How to craft a best selling character

In my previous post, we looked at a number of factors which contribute to becoming a seriously bestselling (100 million copies +) author. Several relate to chance – being born in the right place, at the right time – while others relate more to what you write (genre) and importantly, how much.

But there is one more writing-related factor I didn’t mention: character.

Of the 67 authors on our list, fourteen (>20%) had a famous character listed alongside their entry. Drilling down into their individual bibliographies, we see that more than half (53%) wrote series named after a main character.

Of course, there are some series which maintain the same protagonist throughout, but are known by other names. The Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey series mentioned in my previous posts are key examples. I would hazard a bet that few readers bought the second and third books in these trilogies because they couldn’t wait to see the bold new steps Bella Swan or Anastasia Steele were making in their independent journeys of individual enrichment. These series are known by the titles of their first books, not at the Bella Swan series or Ana Steel series, because readers want to read more about the relationship these books focus on, not the adventures of their female leads, independent of their male interests. It is telling the first book in the Fifty Shades series is actually named after Grey, not Steele. And that the female protagonists of these books have been criticized as being flat, one-dimensional and bland – characteristics we might consider features rather than bugs, if we view these characters as placeholders or stand-in proxies for the reader.

Contrast these series to Ian Flemming’s James Bond or even J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. A reader who picks up a James Bond or Harry Potter book or movie does so because they want to know what adventures the main character gets up to next. They are not disappointed at all when the character has a new love interest.

Characters like James Bond or Harry Potter are more important than their authors: Flemming is responsible for writing just 14 of the 48 books in the main James Bond series, to say nothing of the Young Bond and Moneypenny Diaries spinoffs also penned in the “post Flemming” era. Google Trends reveal that the general public is, on average, at least 10-15 times more interested in James Bond than in Ian Flemming, and at times (e.g. when a new film is released), more than 100 times interested in James Bond.

More extremely, the Harry Potter series continues to enjoy success in spite of its author’s controversial comments. Search for Harry Potter on YouTube, and you’ll find a bunch of videos in which fans react to film trailers or create puppet shows, impressions, ambient Hogwarts playlists, or their own theories about what happened next. Search for Rowling on the same platform, and you’ll find a bunch of videos in which fans grapple with the question of separating an author from their work, and ask whether they can continue to enjoy books by an author who has made exclusionary and inflammatory statements about trans women.

While the controversy may be relatively new (Rowling’s comments on these matters all being made after she had penned the main series), it appears that just as the public is more interested in Bond than Flemming, audiences have been more interested in Potter than Rowling for some time, judging by Google searches. That is, once again, people don’t buy Harry Potter books because they have Rowling’s name on the cover (in fact, some may now avoid them for this reason): people buy Harry Potter books because they have Harry Potter’s name on the cover.

So, what does it take to write a seriously bestselling character?

One answer is to make them male

Of the thirty-five authors who wrote series named after their main characters, more than two-thirds (23) wrote only about male protagonists. Just one (Jackie Collins) wrote a series named after a female character, Madison Castelli. The remaining twelve authors to write character-based series wrote a mixture of male and female characters (either male-female duos, or wrote several series, with at least one female character-led series among predominantly male series). I didn’t find any gender-diverse characters who had such roaring success in a series protagonist role.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority (83%) of the authors who wrote male-only series themselves identify as male. All three females in this category – J K Rowling, Beatrix Potter, and Enid Blyton – are children’s authors. It is worth noting, however, that both Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton wrote a large number of stories about female protagonists, too – including many series with mixed gender groups, as well as stories set at all girls’ schools in the case of Blyton. Audiences simply reacted more favorably to their male characters.

By contrast, precisely half of the super bestselling authors who have written series featuring both male and female characters were female, and half male. While this may sound representative, recall that two-thirds of all of the super bestselling authors are male. In other words, men are dramatically over-represented in writing male main characters, and dramatically underrepresented in writing both. No men on this list wrote predominantly about female characters.

Even when authors show some commitment to the inclusion of women, it is frequently secondary in nature – whether because of personal preference or audience reception. Agatha Christie wrote two famous series, one with a male protagonist (Poirot) and one with a female (Miss Marple), but she wrote far more books starring Poirot. David Baldacci, Robin Cook, Janet Dailey and Nicholas Sparks (notably also a romance writer) all wrote series which featured both a male and female protagonist (the female always listed second). Mary Higgins Clark and Lewis Carol also wrote series with a male and a female lead, but with the female listed first. Dean Koontz has three series under his belt named after main characters, the third of which is a female, and Catherine Cookson wrote four series named after main characters, the fourth of which was a male. Carter Brown wrote fifteen series named after characters, only one of whom was female. Eleanor Alice Burford, however, wrote a number of series named after female protagonists, primarily because she wrote historical fiction about queens and other royalty.

Of the 22 female authors on the list, fewer than half (just 10) wrote series named after a protagonist. Of the 44 males, almost two thirds (25) wrote series named after a protagonist.

Does this mean that writing a series focused on a kick-ass main character is the best ticket to becoming a bestselling author?

(And if so – why don’t more female writers do so?)

In short, it comes down to the kind of book you are writing.

More than half (60%) of the female authors on this list wrote predominantly romance books. The male authors were far more likely to have found success in thrillers, adventure novels, and crime.

Jackie Collin’s Madison Castelli character is a notable example. While Collins predominantly wrote romance, Castelli is a journalist working for Manhattan Style who solves murder mysteries.

Nobody minds when a single detective solves a new crime in each book. But, barring certain erotic subgenres, the genre of romance places a limit on the story arc for heroines. It’s difficult to imagine a series featuring a single girl who falls in love with a new man in each book. And not just because of traditionally puritan images of women. Rather, for readers to maintain a belief in “happily ever after”, the main character needs to settle down.

The goal of the protagonist in a mystery or thriller or adventure novel is a process – to make incremental change, to rid the world of evil, one baddie at a time. The goal of a protagonist in a romance is binary – with a success condition of finding “the one”.

While there are a few romance series which feature the same couple the whole way through, they are inevitably short-lived. Again, this is due to the constraints of the genre: romance novels are defined not by their inclusion of romance – many novels include romantic elements, including detective novels and thrillers. (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is an example of a series which combines detective and romance elements). Rather, romance novels have a couple’s relationship as their main plot.

The tension and drama of a romance novel comes primarily from tension and drama in the relationship: will they/won’t they? Other tension and drama may be tacked on – work issues, fights with friends, family troubles, even the more extremes like assassination attempts and kidnappings and corporate espionage – but these will always feel like sub-plots to the romance reader.

In much the same way that the female protagonist cannot have a new “love of her life” in every book, a couple cannot have continual drama and tension in their relationship and still fit the model of the “perfect couple”. Some drama is good, but too much is too much – in marked contrast to the detective novel, where each dastardly bad guy can be more scheming and wicked than the last.

None of this means that is impossible to write a successful romance series. Indeed, many of the super bestselling authors have done just that. These authors have an ingenious work-around: focusing on families, rather than single protagonists. Nora Roberts and Debbie Marcomber, for example, tend to write about sisters, who each find the love of their lives in turn. Catherine Cookson’s Kate Hannigan series (just two books) features a mother and her daughter. Not only does focusing on family permit these authors to write books set in the “universe” they have already developed, but family is often a central theme in romance novels – both as a goal, and as a source of tension.

Book Riot’s post on the longest series by genre is instructive: The longest mystery and thriller series is given as The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sparr. This 152-book series features a truly kick-ass character, police officer Remo Williams, “trained extensively in almost anything you can imagine, from wide-ranging firearms to Sinanju fighting techniques and much more”.

The longest romance series with 53 novels, is listed as Diana Palmer’s Long, Tall Texans. Note how, just like Fifty Shades of Grey, it is the male objects of desire being focused on in the title, rather than the female protagonist, and with good reason – Long, Tall Texans isn’t about a single woman, or even a single family of women, but about an entire town full of women who “wrangle up the town’s sexy cowboys one by one”.

Rather than an indication that you can’t succeed without a butt-kicking character with fifty titles to their name, I think this factor is a variation on the “write a lot” advice from the previous post. Write a lot, and write about characters that readers want to read about.

So, other than the fact that the typical character is male (70 vs 20), what else do we know about them?

Best-selling characters have bland names

Three of the 70 male characters – or close to 5% – were named “Mike”. Not Michael. Mike, as in Mike Farrell, Mike Tucker, and Mike Hammer.

Mike” (and Michael) peaked in popularity in the 1950s and 60s, but remain popular names – Michael is currently #80 on the lists of names parents are considering on babynames.com, and even more parents actually choose this name for their child – it’s #17 in the US at present. (As an aside, the fact that Mike came out on top struck me as enormously apt, given that I am currently writing a novel featuring a deliberately generic character called Mike J. Guy).

John” (as in John Mouse and John Puller) appears twice in the list of characters, along with Jack Stapleton (Jack being a nickname for John). Jack is even more popular than Michael at present – at #32 on the list of popular names, and #11 for actual births in the US.

James” appeared as both a first name and surname. “Andy” (not Andrew) as in Andy Kane and Andy Brazil, and “Harry (as in Harry Potter and Harry Clifton) were also popular.

For female characters, Kate and Katie (both diminutive forms of Katherine) appeared in the list. All three are in the top 1000 names in the US at present.

Authors sometimes choose names because of their meaning – even if that meaning isn’t always obvious to readers. Notably, Katherine means “pure”, a fitting name for a romance heroine, while Andy means “manly”, and Harry means “army ruler”. Both Michael and John are names relating to God.

As far as surnames go, surprisingly, two characters had the surname Hammer – Judy Hammer and Mike Hammer, both characters involved in thriller/detective type stories.

The most popular first initial was A (12%), and the most popular second initial was M (11%) (around three to four times more often than we would expect these letters to appear if all letters were equally likely). And it seems it’s not just comic book heroes who have alliterative names: 7% of the characters in this list had the same first and last initial (a combination which would be astronomically unlikely if left to chance alone). The initials HP (Harry Potter, Hippo Potto, and Hercule Poirot) are shared by three successful characters.

Does this mean you should name your character Andy Mike, or John James, or perhaps Harry Poirot?

I doubt it. Once again, when these books were written has likely had a significant impact. The popularity of names comes and goes in cycles. But authors writing in the 50s and 60s didn’t need to worry about SEO and the “googlability” of their character names. It may well be that some more unique names enter this list in future years. As well as some more diverse names.

Not only are the authors on this list relatively undiverse, but their characters are too. Just as male authors tend to prefer writing about male characters (and their male audiences tend to prefer reading about male characters), white American authors and readers tend to prefer writing and reading about white American characters.

The names on this list are not just a reflection of names that are common in general, but a reflection of names that are common to a certain segment of the population.

Again, rather than an indication that names must follow a particular pattern, I think the takeaway message here is to ensure that character names are memorable and searchable. Unique is can be good, and can aid memorability, but a unique name works best when it tells us something about a character’s background, rather than simply being unusual for the sake of uniqueness. By all means, choose diverse names that give insight into a character’s background and upbringing, or their identity today (if they have changed their name or taken on a nickname), but try to stick to names that are easy to spell and pronounce if you want your character to be famous. It is no coincidence that all of the most popular names have just 4-5 letters.

Best-selling characters have bland appearances

Narrowing our focus to just those characters who were famous enough to be listed next to the author name on the original list, we see an interesting pattern. Most have, unsurprisingly, been featured on film or television, and, excluding the cartoon animals, all bar one (Alex Cross) have been portrayed by dark-haired white men.

All are depicted as wearing a jacket and (with the exception of Jason Bourne) a collared shirt, almost always with a tie (a bow tie in the case of James Bond).

It is hard to conceive of a more bland-looking crew. These characters’ outfits tell us very little about their personalities. If Harry Potter weren’t shown holding his wand, or James Bond his gun, you might think they were just a private school kid and a waiter respectively. Despite his epic name, Nero Wolfe looks more like an investment banker than an eccentric detective. Perry Mason and Mike Hammer, were it not for their hats, would appear as any businessman on the street.

Clearly, it is not their costumes which distinguish best-selling characters from the pack.

So, does this mean you should give your character a suit and a boring haircut?

Absolutely not.

Just as the heroines of romance novels are often written as blandly as possible to permit the reader to insert themselves into the story, this, too, may be a feature rather than a bug. The key difference, however, is that thriller and detective readers are being invited to imagine themselves as possessing all of the incredible skills and personal strengths of the protagonist – whereas the romance reader is generally invited only to imagine themselves as the object of the male lead’s affections. The female character often has neither amazing skills nor looks, the intention being to avoid anything which would prevent the reader from identifying herself as the main character.

The fact that the characters on this list all have boring appearances is likely a result of the fact that the author didn’t even bother to describe them much, if at all, in their novels. They were far too busy describing the character’s prowess at interpreting symbols, cracking cases, kicking butt, or their competence in some obscure martial art, to waste ink on giving us mundane details about their looks. And frequently, far more ink is spilled on showing us how the character perceives the appearances of others – especially grotesque bad guys and sexy ladies.

In my view, the lesson here is not to describe characters in a certain cookie-cutter way, but to focus more on the internal machinations and external behavioral quirks that make a person far more interesting than surface-level appearances can ever convey.

The lesson is that appearance is not important when it comes to the main character.

Character is.

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