What draws you to a character?

It’s 10.30pm here in the UK so it’s Sam and not Holly posting now. But, like Holly last week, I have a question for all you lovely readers:

What draws you to a character?

I ask this because I am in week 5 of my Writing for Children module, which is part of my MA in Children’s Literature. The study materials ask us first of all to think of a children’s character that we are drawn to, either because we admire them or because they have qualities that intrigue us. We don’t have to like them – they just have to engage so that we want to read about them throughout the entirety of a book. What is it about their personality and their progress through the story that keeps us hooked?

The first character that sprung to my mind was the wonderful Matilda from the book of the same name by Roald Dahl. She is one of my literary heroines (the other being the fantastically eccentric and powerful Pippi Longstocking) because she overcomes the worst possible start in life and redraws her own destiny.

image courtesy of reddit.com, showing Matilda doing what she loves best. Illustrated by Quentin Blake

Born into a family that is as alien to her as, well, a family of aliens, Matilda becomes the saddest possible orphan – she has a family, but one that will not accept her and in fact openly reject her. However, she’s not a weepy victim. As soon as she is able, she’s off to the library to read the work of Dickens, she tries to disobey the family tradition of eating TV dinners in front of the telly and, when her conman father really gets her goat, she turns his hair a hideous peroxide blonde and then superglues his hat to his head. The comedy in these actions prevents the book from descending into tragedy and makes Matilda a more rounded character – as well as being a person who prizes justice and free thought, she also has a very healthy appetite (and talent!) for revenge.

These acts of defiance help Matilda to be more attractive (in my opinion) to the child reader, who roots for her because they see that she will not stand for being disempowered. After all, it would make for very boring and frustrating reading if she just whimpered in a corner and waited to be rescued like some well-known princesses, whose names I shall not mention. Instead, she manages to get herself enrolled in the local school, where she comes upon another tyrant to be overcome – the hideous Miss Trunchbull – through the use of paranormal/supernatural powers.


image courtesy of youtube.com, from the film Matilda, featuring the fantastic Pam Ferris


At school Matilda also meets the person who will eventually become her true family – the kind but downtrodden Miss Honey. Interestingly, Miss Honey symbolizes the child Matilda could have been had she not rebelled against her parents, and it is Matilda who helps her break free from her life of misery. By the end of the book Matilda has not just saved herself but also her future ‘foster’ parent and created the life she knows she deserves for herself.

In short, Matilda is my character of choice because she:

  • is true to herself, despite what others (mainly her natural family) would prefer her to be
  • follows her dreams, whether this means walking to the library on her own as a toddler or persuading her parents to let Miss Honey adopt her
  • has a strong sense of justice and will always fight for the underdog
  • fearlessly will stand up to bullies (most of whom are adults!)
  • breaks the rules when necessary
  • invents some truly fantastic revenge ideas!

But that’s enough about my character of choice from children’s literature. Who would you pick as a fantastic protagonist and why?




  1. I’ve been thinking about this too recently as I read a book with a character who on the surface was very annoying, but actually because he was a complex character – not one who was only annoying, but also clever and thoughtful – I really like him. He made the book! (Which was very good – do read it: An Rutgers van der Loeff’s Avalanche). So… it made me realise that a good character isn’t necessarily a nice one, one I’d aspire to be like, or like to know personally (which perhaps Matilda is).


    • I think Zoe’s got it bang on: it’s the complexity of a character that’s important. So that each reader finds a) a little of him/herself in there and b) finds something they find sympathetic – even in a character who seems horrid or simply annoying on the surface.

      On the other hand I don’t have patience with characters who seem to be completely horrid and then at the end it turns out they’ve been horrid at great personal cost so as to save some friend or relative from pain or danger or whatever (I’m sure we can all come up with an instance of that!). That (in my book) is as bad as ending a story with “and then I woke up and discovered it had all been a dream” …


      • Thank you Judi for commenting. It’s such an interesting dynamic, the relationship between the author and their (real and implied) reader. The material I read yesterday said that children (and everyone) need to be able to see themselves in a character and argued that in Harry Potter, for example, Harry is the most unremarkable of the trio of friends. This apparently is essential as they are then a blank canvas upon which a reader can project themself. Holly disagreed with this – she thinks Harry is very special indeed, but I think I can see the point!

        I agree with you that dislikeable characters cannot really be redeemed by a final selfless act. It plays around with reader expectations too much and feels like you have been deceived by the author.


    • Thanks for your reply, Zoe. Even though I can’t think of such a character in the books I have read off the top of my head, I know exactly what you mean about characters gradually earning respect and interest and not having to be immensely likeable. Thank you also for the recommendation – I shall check out amazon now!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.