Friday, September 24, 2010

How To Write Compelling Characters

We break from our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this post, which is one of many in The Great Blogging and Writing Experiment conceived of and hosted by super-blogger and author Elana Johnson.  This is in no way a blogfest.  (But go ahead and click that link and check out all the other great posts on this topic, which is just like a blogfest, but we won't tell Elana, okay?  Shhh.)

So, how TO write compelling characters, anyway?  The honest answer?

I haven't got a clue.

Seriously.  I write, but I have no idea as I write if my characters are compelling.  So I thought that today I'd talk about what I find compelling in other people's characters, since studying others' work is a great way to learn.

When I read a book and find myself drawn to the characters, it's usually because they have certain qualities that I find endearing or admirable or attractive somehow, and those qualities usually contrast with some other aspect of that person in an unexpected way.  For example, I've read a lot of YA recently where the female protagonist is petite and physically unassuming, but has a fiery personality.  Or maybe a character is very physically attractive, but also very bookish and a little bit nerdy.  In the case of TWILIGHT, Carlisle and Edward Cullen both crave human blood, but they have a moral code that forbids it.  In theatre, we call this "playing opposites", where things look one way and then you twist it a little; I think it's important that we do this with our characters in literature, as well.

Backstory also plays a big role in whether I find a character compelling, and this is also a trick I learned first in the theatre.  We used to spend hours creating entire life stories for every single character that we were going to play - even the minor ones who only had one scene and maybe one or two lines of dialogue.  As soon as I had read through the script for the first time, I would sit down and figure out who this person was: where did she grow up?  Who raised her?  What does she like to eat for breakfast?  Is she a coffee drinker, or does she prefer tea or juice?  Is she a night-owl, or an early riser?  How many friends does she have, and what does she talk to them about?  What are her fears?  Dreams?  Once I'd worked all of this out, I knew who my character was, and I'd know how she would react in certain situations.  I'd know how to play her scenes.  When we write our characters, even our minor ones, we need to know their whole story.  When an author knows her characters' stories, it comes through in the writing, and I end up wanting to know more about those characters, even the minor ones.  Diana Gabaldon has developed a whole spinoff series about Lord John Grey, one of the minor characters in her OUTLANDER series, because people wanted to know more about him.  They found him compelling.

I don't want to write any more - this is a long post as it is - but there's something to go on.  Make them contradict themselves a little, and outline their backstories ahead of time.  So far, I think it's working for me.

What do you think?  Have you tried either of these things?  Did it work for you?


  1. I like the bit about the contracticting themselves and the Edward and Carlisle examples. Everyone has a quirk or thing that makes them interesting that doesn't quite fit their "image". Nice post! :D

  2. Hi, I enjoyed your post here. I like characters that are quirky and a little mysterious. Backstories are essential, I'm always checking my notes to make sure the dialogue or behaviour is consistent for my main characters.

  3. Backstory is good to know, but not necessarily to make it into the book. And i totally agree about making characters with a twist...that SEEM at first as one thing, but really reveal to be something else.

    New here. *waves* Nice to meet you. :)
    Have a terrific weekend,

  4. I like this. The idea of figuring out who your character is, what motivates him/her is kind of like listen to gossip about people you know.

  5. Dude! That linky thing was for CONVENIENCE. Just because we used it does not make this a blog fest! Okay, enough of that. :)

    Great points. I too, like people I can relate to.

  6. I like the contradictions point! And the drama parallels. Nicely done.

    I'm new here - :) Nice to meet you!

  7. I don't fill out character sheets but I'll have them write diary entries and stuff like that. And a lot more is revealed during the writing process too.

  8. Your initial reaction was the same as mine. :-0 I haven't got a clue...I just start writing, cross my finger, hope, add stuff, hope some more, add some more stuff....LOL

    Great job! (please excuse my lack of humor...I think it's time for me to stop for the day.)

  9. Twists....I LOVE twists. When characters surprise me, they stay with me.

  10. I love that you can connect so much between acting and reading. It's like both forms of art have the same goal, just have different ways of showing to get to the end result! I think you do know how to create a compelling character.

  11. I totally agree about making characters contradict themselves. Perfect example! Great post!

  12. I try to use both the elements you mention, to varying degrees of success. Excellent points! :)

  13. I use a little of both. It really depends on my mood and how well I'm familiar with my characters, how long they've been running around in my cranium. great tips!

  14. Theatrical arts and writing are sewn together from the start. Good post.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  15. I also like characters who aren't quite what we expect. And it sounds as if your theatrical experience is very useful for getting to know your characters.

  16. Great point about playing opposites Ishta. Loved reading your post :)

  17. Wow - you guys have blown me away with your supportive comments! Thanks for visiting, everybody! And to those of you who are new here, welcome to my blog! Pull up a piece of cyberspace and make yourselves comfortable.

    I'll be busy over the next week trying to catch up on all of your posts on this subject - I think we can all learn a lot from each other!

  18. I love creating backstory. I think some of that is because I like to write fantasy, so I have to not only have a history of the characters, but a history of the world too. Great post.

  19. Good call on backstory. I really think backstory and memories and flashbacks add a lot to a character, and I find myself disappointed when a book carries on too much and too fast with the current plot without letting me really understand what the MC cares about and what has affected him/her as a person.

  20. Oooh, this is a great point--having a character at odds with themself--VERY compelling.

    Nice post!

  21. Great post! Contradicting characters is a great idea ;o) I agree all the characters need a story too, even the minor ones.

    Fantastic ideas about backstory ;o)

  22. Nicole, yes - fantasy books almost need a prequel to get the world's history as well as the characters' backstorie!

    Dayana, good point about flashbacks. Backstory doesn't always have to explicitly show up in a book, but it's good to have it handy for moments like those.

    lbdiamond, thanks for stopping by! My favorite characters are always the ones at odds with themselves - they're the ones I really want to get to know.

    Erica, welcome! I'm glad we agree! When minor characters' backstories aren't there for me, I find everything involving those characters suffers - dialogue, scene structure, etc.

  23. Hello!

    Thanks so much for stopping by my blog :) There are so many from the (not a)blog-fest I wasn't able to visit.

    I like how you're able to bring your theater training into writing.

    I love that you're able to really
    get into your characters. I need to try it with my characters, unruly as they are!

    Thanks for following!