What on earth are “happy” characters?
We all know what an “unhappy” character is. They’re the street rat who’s turned to thievery for survival, the high-flying businessman with a tragic past, the orphaned boy living in a closet under the stairs. They’re the insecure ones, the ones with unhealthy habits, stuck in terrible situations, or miserable with their lot in life. Most main characters are unhappy in some significant way. That’s what makes it a good story, right?
“Happy” characters aren’t quite so easy to define, and they’re definitely less common. When they do pop up in stories they’re usually supporting characters rather than the MC, so we don’t get to spend as much time in their head or looking through their eyes. What does, and does not, constitute a “happy” character may also be a matter of opinion, but I have outlined my view on the situation below.
Happy characters ARE:
Friendly, empathetic and likeable, regardless of whether they are introverted or extroverted or somewhere in between
Well-adjusted, self-aware and capable of adapting to different situations without having an enormous meltdown
Good at what they do, or else are accepting of their faults and flaws and work to rectify those they can
Have a peaceful and happy past, or have come to terms with and worked through any issues resulting from past trauma
Ultimately “happy on the inside”…which usually translates to also being “happy on the outside”
Happy characters ARE NOT:
Happy ALL of the time (at least, not necessarily), because happy is an emotion and not a personality
Lonely, neglected, or feel that something significant and/or important is missing from their lives
Carrying massive grudges or vowing revenge after an actual or perceived slight (because “happy” characters have learned to let this stuff go)
Angsty about anything to the point it starts to have an impact on their life, especially in a negative way
Those that feign happiness but cry themselves to sleep at night (i.e. “happy on the outside” but not “happy on the inside”)
Why “happy” characters can be so hard to write
While editing my WIP fantasy novel Old Blood, I noticed something interesting—and perhaps not really that surprising—about a character I consider to be “happy”. One of my MCs, Asa, is laid-back, always true to himself, and doesn’t agonise over things he can’t change. He’s fascinating and unique to me because I KNOW him in and out, but on the page his character comes across as…flat.
“Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”
The reality is, when it comes to stories, “happy” can be boring if it’s not handled carefully. Readers engage more with flawed characters facing a crisis than they do well-adjusted characters living perfect lives. And think about it: is a character who doesn’t question themselves, or make mistakes, or grapple with less-than-pleasant emotions while the world falls apart around them actually believable? Probably not.
But I don’t think that’s enough reason not to write “happy” characters. Why can’t your hero(ine) come from a loving family, have had a peaceful childhood, know who they are and what they want, and still provide an engaging vehicle through which to tell a story? The trick is finding a balance between that “happy” persona of your character and adding enough conflict that it makes things uncertain, and thus exciting!
How to make your “happy” characters more dynamic
For the last several weeks I’ve been brainstorming ways I can make Asa a more dynamic character, especially in the early part of the series before the stakes get ramped up. I don’t want to change who he is—he’s the counterbalance for the rest of my questionably-sane cast!—so I’ve had to think quite deeply about my options. The advantage of this is that I have come up with a few different ways to spice up “happy” characters, which are now listed below.
💎 Give them an obvious flaw
Remember, “happy” characters are comfortable in themselves, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be flawed. Maybe they’re shy, or have a funny laugh that draws all the wrong attention, or a disability which they won’t let get in their way! They can still be “happy” while being challenged every day.
😢 Know what makes them “sad”
Even the happiest of people have bad days, and no one is happy all the time. Determine what sorts of things will upset your character, what will get them down, what will make them curl up and cry. Then make sure it happens to them enough that readers remain invested in their story!
❌ Make a mistake
Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. Let your “happy” character make a mistake, or even several mistakes. Let them question themselves and everything they know, have them puzzle it out and learn a valuable lesson. They’ll only be stronger and wiser for it!
💔 Break their heart
Readers hate it when someone hurts the lovable, “happy” character—and that is an EXCELLENT thing. It will make them feel passionately about the story, so don’t be afraid to have a love interest break up with your character or a close friend betray them. The bigger the hurt, the better.
💣 Set them up to lose everything
Okay things are escalating a bit now, but the higher the stakes grow in your story, the greater the chance your “happy” character will lose out. It’s up to you whether their life actually will or won’t fall apart, but that doesn’t matter so long as the reader thinks it might!
💀 Lead them down a dark path
There’s nothing more compelling than taking your “happy” character on a walk on the dark side. The key here is determining the WHY and the HOW. Perhaps they’ve been deceived? Perhaps it’s for the greater good? Perhaps, after one of the above, they’ve forgotten the light? So many options…
Examples of “happy” characters done well
I thought I’d conclude this discussion with a few examples of characters I would classify as “happy” and have been written very well. Of course, this is a matter of opinion, so if you disagree be sure to let me know in the comments below! There may be a few *spoilers* in this section, so READ AT OWN RISK. You have been warned!
August was one of the first that came to mind when making my list of “happy” characters. She’s such a ball of sunshine; unafraid to be her quirky self, unintimidated by MC Beck’s constant rebuffs, and a loyal, supportive friend. But this is well balanced by a touch of naivete regarding Beck’s situation, and the utter devastation and heartbreak she experiences towards the end of the book. It keeps things real!
I unashamedly adore Seth, so I had to include him here 🙂 He is a key character in 3/5 books in the series and is selfless, calm, reasonable and wise. Sounds cringe-worthy, right? Wrong. Seth is put through the wringer throughout the series, and when his LI becomes an immortal faery queen he questions everything. But despite everything (torture, heartbreak, risk of death etc.), he doesn’t give up and manages to remain true to himself.
Peppy, peaceful, eternally happy country bumpkin Stevie Rae is a vampyre fledgling and best friend to the series’ MC, Zoey. She began as a borderline annoying character to me because she was so happy but then…well…she DIED. And was brought back as an evil vampyre who killed innocent people. This was pretty extreme, but it was a fascinating arc and a great example of a “happy” character turning temporarily dark and then having to redeem themselves!
I’ll preface this by saying that I haven’t read the books, but the movies will suffice, I think! As you (hopefully) know, Frodo begins the series as a happy young hobbit living a perfectly peaceful and content life when he is suddenly burdened with an evil Ring that has a mind of its own. His journey is utterly compelling because of his apparent innocence…it’s no coincidence the baby-faced Elijah Wood was cast to play him in the films BTW.
How would you define a “happy” character? Do you have any examples? What do you think is most important to remember when writing “happy” characters?