Friday, September 10, 2010

Four Step Friday: Writing Compelling Characters...

1.  Examples:  

Pull out your favorite book.  Hunger Games, Stargirl, The Giver, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Heist Society, Unwind, Paranormalcy...Whatever.  Yes, Twilight is fine. 

What about this book makes it good?  I'm sure, somewhere in your list of will include "compelling characters".  

So what about the writing makes us want to know Stargirl, to be Katniss, or fall in love with Edward?   

They seem real.
2.   Details: 

What makes a character real is their depth.  You want them to have layers, motivations, emotions, likes/dislikes.  They need to be tangible to you before they can be tangible to anyone else.

Interview your characters:  Have a survey for each one of them.  This is more important than knowing what they all look like (even though your questionnaire can include that).  This is where you discover who they are, what kind of report card they get, how they like their eggs, etc.  Know them inside out and then incorporate their personality quirks in your writing.  

3.  Flaws:

Perfect is boring.  
All Characters need a flaw.  Something they are bad at... even Edward has flaws.  He's just plain stupid over Bella sometimes...

Katniss is an awful actress.
Percy Jackson has learning disabilities.
Connor, from Unwind, has a temper that gets him into fights. 

What I love about these flaws is that they are short comings, but the characters are made more endearing by them...

We love Edward because he's so ridiculously in love with plain ol' Bella.  
Katniss can't fake it, but being herself is all anyone really needs.
Percy may have felt like a misfit because of his learning disabilities but then he finds out his brain is really programmed from Greek...
Connor only fought when he was standing up for something or someone.   

4.  Arc:  

People change.  Characters should too...  but realistically and sometimes subtlety.

You don't want your character to be an entirely different person at the end of the book!  You want your character and their voice to be consistent.  But you want aspects of that character to change, their perspective, or facing a fear or coming to terms with things... This should be gradual in your writing, and is a definite show not tell situation.  Put your characters in positions where they learn something and then stick them in another where they use the wisdom they've gained...    

Back to Connor from Unwind.  I love his transformation because the author, Neal Shusterman, took his flaw:  fighting--made you realize he fought for the right reasons and because he was an alpha--had another character point out that fighting wasn't always the best option and then put him in situations to test what he had learned.  By not fighting Connor was even more powerful and a better leader to the other 'unwinds'.    

Example of a Character Sketch/Interview: 

1.  What's their favorite... food, drink, color, music, hobby?
2.  What kind of personality do they have?  
3.  What's under their bed?
4.  Who do they go to for advice?
5.  What is their biggest strength?
6.  What's their weakness?
7.  Who are their friends/What are they like?
8.  What does their bedroom/locker/the inside of their fridge look like?
9.  How many siblings do they have?
10.  Where is there favorite spot?

Good luck creating your characters, I'm looking forward to meeting them.  

What questions do you like to ask your characters? 


  1. This is great!

    Up until recently I was a total panster, but I realized how important it was to ask questions about my characters before I started writing. It's made a difference in my current WIP, I think. I ask a lot of questions, like you have listed, and it helps while I write.


  2. I think I like to ask darker questions because I like sci-fi or action stories so I would ask:
    Have you ever killed someone?
    What is the worst thing you've ever done?
    Do you have any regrets?
    What is your weapon of choice?
    When was the last time you cried?

  3. K, I commited a while back, but I feel the need to comment again. ;-)

    Creating compelling characters is THE most important job we have. If people don't like our characters, they won't read about them. You've given us some great. Tips. Thanks!


  4. Love that you not only include arc here, but that you stress that it is often subtle and should always be realistic. Sudden change is jarring to the brain.

  5. Love how in the examples you chose, the flaws were not just random quirks, but chosen to add depth to the story.

    Great post!


  6. Awesome list here! And I rarely ask my characters much beyond "What do you want most? What will you do to get it?" That drives my plot.

  7. Only a handful of us included character arc, but I think it is So important. I mean, if I'm rooting for the MC and they're the same person at the end of the book as they were when we started...what was the point?

    Anyway, I love you post on this topic. Well done. :)

    Happy Weekend,

  8. Really good post...Thanks for saying it's okay to like Twilight... :)

    I liked the bit about where they get advice....

  9. Excellent! I was not dissapointed with this one at all. I'm amazed at how many talented people are lurking on blogger and I had no idea they existed!

  10. Excellent post! Giving chracters flaws is a must!

  11. These are great! Thanks for sharing. BTW, love that your daughters name is Pearl. =D

  12. Love it, what's under their bed. Dust to spiders to harry monsters...we get to pick. Or maybe it's one of those plastic vac seal bags with all their winter clothes in it.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  13. Excellent suggestions! It's the little things about a character: back story, quirks, etc., that makes them relateable and hence compelling!

  14. I agree with Elana that I usually focus on what my character wants and she fills me in as I write. Flaws are definitely a must!

  15. I love the idea of a character interview.

  16. I'm having a nervous breakdown trying to get around everyone's post. I'm breaking for nice cup of tea in a minute but first...
    You have made some seriously good points
    If the writer can't tell me what is important to the character and why then why should I bother trying to read the work.
    Right from the off I want to know why I should care enough to go along on the journey of their lives for the duration.

  17. Whew! I'm still making my way through the blogfest!

    Excellent points! The more of these I read, the more I'm seeing that making a character REAL is the most important thing and FLAWS are the best way to make a character believable.

    Great post!

  18. I love that you mention interviewing. I've found that so helpful. Have you ever had a character really surprise you during an interview? One of those moments when you think "well, I never knew that!"

  19. Great example of a character sketch/interview at the end! And I agree about finding examples - it's a way to make sure you're reading broadly, and it also solidifies what works for you and what doesn't.