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?