Creating Compelling Characters

Plot happens outside, but story happens inside

Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Caution Magnetic Magnet

For people to love your story, they need to love (or love to hate) your character.

The most beautiful writing in the world, the most exciting action sequence in history, neither of these will make people love your story.

But a compelling character will steal their heart, sneak into their memory, and make them come back to your writing over and over again.

Wouldn’t it be great to have raving fans?

How do you make your character compelling without spending too many words tracing their inner thoughts? How do you balance character growth with action?

Step 1: Know Your Character

None of us step out into the world in the morning as a fresh new creation.

We walk out of the door with hang ups and passions and prejudices and ingrained behaviors, all of which come from a lifetime of having experiences and reacting to them.

Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, talks about this brilliantly:

You have to know your character’s childhood damage, she says, and the protective behaviors they created. If you can set your story at a point in their life when those behaviors no longer serve your character, you have automatic conflict built into your story (and conflict makes stuff happen!)

Top Tip: do some ‘discovery writing’ about your character before you ever try to write the actual story. It will make your first draft go soooo much faster.

Resources:

Step 2: Nobody’s Perfect

In our quest to make readers love our protagonist, we can forget to give them flaws.

But how do you give them a flaw, without making them unlikeable?

The best resource I’ve come across came from the podcast Writing Excuses, where they talk about playing with three different characteristics as if they were sliders on a mixing board. Your character can be competent, proactive, and sympathetic, but they can’t be 100% (or 0%) of all three at the same time.

Contractors say, “You have have a job done well, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”

At any one moment in a story, a character can be extremely competent, extremely proactive, or extremely sympathetic. Pick two.

And then play with those levels throughout the story. (Think about how Hermoine Grainger changes over the course of the first Harry Potter book. At the start she is the most competent and proactive of the three friends, but nobody likes her. By the end, she has given up some of that proactivity and learned to lean on her friends. She acknowledges that Ron is more competent at wizard chess, and lets Harry be the one to face the last big challenge…and we like her a lot more, for it.)

Top Tip: Playing with character competencies is a great way to make them more or less sympathetic without having to give them a ‘tragic flaw’.

Resources:

Step 3: Show Their Inner Conflict In Action

In critique groups I usually hear two opposing critiques of character, depending on the writer’s natural tendencies:

  • The writing’s beautiful but it’s a little…slow (translation: nothing happens!!) OR
  • It was very exciting…but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care (translation: explosions and chases are great, but your character has no inner depth)

Whether you naturally write lots of action, or spend a lot of time dwelling on inner feelings, a good writer needs to be able to balance action and inner conflict, to create compelling characters.

One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the inner dialogue and show your character taking actions or interacting with physical objects that

  • Are symbolic of their inner struggle
  • Matter to this character for a specific reason (which you know, and can reveal to the reader)
  • Remind the reader of the stakes, without you having to spell it out.

For example, in the beginning of the movie Die Hard, a watch-word for action-based storytelling, John McClane picks up a picture of his happy family from a desk in his wife’s office…and winces.

In that moment (right before he gets embroiled in the explosions and flying bullets) the viewer remembers that this is not just a wise-cracking action hero. He’s a man who is losing his family and isn’t sure how far he’s willing to go, to put it back together.

That’s the question the rest of the film answers.

And it’s the reason we, as viewers, care.

Top Tip: Turn off the inner dialogue and give us a moment, filled with all five senses, where your character demonstrates their emotions, on the outside.

Resources

Big Final Caveat

All of this kind of craft-based instruction is useful for developing your writing…but only if it doesn’t slow you down while you’re creating first drafts.

If you’re writing the first version of a story do not stop to worry about ‘showing not telling’ or whether your character is sufficiently proactive in this moment.

All of this can be fixed in the rewrite.

And one of the best ways to figure out what’s working and what still needs work in your story, is to show it to other readers.

Perhaps the idea of a critique group terrifies you. Or maybe you’ve been in groups in the past that were frustrating, or just ‘meh’.

If that’s you, I have a gift for you: a free guide to critique groups, including:

  • All the personality types you’ll encounter in a group
  • How best to interact with each
  • What you need to know to to give and receive great feedback

Don’t waste time being afraid of feedback, any longer. It’s the single most important thing you can do to get your writing closer to the point where you can really begin to delight readers and build a raving fanbase.

Download the Critique Primer Now

15 thoughts on “Creating Compelling Characters”

  1. Many Happies, Julie. Great article and one I shall put to good use. I have written a novel, but I still feel that my characters have no ‘life’ in them. I shall be using some of your suggestions to make them live. Better late than never:-)

    1. Yup. This will probably work out well because at least worrying about getting the character “right” can’t stop you from getting the story written! Now just make sure it doesn’t stop you from finishing the revisions. Just keep pushing forward!

  2. Happy Birthday Julie. Thank you so much for all your guidance but most of all for your motivation and encouragement to just get on with writing. X

    1. You’re welcome! There’s nothing quite like actually-writing , for figuring out how to do it! Plus it feels good 😉

  3. Happy Birthday, Julie!

    And thank you for the wonderful blog post! Very helpful, as always.

    Though you mentioned Lisa Cron in the post itself, I would suggest adding her book, Wired for Story, to the resource list. She also has some great classes on CreativeLive.

    1. Oh yes! I loved Wired for Story. It reinforced what I am doing here: trying to convince everyone that if they want to write, they should!

  4. Happy Birthday!
    I was in my critique group the other day and The Emotion Thesaurus became the topic of conversation. You have reinforced that I need it! Thanks much for your articles. Very helpful.

    1. You’re welcome. It fascinates some people, and others don’t find it as useful, but it’s a small investment … and you can always pass it on if you don’t like it 😉

  5. Q: What time is best to start drinking wine on your birthday?
    A: You stopped? 😉

    Happy birthday!

    Your blog, classes and resources are helping me to be a better storyteller in spite of myself. Truly (Julie), thank you.

  6. Happy Birthday Julie.
    Thank you for the article and links to very interesting resources.
    Best wishes
    Charmian

    1. Thanks! Glad you found it useful.
      One think I’ve noticed: one person’s favorite resource is another person’a “meh”. If some of these work for you and some don’t, that’s fine. Just keep experimenting and investigating until you find what works for you.

  7. Happy Birthday and thank you for this! Im actually doing a workshop on writing multi- narrative stories on Saturday and of course character is a HUGE part of that. My heads been spinning with the craft of character all month and its endlessly fascinating.

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