Creating Compelling Characters

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This is a guest post by Ali Hale. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

The success of a story rests on its characters. We remember truly compelling, vivid characters long after we’ve finished reading a novel or watching a movie: I’m sure you can recall characters from books you read in childhood.

Great characters can compensate for a weak plot or a so-so writing style – but if readers don’t care about your characters, they’ll put your story down. That clever plot twist or beautiful passage of writing might hook them briefly, but without characters that leap off the page, readers won’t stay engaged.

If you need more evidence that characters are crucially important, search Google for “fan fiction”. Many, many books, TV series and movies have spawned a huge amount of creative writing by fans – and this writing is all about the characters. The plots and sometimes even the settings are different from those in the original, but the characters remain the same.

Simply knowing how important characters are doesn’t help you much, though. You need to figure out how to create truly compelling characters who readers care about, laugh about, even cry about. Here’s how:

What Does Your Character Need?

All compelling characters have a strong need, longing or desire. They should have a problem to overcome. They may not recognise this need (and indeed, many stories are about person coming to understand themselves better – for example, learning that they need companionship).

I picked up a great tip on figuring out what characters need from Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic. Use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Pick a level on the pyramid (you can find all you need to know on Wikipedia’s page) and then figure out what your character is seeking.

At the most basic, physical level, your character might be in a survival situation and need food and water. Going up a level, you might have a character whose security is threatened: perhaps she’s lost her job, or he’s facing a health crisis.

Quirks Don’t Equal Character

Many beginning writers make the mistake of thinking that giving a character a set of mannerisms or physical quirks is “characterisation”. It can be amusing and diverting, certainly. Sure, you can give your character a habit of whistling a particular tune, or jangling his keys, or peering over her glasses. But these alone don’t make your characters compelling.

When your characters do have unusual quirks, these need to be relevant to their back story – the things which happened to them before they appeared in your book. (Compelling characters need to be like icebergs: the reader has to have the sense that there’s a lot more under the surface: characters shouldn’t feel like they didn’t exist before page one.) For example, Harry Potter’s scar is an important feature because it relates to his history and to the broader plot of the stories. Giving your character a mysterious scar which has no relevance to your story, however, isn’t a shortcut to becoming as popular as J.K. Rowling…

In general, focus on who your character is rather than what they look like.

Draw From Life – But Not Too Much

So where do powerful, vivid characters come from? Often, the best place to start is yourself. What do you dream about, fear, desire? What secrets do you have? What are you most ashamed of – and most proud of? If you’re trying to convey a character’s internal thoughts, then you must be willing to draw on your only source of direct experience: the inside of your own mind.

Don’t go too far in drawing on real life, though. Beginning writers sometimes make the mistake of writing a version of themselves into their stories – often a perfect, flawless character who they’d quite like to be! While this might be emotionally satisfying to the writer, it’s either very irritating or very boring for readers.

Some other tips when drawing on your life are:

  • We’re all complex people who may, at times, behave in contradictory ways. Don’t make your characters too one-dimensional
  • Most of us have quiet, even boring, lives. Your characters need to do more exciting things in order to engage the reader.
  • Don’t worry about describing your characters physically. Mention anything that’s important (eg. a character’s physical size may have a bearing on the plot and on their self-confidence) but don’t burden the reader with details.
  • Watch people when you’re out and about, and make up stories about them.

Let the Reader Empathise

Your reader doesn’t necessarily have to like your characters, but they should be able to feel a sense of empathy for them. Even your villains shouldn’t be purely evil: there needs to be some explanation for why they’re such awful people – this often forms part of their back story.

On the flip side, your heroes shouldn’t be too perfect. We like to read about people with flaws, doubts and struggles – because when we read, we’re imagining ourselves in their place. Characters are compelling when we can share their struggles and cheer on their victories.

Some quick ways to build empathy are:

  • Show a character suffering (either mentally or physically)
  • Include a brief flashback to an unhappy childhood or traumatic incident
  • Write about your character’s thoughts – especially if their actions might be hard for us to understand or treat sympathetically
  • Use the first-person or third-person limited (“deep”) point of view
  • Show a character being misunderstood by others
  • Frustrate a character’s attempts to meet their need

Finally, have fun with creating your characters! If you find yourself writing about a character who bores you, then rewrite them – or recast them as a new character entirely. When you write characters that are truly compelling to you, they’ll be compelling to the reader.

Ali Hale is a writer whose posts getting more from life at Aliventures have been called “so true”, “exactly what I need” and “exactly at the right time for me” (click to grab the RSS feed here). When she’s not blogging, she’s working on her novel and other projects, including an MA in Creative Writing.

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8 thoughts on “Creating Compelling Characters”

  1. I loved your blog. I’m a nonfiction writer, but it’s fun to dabble in fiction. Your observations were spot on. The very first fiction piece I tried featured a main character very like myself– except she had no faults! Your tips are very helpful– I’m going to save them as reference material. Thanks.

  2. Great tips! This subject is what my entire blog is about, and it’s nice to see someone else spreading the word too. You’ve hit several nails squarely on the head with your comments.

    I was particularly pleased to see you make the link between quirks (or more generally, any sort of mannerisms) and backstory. After all, there should be a plausible and convincing reason _why_ a character makes their own cheese, or refuses to hold their cigarette with their right hand, or whatever it may be.

  3. Always nice to get ideas on good characters
    This post seemed to nip it all so cleanly
    Too bad her blog didn’t strike me as useful as this post
    Hope to see more here

  4. This whole article seems mighty similar to Lisle’s Mugging the Muse, which I take it Ms. Hale has read, since she refers to Lisle’s work.

  5. Thanks so much for writing this blog. I’ve been having trouble trying to create characters and this just completely helps!

  6. What is the writing term for when two characters are with each other, but a reader has no idea why they are together? I thought I had made it clear as to why my two main characters are traveling with each other, but apparently not. xP So any tips on how to fix this is appreciated thank you. Or just point me to a few sites as I’ve no clue what to search for in google. Thank you x 100.

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