Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Charisma: Does Your Main Character Have the “It” Factor?

I went to see The Amazing Spiderman last weekend and I really enjoyed it. But why? I mean, I wasn’t expecting to. I already knew the story, had enjoyed the first two movies of the Sam Raimi interpretation so this reboot seemed unnecessary to me. The villain wasn’t especially scary or fascinating to me (a Lizard?? Really?), the special effects were on par with other superhero movies franchises, and the script was just okay (with more than a few moments where belief had to be suspended (genius Peter Parker using Bing as a search engine one of the funnier, minor examples). So, then, what sold this movie for me? Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Peter Parker. He put the ‘amazing’ in The Amazing Spiderman.

Now, I was a big fan of the first two Spiderman movies (let’s forget the third ever happened) and I thought Toby Maguire did a great job. Until I saw what Andrew Garfield did with the angsty teen character of Peter Parker. He imbued Peter with such emotion, sweetness, and anger I completely forgot about the earlier movie version. It was a pleasure to see an actor so accomplished and still so young (and, yes, the scenes between him and Emma Stone are filled with chemistry). It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it was but the best word I can use to describe his performance is ‘charismatic’. And it got me wondering about the main character in my current WIP, Jake, and thinking what I can do as a writer to make sure he is as charismatic as possible.

Webster’s dictionary defines charisma as “a special magnetic charm or appeal”. This doesn’t mean every main character in every story has to have this magnetic factor but I argue that your main character should definitely have a special ‘appeal’. Every character who is the star of the show/story needs to be able to have that special something in order to draw people in to them and their problems. Even mean or nasty main characters need that charm. Scarlett O’Hara is a vain, selfish, sometimes mean main character but she has that ‘it’ factor, that charm, that something in the way she sounds that makes her compelling to the reader. Hannibal Lecter is the most disgusting killer yet he is fascinating to the reader because his intelligence, his wit, draws people in like a beautiful, yet deadly, Hemlock flower.

So, then, what are the keys to charisma? Well, if it were as simple to define as all that, everyone would be charismatic and it wouldn’t be ‘special’ would it? But here are some things that make a main character charismatic to me. Others may disagree but charisma is very dependent on the connection between the character who has ‘it’ and the reader who is reading ‘it’. So while these factors may do it for me, they may not do it for you.

  1. Shows Emotion
Like Andrew Garfield’s tearful response when he comes in battered and bruised and his Aunt May embraces him, a character must be able at some point to show his pain, happiness, anger, so the reader can feel what he is feeling. So the reader can sympathize with him. So it shows that your character is not a robot. Don’t be afraid to have your main character laugh or cry.

  1. Shows Humour
Like Spiderman’s snarky jokes to those trying to capture him, a sense of humour shows a characters wit/intelligence. The ability to make a reader/viewer laugh draws someone to a character. I bet comedians have a lot of friends!

  1. Shows Vulnerability
Andrew Garfield perfectly captured the loneliness of Peter Parker’s orphaned, friendless self. His yearning for Gwen Stacy and his wonder at realizing she likes him makes him sweet and creates viewers sympathy and their wanting to protect and help him. Your main character needs vulnerability to draw the reader in. Make sure he isn’t Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Nobody can sympathize with perfection.

  1. Shows Strength of Character
I’m not talking physical strength here but rather the ability to make difficult choices when the world is going one way and your character needs to go another way. Peter Parker eventually chooses to use his powers for good and not selfish reasons. He can walk away from helping others since he gets no reward and more anguish/pain than most but he chooses the right path. Even if your main character makes mistakes, eventually, his strength of character – his ability to make the right choice despite the difficulty of it – that creates a special charisma and appeal for the reader. After all, don’t we wish we all had the strength of character to always do the right thing?

Well, I could probably come up with a few more, but for me, those are the ‘it’ factors for a main character. So, tell me, does your main character have ‘it’?


  1. These^ are all wonderful characteristics, Nelsa. I don't know if they relate directly to charisma. I often think of charisma as a sort of extra awareness on the part of the character. But if I had a concise way of putting it into words, the mysterious hold it has may dissipate.

    1. Hey, Mirka! I understand what you mean. Charisma is hard to define, certainly. But, for me, whenever I think of charismatic people these are the qualities that I see in them. Oh! And one more - shows passion. That's a biggie for me.