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?