A GOOD CHARACTER DOESN'T JUST HAPPEN BY CHANCE. Building strong characters is a process and not always an easy one. A good character starts with a basic motivation: what does he or she want, and how does he or she plan to get it? Along with specific physical traits, strong characters will also have emotional ones based on their lot in life, their past experiences, and deeper desires and motivations that aren’t directly pertinent to the story. For me, the most interesting characters – protagonists, in particular – are the conflicted ones. They’re a mix of admirable and not so admirable traits. They show strengths and, at times, weaknesses, but they manage to survive and grow, even when the end is not what they hope for. There’s a lot of confusion out there among beginning writers about what makes a strong protagonist. From some of the published work I’ve seen, there are also experienced writers who don’t recognize shallow, or Mary Sue characters, when they should.
What is a Mary Sue character?
The original term came from a Star Trek parody written by Paula Smith in 1973, where her Mary Sue, a fifteen year-old lieutenant, was the brightest and most talented member of the crew. The term has since evolved to mean any character who is good, bright, and perky, who does everything exceedingly well, and who has no apparent faults. She (or he – there are male Mary Sue versions) faces difficulty with courage, intelligence, integrity, and strength. If you want to read a more in-depth description of a Mary Sue, read this Wikipedia post: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue
Forgive me, if I revert to personal experience. In the process of going through the many, many revisions of my first novel, The Tattooed Witch, I had to deal with a Mary Sue problem. The biggest problem was, I didn’t think I had a problem. My protagonist, Miriam Medina, was good and she had to cope with a major issue – how to save herself and her father from the Spanish Inquisition. My agent encouraged me to develop her further. She asked me: what does Miriam really want? I had to sit back and really think about this question.
Overall, she wanted to survive. She didn’t want to be victimized. But what else?
Many writers never get past answering this question. I finally realized Miriam wanted more from life than dealing with what her immediate dangers were. I had to decide what her desires were, outside and above what she was handling at the moment. I had to think about her past, about her experiences with her peers, with the opposite sex. I had to write in some negative traits. I finally discovered that what really fueled her was her desire for importance and relevance, which, in a darker incarnation, translated into pride. When she didn’t get what she wanted, she reacted with anger. The more I thought about Miriam, the more I realized that for her, anger was a prime motivator. Also, rejection. Her quickness to judge and condemn wasn’t one of her nicest traits, but one that many of us share. In spite of the negatives, I still like her. She’s smart, beautiful (although she sees her physical appearance as a detriment), she's a fighter. In the story, she is victimized, but she refuses to remain a victim.
If you want to create a solid character, mix some weaknesses in with their strengths. Make them fallible, relatable, and human.