Last week we discussed compelling dialogue and I mentioned that writing compelling characters helps immensely with writing compelling dialogue. This week I’m going to look at how to build compelling characters separate from dialogue. Standard Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, blah blah blah, basically don’t take this as anything more than food for thought.
Didja get it? I’m definitely not poking fun at anyone’s luck of using cheap tricks to exploit a national trend at just the right time…
Seriously now, let’s start with a little wordplay. We want compelling characters. Real people are (sometimes) compelling. Therefore, characters that seem like real people will be compelling. The seem is important because usually our characters will have a few traits exaggerated beyond real life proportions. So how do we make our characters seem like real people?
Give them what real people have, both on the surface and underneath.
Not necessarily everything real people have. That could swiftly become overwhelming. But give them a tint of reality, be it hobbies, retirement worries, addiction, a passion for history. Something. Assassin’s are an overdone literary device as a main character, aren’t they? So how do you make this assassin character you’re dying to write compelling and fresh? Maybe you make him an amazingly gifted painter who only becomes an assassin out of patriotic duty and tries to get back to painting at every opportunity. Don’t copy this too closely by the way, I’m not sure Daniel Silva would like having two Gabriel Allons around. (If you haven’t read these books, the first one is “The Kill Artist“).
So, to stick with our assassin example, on the surface we have an assassin whose gift and passion is painting. That is his something real. We’re more likely to meet a passionate painter than an assassin in real life. This brings the character from a cardboard cut-out into the 3D realm. But it is only the first step in making him compelling. Making him 3D makes him an interesting character but not a compelling character. So what does?
The conflict that he carries with him everywhere. That might seem specious. An assassin, due to the nature of his job, will undoubtedly see intense bouts of conflict. But what really counts is the emotional conflict of a character who sacrifices his dreams and ambitions on the alter of idolized patriotic duty. Most people know what it means to sacrifice something, to deal with mutually exclusive desires (in this case the desire to paint and the desire to serve your country) and to have to make that hard decision. His sacrifice allows us to identify with this cold blooded hunter of our fellow man.
So he is interesting and we can identify with him. Is he compelling yet? No, there is one more aspect and that is where writing fiction is a enormous boon. Once your character is interesting and identifiable, make them a little larger than life. In our example above, the choice the character is forced to make is huge. Most of us face something more along the lines of the Kia or the Mazda? Or do I go for the degree in Business Admin or French Literature? The decision that our assassin makes, and the ensuing decisions he will have to make, are on a much larger scale, which makes our own real life problems seem smaller and more manageable in comparison. That makes the character compelling.
So remember, three things! Get out a sticky note, write them down, and post it on your desk.
1) Make the characters 3D.
2) Give the characters real conflict to deal with.
3) Pump the characters up to a little larger than life.
Quick tips and tricks:
- I like to write character dossier’s. Or you could call them resume’s. You know, just a quick summary of important events in their life, what their ambitions are, what their motivations are, and any peculiar illnesses, weaknesses, or strengths they have. It gives them history and keeps me on track through the course of the novel, even if most of the stuff never actually figures prominently in the book.
- I enjoy reading the occasional biography. There are some fantastically larger-than-life people out there in the annals of history who make for really good inspiration.
- Lastly, I like to write short stories featuring my characters. It is something more concrete than the dossier, it is fun (for me at least), and it gives the character some “screen” time to establish themselves. I find my characters tend to surprise me periodically, once I start writing them, so it’s good to give them that opportunity before the climax of the novel.
- And always, keep writing. Never give up, never surrender!
How about you? How do you develop your characters and make them compelling?
- C is for Compelling Characters (A-Z of Writing) (quirkybooks.wordpress.com)