24 September, 2010

How To Create Compelling Characters

This is a post I wrote about (as is obvious in the title) How To Write Compelling Characters as part of Elana Johnson, Alex Cavanaugh, and Jennifer Daiker's Great Blogging Experiment.

There is a lot more than the following information if you really want to cross-section the process of creating compelling characters, but that would mean an incredibly long post and lots of text. Therefore, I've narrowed it down to what I think are the most important things you should (and should not) do to create compelling characters.

What Is the Conflict?

What sort of conflict is the character going through? What sort of challenges face him/her? Strife is a good way of making the reader bond with the character, to feel something for the events that happen to your character. It can be physical, it can be psychological, it can be any sort of conflict, but there has to be some sort of predicament that the character has to face. If nothing is happening there's really no reason for the reader to stick around--the reader isn't compelled to find out what happens.

I would like to mention here a good example of this sort of thing: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. Some people said that it was slow and dull, while others adored it. I'm in the "adored" category, because there is conflict in the start of the book. Finn is about to get run over, and afterwards the world in which he lives is revealed; the place is violent politically and is a dangerous world to exist in. It throws you straight into the action and into the lives of the people and there isn't any dilly-dallying over insignificant details.

Every Person Wants Something

It's true. Almost all of us want something out of life, whether it's freedom, true love, liberation, self-discovery, or any such thing as that. What does your character want? Make the reader discover it--but there are different ways of doing that. It can be said in the first chapter with a statement made by the character. Or you can draw out the moment that the reader learns the full scope of his/her desires through a sequence of events or by conversation with another character.

Make the want real. Make it realistic and believable. For example, if there's a man living in Chicago who has a desk job and pores over documents for a living, a realistic desire would be moving away and getting a better job doing something he enjoys. If your character is, say, the President of some country, (I actually do have a character who is the President of a planet) a believable want would be the health and prosperity of his/her people or achieving political goals.


Everyone has their secrets. It's true. I know you do. You might say that one character has this want/need--but, underneath it all, does he/she really believe that's what they want? Withdraw from the character's thoughts for a moment and focus on their external appearances. A person's actions and body language can say a whole lot more than their words can. Do they shift here when someone mentions such-and-such? Do they cough or close their eyes when that person brings up a certain subject? What's really behind his/her attitude should be revealed to the reader and/or to the other characters around them in twists and turns of the plot.

Don't Overuse Ideas

There are a lot of characters out there that are built on the same idea, especially in series. Characters that, while in a different setting, have similar attitudes toward their experiences and follow the same paths as so many other characters before them. Therefore, one major thing you shouldn't do is repeat what others have already repeated. Be original! Take the initiative and build a new, different world with original characters. Keeping things fresh will draw the reader in and keep the interest, whereas if the plot and/or the characters resembles something else, there goes one of the major draws since the reader will be able to guess what's going to happen.

What's the Point?

What is the point of your main character(s)? Are they another facet to a bigger picture, and they're there to show different personalities? Do they add something to the diversity of the setting that your story takes place in? Do they affect others around them in significant ways? Do they have something that makes them stand out and make the reader actually feel something for the character? Love? Hate? Disgust? Adulation?

The character should say "Pay attention!" in some way. Whether it be to make the reader experience what the character is experiencing, to make the reader understand something, to get a point across, or to simply present the world and its different perspectives, you need to make sure that the particular character has a point to their existence. The role they play (for it to be worthwhile to read and write about) has to be influential enough on either the reader or the other character.

To me, those points are the main reasons I find a character compelling. Let's condense:

1. Your character must be going through some sort of significant conflict.
2. The character must want something. Money. Power. Freedom. Love. Security. Even (although this case has been a little overused in my opinion) normalcy. Something that relates to their situation believably.
3. 3-Dimensionality AKA what your character(s) is/are hiding.
4. Be original. Don't emulate, copy, or repeat.
5. Make sure that the character has a purpose in the grand scheme of things.

There you have it! Do you have anything to add? Comment on? Disagree with? Did you write your own post for this Blogging Experiment?

-----The Golden Eagle


Jessica Carmen Bell said...

Yes! 3-Dimensionality! You are the first person who has used that word. Great post! And thanks for dropping by mine :o)

Hannah said...

Great tips! You've gotten me into the writing mood now :)

Renae said...

Great tips. I love a good conflict for characters. And I think the word 3-dimensionality is genius!

Christine Fonseca said...

My fav on this...whats the point! Great post.

Jen said...

Great tips! I love how you broke them all done into main categories. Conflict is huge along with 3-Dimnesions, great job! Thanks for joining us!

Emily White said...

Hmmm...very good points. Great post!

Darlyn said...

Great tips and post!It really give a little help here =)

Michelle McLean said...

Wonderful list!

Cruella Collett said...

Excellent points here - I think if everyone would just follow that list, we'd have nothing but interesting characters out there ;)

iZombie said...

Solid Advice... great post!

Talei said...

Sounds advice! I love your #4 Orginality, that for me is compelling. Its quite elusive these days.

Lola Sharp said...

Dimension and depth...layers. Well done.

I'm new here (found you from the blogfest). Nice to meet you. :)


arlee bird said...

Nice analysis of creating a compelling character. I think the most important thing for one who reads at great deal is to find a story with very fresh and original characters. It's pretty bad when you start reading a book and think, "have I read this before?" I don't want a story that is delivered by rote and is trite and predictable. That's not what I read for.

Good post.

Tossing It Out

laughingwolf said...

all tips are bang on! :)

Shallee said...

Great post! Conflict and want are two absolute musts!

laughingwolf said...

btw - i'm sure you don't mean: "a man living in Chicago who has a desk job and pours over documents for a living..."

what does he 'pour over' those documents, gravy?

he actually 'pores over' them...

Tere Kirkland said...

Everyone wants something... so true. I'm constantly thinking about motivation!

Great post.


arlee bird said...

laughingwolf--- Nobody ever edits my posts for me and I've requested it. How about you start reading my posts and correcting my errors? I know I make a lot of them. I need a good editor!

Tossing It Out

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I like your last point about the character's purpose. While a "fish out of water" character may be interesting, he/she has to have a purpose in both the setting and the story.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Golden, nice to meet you and I'm so glad you were adopted and live here in the US. I think you will be a great writer some day. Scratch that, you already are a great writer.
Yes, I am a part of this experiment too. Now I'm your friend as well.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Elana Johnson said...

You nailed it. Wants, secrets, backstories. Most excellent stuff here.

Lisa Potts said...

Love how you described 3-Dimensionality of a character. Great post.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Yay!! I get to be your 100th follower! :-)

"What's the point?" That is exactly right. Love it. Great post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wow, you have some great points - the conflict, the desire, the bigger picture. One of the best posts I've read today!

melissa said...

great summary. I forgot about conflict. A good conflict can shape a character and keep people interested in how they'll react.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wonderful, well thought out post! I love how you broke it down into mini lessons. :)

Have a wonderful weekend!!!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great post. 3-Dimensionality is key (and an awesome word too).

Summer Ross said...

I think you picked some great points to ponder on. Being original gets harder and harder, but honestly its the same as the world being full of people and each person is different there for your own characters should have their unique qualities even if they do fall in the realm of ordinary for the genre.

The Golden Eagle said...

Jessica: Surprisingly, it's in my browser's dictionary. I love the word, anyway. :)

Hannah: Well, that's good!

Renae: I enjoy conflict, too.

Christine: I found that to be one of the more important things I looked for in a book. :)

Jen: I like breaking things down into categories, LOL. I'm just a neat freak like that . . . :P This is so much fun! I'm glad I joined up.

Emily: Thank you!

Darlyn: Glad to be helpful.

Michelle: Thanks!

Cruella: That would be really nice! Imagine: nothing but compelling characters in the literary world. But I suppose us readers might get a case of over-compelling. :P

iZombie: :)

Talei: I know! It's so hard to find originality these days.

Lola: I find those very important aspects. Welcome to my blog!

Lee: I sometimes think that, actually. Especially with some literature--drives me nuts sometimes.

Laughingwolf: Coffee, perhaps?

Thank you for pointing that out! I'll go fix it . . .

Shallee: Exactly!

Tere: Me, too. I'm usually thinking about what's motivating my characters when I'm writing out scenes.

Sandra: I agree. There has to be some purpose to the character, no matter how intriguing that person may seem.

N.R. Williams: I'm happy to be living in the US! :) Thanks for becoming my friend, too.

Elana: Glad you think so!

Lisa: I tried to describe it the best way I could--secrets can play a big part.

Shannon: Thank you for following!

Alex: I tried to cover as much as possible without making it too long!

Melissa: That's what I think, too.

Sharon: Well, I hope it turns out useful! I hope you have a great weekend as well!

Nicole Zoltack: LOL. I'm beginning to love that word now . . .

For those of you who followed me:

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I can't believe I have over 100 now!

The Golden Eagle said...

Summer Ross: I missed you at the end! Sorry. :P But you're absolutely right about being original!

Elena Solodow said...

Very good points. I agree whole-heartedly about the "purpose" part of it. You need to be writing the story for a reason, and that reason is going to lie in your main character and whatever their path is.

I just posted my entry, check it out!

Jen Chandler said...

This post is fabulous! Very nice to "meet" you via this bloggy experiment!

I love "what's the point?". Excellent question to keep in mind.


Danyelle said...

Very nice point about everyone wanting something. So true! And without a good interaction between the character and the conflict, the story and characters definitely fall flat.

The Golden Eagle said...

Elena: Reason IS important! And I'll be sure to check out your post. :)

Jen: Nice to meet you too! Thanks for following!

Danyelle: There are so many flat and dull characters out there! You're right that there isn't enough interaction.

Pam Torres said...

Very thorough! Nice breakdown of all the important aspects of characterization.

Becca and Zippy said...

You kinda touched on this, but something that helps me to write and read is to have a mental image to focus on. I find it hard to connect with the character if I'm busy picturing how they look.

-Becca c(-8

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Great ideas. I especially liked the question, "What is the point?"

Elaine AM Smith said...

Your condensed version summed up the compelling characters very neatly. Good job! I will come back to consider each, fully.

RaShelle said...

Thanks for your take on this. It's true, we all want something. It's good to let the reader know what each character wants.

Clarissa Draper said...

I can't believe how many wonderful things I'm learning from this blogfest and your post is extremely well written.


Anonymous said...

Very comprehensive post on what goes into making a compelling character. I love the summary at the end: Conflict, want, 3D, original, purpose! Thank you!

Laura Pauling said...

I agree! And everything should have a point!

Melissa said...

Great tips. The smaller categories really made this a quick and easy read - good because I've already read 100 of these and you are making it easier on me.

Thank you for reminding everyone about originality. It is so important and I think sometimes, we forget about it.

Margo Berendsen said...

"What is the point?" This is a different way of looking at characters, and it really got me thinking. Great post & love the golden eagle pics!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Wow! I'm pretty impressed. Thanks for sharing your secrets!

Come and visit me!

Lynda Young said...

Yes every character needs a purpose

Len said...

You have raised very good points, Golden Eagle! Yes, conflict! And it's true 'every person wants something!' Great tips! :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Pam: I tried to be fairly thorough with this--I didn't want to leave anything really important out!

Becca and Zippy: Me, too! If I'm thinking about their hair, their eyes, their skin color it's like my energy goes into that and not their personality.

Jennifer: Hopefully you'll find it useful! :)

Elaine: I'd be glad if you did!

RaShelle: Agreed. If the reader doesn't know what a character wants, it's usually confusing and a little exasperating; unless, of course, having a shady motive is part of the plot. But that's a rare case.

Clarissa: I've been learning a whole slew of things too! There's just so much out there.

Paulgreci: You're welcome for it. :)

Laura: It always gets to me when the character just doesn't seem to have a point to their existence.

Melissa: I tried to make it so that people wouldn't have to read through the larger paragraphs and spend a lot of time on it all, since I knew there would be at least 100 posts! It would seem so that people forget about originality, what with all the similarities between writing.

Margo: I'm glad it did! And I'm glad you like the golden eagle images. :D

Elizabeth: Not quite secrets . . . just what I've gathered over the years of reading.

Lynda: They do indeed.

Len: Conflict and desire should play a big part. It doesn't sometimes, which is a pitfall for a lot of books.

Hannah Kincade said...

I love the bit about secrets. You're right everyone does have secrets. No matter how open a person they may be, they've got some secrets. :D

Great post!

C. N. Nevets said...

Awesome that you draw attention to not just the in-story purpose but also the literary purpose of the characters.

Kirthi said...

Well said! I'm bookmarking this post of yours because you bring out so many points that I need to include in my own writing!
Well organized and well written and "well said" ^_^

The Golden Eagle said...

Hannah: It would be strange if someone didn't have any secrets, so it makes sense that characters have to have them.

C.N. Nevets: I find both points to play a part in the overall feel of the book.

Kirthi: I hope it's helpful for you! :)

cindy said...

Nice, practical applications! Especially interesting to me is the concept of 3-dimensional characters, as well as "what's the point" and conflict.

I'm taking notes. :)

Thanks for the great post.

Julie said...

Great and very helpful post (and I loved that you condensed so that we could remember all the major points).

Going to really think about your list in terms of my current writing project. :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Cindy: I've been taking notes on some of the posts, too. :)

Julie: I hope it's helpful for your current project!

Ishta Mercurio said...

I especially love your point about 3-dimensionality. This is an excellent post! Thanks!

The Golden Eagle said...

You're welcome. :)

Deni Krueger said...

Very clear, distinct points. Nicely done.