we call upon our own emotion when we’ve felt helpless and powerless and hamstrung. We give that emotion to our characters and let it play out in their behavior as we have constructed them and their world.

    It’s this constructing them in their world that is key, I think. For example, children in the 50s were largely compliant on the outside, not encouraged to talk back to adults. Today, however, kids are celebrated for being honest in the expression of their angst and anger. I think we have to keep in mind the experiences and culture that shape teens today. I don’t think all the girls in our stories need to be Amazons, but I don’t think they can be Pollyanna either.

    Shannon Hale’s Palace of Stone, sequel to The Princess Academy, comes to mind. She wrote a character who was not brazen, aggressive, stubborn, feisty, temperamental, but neither was she a push-over. She was smart, independent, caring, determined. Not Pollyanna but not Katniss either. So in some ways she honored the current trends for aggressive female characters, but she definitely put her own spin by making her a product of a different world that had different expectations for girls.

    Much to think about here. We need to create characters with emotional vibrancy (which makes them unique) shaped by the world we put them in (which make them true to our story) and understandable to the generation to whom we are writing (which makes them engaging to today’s culture).


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