What makes a great character? The USA Network has used “character” as its marketing focus for the past few years, even using it to make advertising dollars by making their character of the week the Priceline Negotiator when William Shatner was guest starring as the father of Maggie Lawson’s character Juliet O’Hara on the TV series Psych. In genre fiction, especially in popular sci-fi vs serious science fiction, whether it is in TV or film or books, sometimes character gets swallowed up by setting. More than anywhere else, in science fiction or fantasy or mysteries you need a good balance between character and place, but if you don’t have characters that grow and change you probably have a weak story altogether.
So what makes a great character a favorite? Is it their job? Their passion? Something they did? Their reaction to their environment? Beyond what makes him or her, or it, great, what makes a character something you form a personal attachment to? How do you determine who your favorite characters are?
Maybe you’re drawn to favorite archetypes. A lot of what I watch on TV and in movies are detectives to some extent or another. Is there a more long-lived and admired character than Sherlock Holmes, for example? My favorite incarnation of all the film versions is the current Sherlock series on BBC starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. This is followed second closely by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law’s Sherlock Holmes movie series. But Holmes has been injected in other incarnations, too. Batman is Holmes in a cape with crime-fighting gadgets. Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House on House M.D. is Holmes as a modern genius of medicine. Psych‘s Shaun Spencer is Holmes as master sleuth posing as a psychic.
We like Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, and Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. Why? Are they really just modern versions of Frankenstein’s monster? Same for Robocop? These characters challenge what it is to be human. More than any other character in sci-fi, Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation sought out his humanity, but even he was a modern version of Pinocchio, a puppet trying to be a real boy, and Mr. Spock, who was part Vulcan, part human, had the same struggle discovering who he was. Maybe we just like them because, like the Fonz, they are just plain cool to us?
Characters all fall into the classic struggles, of one or more conflicts, of a struggle between man and himself, between man and other men, or between man and society. Is it that struggle that grabs our attention?
Popular characters get made into books, TV shows, movies, franchises. Like Batman, Superman, James Bond, Doctor Who, Jack Ryan, John McClane, Buffy Summers, Indiana Jones, Alice in Resident Evil, Lara Croft, Harry Potter, Hobbits. Other characters you might just get a glimpse of, but then you’re hooked and they become your favorites for life. Like Boba Fett, Tron, Yoda, Gimli, Johnny Fever, Chewbacca, Theoden King. And your favorite characters may not be humans or even human-like. Maybe they are animals, like Benji or Lassie. Or something not exactly human or animal, like Grover from Sesame Street, or Cookie Monster, Eeyore the long-eared donkey from Winnie the Pooh, Calvin (or Hobbes!) from Calvin and Hobbes, Ferdinand the Bull, E.T., Snoopy from Peanuts, Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Foghorn Leghorn, Scooby Doo. Some characters have the classic hero role, like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Dorothy Gale, Captain James T. Kirk, Scarlett O’Hara, Hiro Nakamura, Captain Kathryn Janeway, Ivanhoe, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, Snow White, Eowyn, Mace Windu. Some favorite characters serve as villains, often villains we love to hate, like Darth Vader, Maleficent, Sark, the Wicked Witch of the West, Colonel Nathan Jessup, Sauron, Commander Kruge, Willie Stark, the Joker, Lex Luthor, Khan, the Terminator, The Borg. Maybe they are hard to fit into any category, like Billy Pilgrim or John Casey.
What makes a character your favorite? As opposed to the question “Who is the greatest character in any genre work?” what is your “favorite” is purely subjective. Maybe there is little great to be said about your personal favorite. Maybe your favorite is a well-meaning screw-up like Al Bundy or Homer Simpson. Maybe it’s someone clueless, like Cher, Alicia Silverstone’s character in the movie Clueless. Maybe it’s someone who can’t get a break, like George Bailey or Joan Wilder or Clear in Final Destination 1 and 2. Maybe it’s someone as innocent as can be, like Buddy the Elf in the movie Elf, or purely good, like Santa Claus, or Fred Gailey, the lawyer who represented Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. Or maybe it’s people like Fred who protect and defend others, like Ben Stone or Archie Goodwin or Inigo Montoya or Jack McCoy or Thomas Magnum or Frozone or Robin Hood or Atticus Finch.
Who are our favorites? Starting tomorrow and for the next four days we’ll ask the borg.com writers to reveal their top five favorites from genre fiction, from any media, books, film, TV, or anything else with characters they can come up with.
Check out the Editor’s picks here.
Check out Art Schmidt’s picks here.
Check out Jason McClain’s picks here.
Check out Elizabeth C. Bunce’s picks here.