13 ways to create compelling characters

 

 

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1. Make the character exceptional at something.

Give your character a trait or skill that makes him or her admirable in some way.

It doesn’t have to be anything over-the-top. Maybe she’s an office manager…who is an amazing cook. Maybe he’s a rebellious teenager…who is unusually perceptive.

As soon as that character is really good at something, the reader perks up. The reader gets interested.

2. Make the character care about someone other than herself.

This is so effective that screenwriters often use a “save the cat” scene (and the better the screenwriter, the subtler the scene) near the beginning of the screenplay to make the audience like and identify with the character. That character might be a hard-drinking, womanizing, self-absorbed prick….except on his way out the door he stops to pet a dog and give him a treat, or get a cat out of a tree, or send money to his mama. Boom. We like him.

As soon as you show the character genuinely caring about the world, the reader starts to care.

3. Make your good characters do bad things and bad characters do good things.

Hands-down, one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received in my life.

4. Give your character a unique voice.

I’m not talking about dialect or verbal tics or anything gimmicky. But everyone has their own natural, signature way of talking and writing. Your characters should not all sound the same. If five different characters give five different speeches, the reader should instantly identify which character is giving which speech.

5. Give your character a life that bleeds beyond the page.

Your characters might exist for the sake of the story…but you need to create the illusion that they don’t.

This is where a character’s backstory comes in handy, often through casual references to things that are relevant enough to get mentioned, but not worth going into detail about (“the stainless steel Rolex that her Aunt Lydia gave her for her twenty-first birthday” – who is Aunt Lydia? Who cares? It’s just good to know that the character has one, it roots her in a deeper broader context).

George Lucas made the observation that science-fiction filmmakers will often make the mistake of showing too much of the new world/culture at the expense of the actual story. They spent all this time developing that world and want to show their work.

But what the reader sees should be the tip of the iceberg that suggests the bulk below the water. The reader may only need glimpses, shadows, to know the rest of the iceberg exists…but the reader needs to believe it exists in order for the writer to have real authority.

I’ll be honest: a lot of those ‘relevant details’ (like Aunt Lydia) you can make up as you go along. But it helps to have a backstory. Just don’t bore the reader with the backstory! Use it when relevant to create that sense of depth and support.

6. Give your character a passion.

Passionate people are interesting. They just are. They are dynamic and active, they care about something other than themselves. And often people are passionate about things they are naturally good at, which hooks back to #1 above.

7. Give your character an obsession.

Obsession is interesting. It just is. An obsessed character wants something – or someone – in a way that creates drive, urgency, potential conflict, story. An obsession also reveals a lot about character.

8. Know your character’s psychic wound.

The past is alive in all of us. The past has trained us to react in certain ways. If your character was used or shamed as a child, that’s going to affect him as an adult: he might seek solace in a fantasy world, he might fear intimacy and pursue novelty and intensity instead. Stuff like that.

The more you know about your character’s past, the more you know about how your character reacts to the present. And this is relevant to the story.

9. Give your character an attitude. Understand how your character relates to other people.

No one lives in a vacuum. She thinks she’s inferior, or superior; she’s trusting, or she’s not trusting; she’s introverted, she’s attention-seeking; he’s chivalrous, or he resents that women get “special treatment”, or he’s chivalrous in order to seduce women while quietly resenting that they get “special treatment”….etc.

How does your character treat people, and how do people treat your character in return?

10. Know what your character wants the most.

Desire rules us. We go after the things that we want. That’s where ‘story’ lives.

11. Know what your character fears the most.

And then force your character to confront that fear in order to get what they want.

12. Think about how your character’s appearance impacts his/her life and personality.

Physical description in and of itself is static and boring; it becomes more interesting when you use it to suggest, imply, and reveal character.

Our appearance is our interface with the world. We shape and are shaped by it. If your character is unusually good-looking, for example, give some thought to the consequences of that. I know a man who gets so much attention for his looks that he deliberately dresses down, and refuses to fix his teeth, because he’s concerned that people won’t take him seriously. That, to me, is more interesting and says more about him than some throwaway line about piercing blue eyes and a chiseled jawline.

13. Give your character some ‘blind spots’.

There are things we know about ourselves, and that other people know about.

There are things we know about ourselves that other people don’t know about.

There are things other people can see and know about us….that we actually don’t know about. The character might think he’s being clever and manipulative, for example, when actually he’s quite transparent. People will often be polite and play along in order to avoid confrontation.

That gap between self-perception, and the perception of others, can lead to some interesting dramatic moments.

That’s it for now. Feel free to add anything that I’ve missed.

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Feb 1, 2010
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17 comments · Add Yours

I love your blog anyway Justine, but I felt this was a particularly excellent post. Thanks so much!
Barbra
http://intelligentwomenreadromance.com/

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Justine, your advice always inspires me, but this post is like a candle in the dark. Just what I needed today. Thanks!

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All good ones.

I’d add — make the character the quintessential of something. Jack Sparrow is the quintessential pirate. Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential detective. Achilles is the quintessential warrior. The Black Pearl isn’t just any pirate ship, it’s the fastest pirate ship. Sherlock Holmes is the most brilliant detective. Einstein was the quintessential genius.

Of course it takes more than just being the absolute of something (otherwise you have a cartoon) — but it’s a valuable tool when combined with the other techniques you mentioned.

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Great list.

Here’s one I’m planning to cover in greater depth either this month or next at Storytellers Unplugged. It’s more conditional than most of these 13, and depends on the character and the effect you’re after in the reader, but effective when it applies:

We can overlook, forgive, or even empathize with just about any character flaw, no matter how bad it is or how deep it runs, as long as it’s demonstrably clear that the character really is resolute about getting better.

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…because that means that a) the character is self-aware enough to know that there’s a problem and willing to own up to it and b) is determined to take action and change.

Not to mention, everybody loves a redemption story…

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Number two really spoke to me. I don’t think my completely flawed, screwed up, pathetic protagonist has a save the cat scene. Thanks for the post!

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Great points that really got me thinking about my characters. After reading a book on play I realised how important it is to make our characters passionate about something – just like we get lost in writing when we get ‘in the zone’ it’s important to work out what gets them excited – it took me several edits to work out that one of my main character is an ‘explorer’ – it’s really help to strengthen her character and her actions.

Great post!!!

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I love this post! I feel that I’m doing quite a number of these with my own characters, which makes me happy. Excellent tips/reminders.

I know this isn’t directly related, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog, and that you inspired me to start a blog of my own and become more serious about my writing again. Thank you.

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All good. Here’s one I’ve learned the hard way: when the plot needs your character to do one thing, and they get to that point and demand to do something else, trust your character. If you absolutely must have the plot point, maybe you should backtrack and rejig the external circumstances, in the hope of finding the true moment in which they do it. It may not mean what you thought it meant.

In a slogan… “Give your character an agenda, not a to-do list”? “Don’t turn your character into your zombie”?

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Great list.

#3 is the one to rule them all.

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Justine,
You are so right! I was just considering removing a scene in my book where the protagonist saves a drowning dog. I was afraid it slowed down my fast-paced YA adventure book. Thank you. Linda Flores

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Hi Justine, Dufflyn pointed me to your blog and I am really enjoying it. Thank you.

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I was wondering if you could help with #12. Thanks. :)

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What a fantastic post, it’s helped so much. Thank you.

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My favorite character I ever made is based off a real person, he is called Candlelight (his real nickname) his family all died on 7-7-2077, he likes the leader White Fang (also her real nickname) and my most favorite part is that he doesn’t know his own real name.

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Very useful and concise. I write short ficlets at the moment, so this is doubly important, given the limited amount of room.

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