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.
* 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. *