How To Write Compelling Characters

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?


9 responses to “How To Write Compelling Characters

  1. Awesome post (and drawing 😉 )! I might just have to read “The Kill Artist.”

    As for my tactics…well. I’m just going to babble for a little bit, and hopefully something substantial pops up.

    Okay. Character interviews.

    Now, here’s the thing: Instead of the usual listed question and chicken-scrawled answer, I like to structure my character interviews a bit differently.

    Sometimes I stage myself as the interviewer and other times I grab a random character from my book. Then I interview a character…about a different character.

    Got it?

    So instead of asking Sally questions about Sally, I would ask her questions about John. That way, since I already know everything that Sally knows about herself, I can take a deeper look at her personality and how she sees the other characters. Then, if I stage Henry as the interviewer instead of myself, then that would also change the interview because I’d have to take into account what questions Henry would be most likely to ask and how Sally would respond to Henry.

    Whew. Babble session complete.

    • Thanks. Everytime I look at the drawing I laugh. Probably something wrong with me!

      Your interview the characters about another character concept is brilliant! I’m going to have to try it 🙂 I can see some real gold coming out of something like that… hehehe.

      • Well, I laugh at the picture every time I look at it, too, if that makes you feel any better. Of course, that could just mean that there’s something wrong with me, too…meh. Oh well. 😉 You’re normal by my standards.

        And thanks for the compliment! I’m glad you understood my character interview…it was rather interesting to try and explain.

      • Here’s to being normal (or at least abnormally normally)! My dossier’s have an impersonal, report-type feel to them, if that makes sense. I never really tried it as an interview before, didn’t catch my interest. But to hear characters talking smack about other characters… who wouldn’t love a little of that action, right? 😉

      • Ha! Right!

        And ooooooo – dossier. What a fantabulicious word. Though it kind of reminds me of derriere. Somebody should write a poem using those two words.

      • I can’t say a tremendous amount of time on it, but I threw the two words together and posted the result. It’s pretty ridiculous, even for me. But the challenge, if you have time to accept, is to do one too!

      • YES! Challenge accepted. And I refuse to read yours until I’m done with mine…so I better get cracking.

  2. Pingback: Meshing Random Words « The Writer's Guide

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