I’ll wager that when you think of your favorite books the first thing that pops into mind are the characters. Whether they be good or evil, smart or stupid, strong or weak, they are interesting. Without people there is no story. And the more interesting the characters, the more interesting the story.
Think of the great characters in literature: Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Little Women’s Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, Alexander Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint, or Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises? The list is endless, isn’t it? What is your favorite book or books and who are your favorite characters?
People often buy certain books mostly because they love the characters. Two of my favorite characters are Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Lula. I admit this is not great literature, but it’s enough to bring me back again and again. In fact, if I find a Parker book that doesn’t have Hawk in it, I don’t buy it.
When I was writing Spies with Benefits, I surprised my readers by introducing a special cat as a significant character, Cixi. She’s very large, covered with long, bristling, snow white hair and flashes penetrating green eyes. The original Cixi was the Empress Dowager of China from 1861 until 1908. My co-protagonist Grace, (who is Chinese) treats this cat as though she is a reincarnation of Cixi―with intriguing results.
In The Shanahans, Mike’s Last Chance I introduced One-Pint Sullivan the alcoholic editor of Irish Sports, who opposes Mike’s involvement with the magazine. Throughout the story he is an irritant, until accidently he nearly kills himself.
In those cases we have very unusual characters who play significant roles in the narrative. Subsequently, readers of either novel have told me how much they enjoyed them.
Fascinating characters can overcome weak plots for the basic reason that people are inherently interesting. Does your character(s) capture the reader or repulse the reader? The more unusual the character the more unusual the story. Characters draw us into the story, because we have imagined or encountered some of the same experiences as they do.
If you’re thinking of writing a story, the key to good characterization is imagination. Don’t be bound by what others might say. You can aim for the empathetic aspect of the character, or you can go the opposite direction and make the character repulsive. Either way give the character, personality―oddity―individuality. In Cixi’s case what is more odd than a cat that is a reincarnation? No matter if your character is as evil as Hitler, smart as Einstein or good as Mother Teresa, just go for it. Readers want something surprising or unusual. Give it to them.