Friday, September 24, 2010

Characters That Work

I’ve heard countless times that agents, when looking for the next great manuscript and readers, looking for the next great read, want compelling characters. But, what does this mean? Compelling? And why have I never thought of characters as compelling when I can’t put the book down? Sure, these characters are amazing, and sometimes I want to be in the middle of the stories as if they were my own experiences. But why?


Compelling characters make me --force me-- to be in love with them as they find their way through trials or charge fearlessly down hidden hallways and dark forests. This makes for wonderful literature, and for fascinated readers. But how do we do this? How do authors create compelling characters -- ones that not only we want to read but others too -- and convince our readers that they should care about them?



Here’s a tiny list by which I try to strive:

  • Make them human: This is a given. And most writers would tell you this is. Give your character flaws that lots of people have or even flaws that only some of us have. Give us your poor and needy, and you’ve got a character most everyone can identify with. Fears, insecurities, bad habits. These human characteristics are all important for a true character, which in turn, makes them compelling.

  • Give them a goal: If the character isn’t striving to overcome a huge goal, or meddling with a huge personal sacrifice, what’s going to make me turn the pages? Why would I care about a perfect character without any goals? I wouldn’t. That’s a non-compelling character no one identifies with. Plot-less, character-less books don't make for happy readers. Give your characters goals, and you’ve got attractive people.

  • Give them a problem: I’ve heard this, most recently from Mary Kole from a Writeoncon “class,” to absolutely, without a doubt, give your characters a problem. In other words, what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to this person? Or take it the other way and figure out what’s the best thing that could happen? (which, should inevitably lead to a problem). This propels the story, makes more personal the character for the reader to relate to, and gives the writer awesome characters.

  • Make them learn: Don’t forget to make your character learn through this goal/problem that they overcame. If they’re worse off than when the story began, or didn’t learn a thing, talk about an unfulfilled reader! And really, as a writer, it should be unfulfilling for you if by the end of your story nothing's changed. Your characters, especially the protagonist, need to learn something about themselves and their world around them, in order to create not only a great story but satisfying characters.

If you utilize these four things, and yes there are many more layers to this list, it’s the basics for some amazing characters. And if you have compelling characters, then more importantly, you will have both agents and readers compelled to read your works.

-Heather


* This blog post would not be possible without the gentle coercion from Elana Johnson, writer, writing teacher (Writeoncon, Query Tracker Blog, and League of Extraordinary Writers) and amazing person. Thanks for the inspiration and for reminding me how to write compelling characters. *



30 comments:

  1. Dude, this is my post, but SO MUCH BETTER. And now I have to give up my kidney, because we blogged about the same thing. But yours was SO MUCH BETTER. So maybe I can keep my vital organs... :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Helpful. In applying this to preaching/speaking, the one I've heard the most is #3 - problem or conflict. Seems like so much in life does resolve around conflict, that is what draws people in. But the other suggestions help develop and round out a scenario. Good stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Elana, No, YOUR blog post is far superior... keep the organs. Really. Thanks for the compliments, but it was your prompt that made this post possible. See, it all goes back to you, the lifeline. No organ donation necessary. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post! I especially like "make them human" and "make them learn". I haven't seen anyone address the learning issue in quite that way yet. Awesome. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I like your idea of characters forcing you to love them. That's great!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Make them learn.
    I love it!

    Cheers,
    Jen

    ReplyDelete
  7. Warren, thanks!

    Shannon, glad to have given you a new perspective. Nice.

    Elena, thanks. I like that too!

    Jen, making one learn is a great thing. Makes us feel helpful, I suppose. A good thing. Cheers to you too.

    -H

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great post! You've got to immerse yourself in your characters life...you can't write about a soccer star and not know how to play...or know anything about the soccer world...

    ReplyDelete
  9. I also agree that characters should learn something over the course of the story. Without learning, there is no change or growth.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I try to hit those points with my characters as well, especially the last one. If they don't learn and grow during the course of the story, then what was the point?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great information and I think that's the great thing about a really great book, is the characters are compelling, but not "in your face" noticeable. Great!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Top five posts of the day.

    This is great information you've given me. Stuff that I'll try to start consciously thinking about instead of doing it all by gut.

    ReplyDelete
  13. growth is so important to make a character compelling. We love to read about thier journey.

    ReplyDelete
  14. All very important points.
    Thanks :-)

    ReplyDelete
  15. I gave myself a crik in the neck while reading your post...I was nodding in agreement so often!! :) Excellent points and terrific advice! Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  16. So many great points and advice. I love how you said there are some characters who force us to love them. So so true.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Wonderful points, Heather, and well written too! :)

    Come and visit me!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Yes, internal and external conflict are vital to a character's arc (growth) over the course of the story arc. Great advice. :)

    This is my first time here. *waves* Nice to meet you.

    Happy Weekend,
    Lola

    ReplyDelete
  19. Great post. Make them human... that's awesome. We aren't just creating characters, but an actual person.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I love your list of four things, but my favorite is to have the characters learn. Stagnating characters don't compel me at all.

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Having the external desire in competition with the outer desire is fascinating. Finding that gray area between absolutes. I always love when a character come to a point that they have to question everything they thought. Thanks for reminding us of that!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Love the fact that you continued the 'list' theme from your last post to this post! As a non-fiction writer, I don't develop characters as such, but I am an avid reader and can attest to the value of each of these characteristics.

    *Saw you over on a mutual friend's site (Warren Baldwin) and realized we had some things in common. I'd love your feedback on my site Life Lessons! God bless!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks again everyone! Appreciate the feedback.

    Pam, you said it. Requestioning everything they thought is a story-moving element with story-moving characters.

    Maria, thanks for coming over! I'm glad you read it. I'll check your site out too!
    -H

    ReplyDelete
  24. Good point about making them learn! Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I gave you an award on my blog :-)

    ReplyDelete
  26. Ooh! Thanks Rachel...I'll check it out!
    Ishta, thank you! Welcome.
    -H

    ReplyDelete
  27. Here I am still wandering thru the compelling character blog fest. You nailed it pretty good here. A compelling character makes us care what happens to them and know what's going to happen next.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

    ReplyDelete