Friday, September 24, 2010

Compelling Characters

"Well, you really can't be afraid when you write a book, If it's going to be a good story, the main thing about it is it needs to be emotionally honest. And that means that there will be things that are difficult to write or to deal with because people have a tendency to shy off from going to very dark places." Diana Gabaldon

To me, this quote (from a very successful author) means breathing life into your characters through real, honest emotion. Really, the quote can apply to the entire story, but if your characters aren't real enough, no one will feel invested in them enough to read more. I think this is a mistake newbie writers make quite a bit. We tend to focus on plot and structure, while our characters are weak and shadowy.

I've learned to sketch each of my main characters before I start writing the first draft. I have a series of questions I ask them so that I truly have a clear picture of who each character is. I think sometimes the image in our mind is muddled, and that comes out in the story as well.

So let's say we have our story idea. First, we choose our protagonist to build the plot around. Next, we create the bio:

Ask your MC (main character):
 1. What does she/he want more than anything?
 2. What are the MC's core traits (generosity, bravery?)
 3. What flaws get in the way of your MC's goals ( pride, self-doubt?)
 4. What emotional baggage from the MC's past effects his/her motivations?

Additional tips: (taken from Morrell's "Thanks, But This isn't for Us" writing guide and told in my own way)

* Imagine yourself in your character's shoes. Force your character to do exactly what you're afraid to.

* Each detail and quirk you give your character MUST make the character come alive

* What fascinates you about your character? (wit, a secret)

* What is your MC's deepest fear? Knowing this will give your MC a soul. (You don't have to ever state the fear anywhere in your story, but YOU knowing it will create the depth in the character's actions)

* Your scenes should make the MC uncomfortable, put him/her in awkward situations every time to see how he/she reacts. These reactions will be what brings your character to life.

* Give your characters a past, memories, dreams, hopes (Again, you  don't have to ever state what these are, but you should know them in order to know your character)

*Give your MC emotional relationships that will reveal his/her complexity

*Give your MC a chance to pause or reflect after action scenes. Not too much introspection, just enough to watch your character grow.

*Give your MC a weakness that's the flip side of their strength. Maybe her/his strong will makes her too pig-headed

*Make your MC out of sync with her/his surroundings

*Make sure the other characters in your cast do NOT love, respect, or support your MC at all times.

* Play up the conflict in scenes between two or more characters. Do this early on in order to snag your reader and cause them to become emotionally invested.

*Your MC should grow over the course of the story. Make sure the potential for growth is evident very early on--from the first chapter.

*If you have a villain, make sure the villain is flawed and relatable. Perhaps the serial rapist was beaten/molested as a child. Make sure the reader knows a little of the villain's past, so the reader understands why he/she does the evil things.


My fave way to create compelling characters is to people watch. Real life peeps are about as amusing and fascinating as anything fictional. I like the real oddballs. I watch them in public places and take notes of their eccentricities. You can find amusing traits by watching peeps you know as well. Find out what fascinates you about people. What makes them interesting, even if you wouldn't want to spend any time with them in real life--these are the peeps that are fun to watch and read about.

Why do you think Jersey Shore is so popular? People ca't turn away because the characters are so fascinating. Not necessarily fascinating in a good way, but who ever said good is fascinating? Nobody wants a perfect character.

What to know what others are saying about Compelling Characters? Check it out here:
http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/2010/09/how-to-write-compelling-characters.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+MindlessMusings+%28Elana+Johnson%2C+Author%29

19 comments:

Margo Kelly said...

Oh my! This is an AWESOME post! Thank you so much for sharing such great ideas! Dang... I wish I could sit at this computer all day today and work on my characters!!

Jen said...

I love that you compared it to the train wreck Jersey Shore (there is just something about those fools... I can't help myself).

Great post! Thanks for participating and sharing all your thoughts!

Lola Sharp said...

You did an excellent job here...I agree with almost all of it.

And, oh how I loves me some people watching. Good times! :)

I'm your newest follower/friend. *waves* Nice to meet you.

Have a happy weekend,
Lola

Elana Johnson said...

Oh, you had me at "breathing life" into your characters with emotional honesty. This is something I really strive to do. Fabulous tips/post!

Regina said...

Sometimes people watching is just the best possible thing to do. There are so many unique individuals out there that it is almost unbelievable that they exist if you didn't "see it with your own eyes" kind of thing.

Train wrecks are good to - You just know that something is always going to happen and that it is never going to be boring.

Thanks for the great post.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

"What is your MC's deepest fear?" This is a great point that I haven't seen much today. Wonderful post! :-)

Florence said...

Regina, are you sure you want to watch a train wreck? Sorry you missed my marriage and divorce ... now that was a major train wreck.

PK, I think the most realistic characters are the ones we become ... sink into. Suspend reality and see and hear the scene as it happens.

Great post!

Talei said...

I love that quote! And great list, I think you've covered everything. ;)

I also am compelled to watch something that may not be considered good taste but its still fascinating to watch. I watch X factor and its incredibly cringe worthy at times but its entertaining, and thats what we want to do right? Keep our readers entertained.

lbdiamond said...

A very thorough list! Diana Gabaldon really nailed it--thanks for posting such a great quote! :D

Melissa said...

People watching is so much fun.

This list is thorough and excellent and just plain awesome. Thanks for wrapping it all together so nicely.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I am a dedicated people watcher too. And I eavesdrop quite shamelessly, and use conversations in my work.
Great post.

Jessica Carmen Bell said...

"Wit" Yes! I think some people forget, that even if their writing a serious drama for instance, that their characters can be witty sometimes. It makes for excellent relief from tension! Great post!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Hmmm...I lost my comment? Great post....You have to know your character's core motivation...no matter what genre you write.

N. R. Williams said...

You make some great observations. Real people are truly full of oddities. My characters agree.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always sketch out my characters before I begin writing. I like the points you hit.
Thanks for participating in our blogfest - sorry, still trying to get around to all the entries!

Elena Solodow said...

You've covered all the basics here. Great job! Thanks for stopping by the blog - you've got yourself a new follower!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Excellent post. And love the quote from Diana. She's one of my favorite authors.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Emotions, especially intense, uncomfortable ones, make for compelling characters. Good post!

Cinette said...

Very informative and encouraging post! Glad to have found you;-)