Blogfest–Creating Compelling Characters

Elana Johnson (OMG, Have you seen her book cover for POSSESSION?! GORGEOUS!!!!!!!!) is hosting a blogfest today about writing compelling characters. Check out this link to read the other posts of some fantastic writers and bloggers!

You know what? I’m still working on how to create compelling characters. You see, my characters are pretty well-formed in my head when I dream them up, but somehow, they just don’t quite come to life on the page. At least, that’s how it felt as recently as a month ago.

Since then, I’ve been communing with writerly buds, picking the brains of beta readers, and reading as many blog posts as I can. I’d like to share my findings (at least from the perspective of the main character).

1) Compelling characters aren’t perfect. Come on, admit it. We all like characters with flaws. It gets ’em in trouble. It makes them seem approachable. It helps us to identify with them and therefore root for them when they’re facing their foes.

2) Compelling characters use all their senses to tell their story. Visual description of the setting, the BFF, the love interest, the antagonist is important, but allowing a character to use his or her other senses makes things come alive. Do they cringe at the stench of a dumpster? Do they smile at the homey warmth of baking bread? Do they take a sigh of relief at the soothing taste of a cup of hot chocolate?  Do they startle at the icy sound of a wolf’s howl? Do they obsess about the itchiness of their wool sweater rubbing against their dry skin?

3) Compelling characters interact with other characters. Seriously, you can learn a lot about a character by how they converse with others. Use their body language and their reaction to news, whether it be good or bad, to show the reader who they are.

4) Compelling characters drive their story. (I can’t highlight this one enough!) I’ve been reading Percy Jackson (great series, by the way!) and though he’s caught in a whirlwind of circumstances out of his control, he still makes it a point to make his own decisions and take control of his own fate.

The main character in first draft of my most recent project was quite reactive to his environment, but he didn’t really take control of the situation. He just sort of went along, rolling with the punches. Bor-ing! It was hard to feel for him, hard to root for him, because he was coming of as: “Ho-hum, oh well, guess I’ll just go along with this and hope for the best.” DON’T DO THIS. Thanks to fanTAStic betas, I’ve since restructured the MC so he is quite directive in his path to reach his goal. Sa-weet!

5) Compelling characters have a cast of compelling secondary characters. For real, who wants to read about a dude with flat friends? The best advice I can give for this: Avoid stereotypes, unless they have a twist. Like, a really cool twist.

6) Compelling characters have a compelling antagonist. Okay, so a bad guy is a bad guy, right? Be careful! If your antagonist doesn’t have some redeeming quality, or a soft spot, or a character flaw, then it’s more difficult to build tension with the main character. It’s too easy to be like, “Oh, yeah, good guy, get ’em!” I think that’s almost too simple. You want the MC to hesitate before giving the final blow don’t you? I don’t know, maybe I’m overly sympathetic, but I think it really ratchets up the tension.

7) Compelling characters have a set of seemingly impossible circumstances thrown at them, but they keep going. Isn’t this what keeps us reading? The thought, “How in the world is MC gonna get out of this?!” Plus, what makes you root for someone more than when they show perseverance? ‘Nough said.

All right, well, that’s a pretty good list, if I do say so myself. Tell me, what do you think? Did I miss anything?

44 comments on “Blogfest–Creating Compelling Characters

  1. pankaj arya says:

    wonderful article, keep writing. i would love to read more from you

  2. Good list! Do you think secondary characters and the antagonist should be as compelling as the main character?

  3. Quinn says:

    Your the first post I’ve seen that’s mentioned you need to have a cast of compelling characters for any of them to be compelling. I love this!

  4. Christine Fonseca says:

    Love this!!! And yep, a compelling antagonist is key.

  5. Jen says:

    You nailed this! Thanks for joining in on the experiment! So far it’s been a huge success and I can’t wait to make my rounds to everyone!

  6. Lynn Rush says:

    Nice list. That’s the trick–making a compelling antagonist, isn’t it? 🙂

  7. Lindsay says:

    Great list. I love how you list characters use their whole senses to tell the story. So true. 🙂

  8. love the list, especially the senses! I had a professor tell me that and I’ve never forgotten…use the senses, what do they smell, hear, taste, feel, see…excellent 🙂

  9. –Compelling characters drive their story. — YES!! I hate it when the MC seems to just be along for the ride, passively reacting to the situation, rather than taking an active role in it. Great list!

  10. lola sharp says:

    I love your post on this topic! I agree with all of it. *nodding head*

    (also, I love your header picture. Lovely.)

    Have a delightful weekend,

  11. Great post! Good list summarzing some key points for us to always keep in mind!

  12. John Sankovich says:

    Very compelling reading. I enjoyed it. I think you nailed some of the points that I forgot to mention in the flurry of writing my post with my kids crawling all over me. 🙂

  13. TereLiz says:

    So right on about using all the senses. My first drafts are very sensory.

    Great post!


  14. Danyelle says:

    Nice! I really like that you point out that the antagonist has to have a redeemable quality. And the hero a flaw. And that they are the ones driving the story. Excellent!

  15. While all of these are true and valid and deserve recognition, I think the best one is #6. The compelling antagonist. If the character doesn’t have anything/anyone to fight against, what’s the point? If Harry didn’t have Voldemort, who cares that he’s an orphan?

    That one is brilliant. And now I need to think a lot. #dangit

    And thanks for the kindness on my cover. You are too amazing for words.

  16. PK Hrezo says:

    I love your #4…. it’s so true! Great post!

  17. I liked your list and may I suggest some books. You did mention you’re still learning. I’m part of the experiment to so the book reference is on my site.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  18. You are the first to mention #4 and that is so so important. A character being tossed around by events and passive is not memorable. That’s fine for plot driven stories but you hardly ever remember any of the characters.

  19. “Compelling characters have a cast of compelling secondary characters. ” I haven’t seen this one yet today, but it is so true! Great post! 🙂

  20. I really like #5, #6, #7. Though #7 is my favorite because I so love putting my characters in tight spots. Anytime I see them relaxing, or sighing in relief, I throw something else at them to deal with.

  21. […] recently came across a post on Diamond – Yup like the stone about creating compelling characters. She has a list of seven qualities to make characters come […]

  22. Jen Chandler says:

    Numbers 4 and 5 are fabulous! Oh, and “dude with flat friends” made me laugh out loud 🙂


  23. Great job! I just went to a pb workshop and the instructor suggested events happening in threes…I’ll have to start looking for that in mg and ya books to see if it follows that trend too.

  24. Elena says:

    I like your idea about characters interacting with other characters. That IS a great way for their personalities to come out. Nice post!

  25. Great list of compelling features to wrap around your main character that humanizes him or her causing readers to identify with and want to travel through the pages with your guy/girl. I like the idea of giving the antagonist some likable characteristics to cause the reader to want to give him/her a second chance. But if your going to sock-it-to-em in the end, be sure that his orneriness is sufficient to let the reader accept the consequences an not get mad at the author. Ha! Gotta sell em your next book!

  26. Lisa Potts says:

    It’s easy to forget about #5 and #6 even though they are just as important.
    Nice post!

  27. Ah… senses. I have a tendency to overlook smell. Great post.

  28. Elaine says:

    The challenges faced give the characters the opportunity to show us their struggles to be, to change and to over-come.

  29. They drive the story – that’s key for me!
    So many great ideas today! I don’t think Elana, Jen, and I anticipated so many participants or fresh spins on the idea of compelling characters.

  30. I like the way you spread the compelling out to friends and antagonist. Very important not to be in a vacuum. Nice job.

  31. Percy Jackson is an excellent example of a character who takes control of his own destiny. I feel like re-reading this series.

    This is an excellent list you have here too.

  32. Carolyn V says:

    I always seem to have a hard time with those secondary characters.

    Great list!!! =)

  33. Pam Torres says:

    I really liked your emphasis on secondary characters needing to be as compelling as the MC. Gives me more to work on. This blogfest rocks!

  34. Lynda Young says:

    #3 makes a particularly good point in amongst a post of great points. 🙂

  35. thegracefuldoe says:

    Great post! I’m a very sensory type write, so I couldn’t agree more with the point about using your character’s senses. I loved point #5 about compelling characters having compelling secondary characters.

  36. y lewis says:

    As a poetry writer I never fully appreciated what it takes to write a novel. I through this blogfest am beginning to learn alot.
    Your post was interesting and a pleasure to read.

    Enjoy your week-end.

  37. You’re right – you can’t highligh #4 enough!

  38. Dominique says:

    Good advice, especially the bit about using all of your senses to describe a scene. I forget about that one sometimes in my writing, and it’s really a crucial part of effectively building a world for my MC.

  39. Good take on the blogfest.

    I’ve been struggling with revealing what makes my MC compelling in my query. It’s frustrating because character is everything.

  40. Krispy says:

    Oh, you brought up some great points I haven’t read much of in other posts about the topic – secondary characters and interaction! So true! I love great secondary characters. They really help round out the MCs and bring the story to life. There are some stories where I think the secondary characters are more compelling than the main characters.

  41. Good point about characters using all 5 senses – that’s something I never consciously thought about until now. Thanks for the tips!

  42. Cinette says:

    Love this post, and love your blog! I’ll be back for more:0)

  43. very thoughtful and inspiring article. really wonderful. thanks a ton.

  44. India Trace says:

    Very informative and well-researched article…thank you very much!!!!!

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