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  • Writer's pictureWriting Voices

What is the key to creating compelling characters?

You know an author has really cracked it when you finish a book and miss the characters. Great characterisation is an integral part to a good story, so we asked the scribble for their thoughts on the the key to creating compelling characters.

My approach to creating compelling characters is a bit long-winded, but it works for me. I like to write the first draft of my short stories in first person, which allows me to get right under the skin of my main character, and see the whole story from their point of view. I get to write extensively in their voice and understand how they feel about the other characters in the story; and I start to experience the world I’m creating through their eyes. Once I’ve taken myself out of the equation, and established who my character is and what they sound like, it’s then easy for me to redraft the story into third person, which is the form I usually prefer.

If I’m going to include a physical description of my character, I try not to worry too much about hair colour, eye colour, height, etc, and I avoid the ‘As she stared into the mirror, she cursed her flashing green eyes and turned up nose,’ trope at all costs. Any physical description I include has to serve the story - unless the character lives in a world where having, say, blonde hair, is punishable by death, who cares what colour their hair is? But, a pair of beaten-up tennis shoes worn to an interview, under a borrowed suit; nails bitten down to the quick; or a silver hip flask in the pocket of a surgeon, are the kind of revelatory details that will bring a character to life, and also give the reader a clue about where the story might be going.

Dialogue is very important when creating characters. As a beginning writer, it was very easy to make all my characters sound like each other; which is another way of saying, they all sounded like me. Nowadays, I read their words out loud, and ask myself, does this sound like a teenager / old man / middle-aged woman? It’s important to make sure your characters’ voices are distinguishable from one another, and from your own.

Finally, it pays to remember that human beings are complex, and so it follows that a character will always be more believable if they are not wholly good nor wholly evil. A murderer who adores his pet budgerigar will always be compelling, as will a nun who collects speeding tickets like a vet collects dog hair. Have fun with your characters - after all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them!

I think for me, a big part of creating a compelling character is getting their voice right. Regardless of if that's in the form of dialogue, monologue or inner-thoughts. It's no use trying to portray a cool teenager, but have them come across like an eighty year old woman.

It's also important to create a sense of realism, a character who seems totally unrealistic and out of place, won't be compelling to a reader / audience. Making sure they have the right goals, intentions and morals for the narrative and setting is key. Otherwise, you can end up with a character that just becomes totally boring and fails to capture an audience.

Whenever I'm coming up with a new story, I always keep a separate notebook / document with profiles and my intended direction for each character. Not only does it help me keep track of the small details, but it helps me give the key players a full back story, personality and style. It means each one comes across as an individual, rather than just another paper-person.

Depth is key, give every character all the details you can think of, even if you don't actually use them. It makes them real people to you and, in turn, will make them real and interesting to your reader.

For me, the trick to writing compelling characters is authenticity. They must feel real. Whether the character is a human person living in a real setting or a dragon or a wizard, they must still have believable traits. That authenticity is comprised of a few things in my opinion:

First of all, desire. This was one of the most useful pieces of advice I remember receiving in secondary school English class. Every compelling character should desire something. That could be treasure, love, sex - even the desire to do nothing at all. We all have desires and our characters should too. This is what drives them.

Next is emotion. Emotions add depth to our characters. They must feel things, as we do. If our characters feel pride, heartache, joy - we feel it too - and it makes them all the more real.

Another thing that I think is important is that our characters are relatable. If we can see ourselves in characters, they become more real to us - and this makes them compelling. We like to see ourselves in the stories we read.

The big thing for me are the imperfections in a character. I like characters with vulnerabilities and flaws. Perhaps they have bad habits, get tempted. They aren’t right all the time and sometimes they make big mistakes. They feel fear and they don't always win.

I think you need to build layers into a great character and we need to understand their motivations (although you don’t have to be transparent with these right away). It’s also not just about the character, it’s about the journey your character goes on throughout your narrative. The win at the end of a story isn’t usually why you love a character; it's how they handle the journey and the growing up they have to do to get to the end. It's the tough decisions they make; the getting up after they've been knocked down. Let them lose. Give your character three dimensions and then put them under some pressure.

Think about it, how many great stories are all about genuinely perfect people living genuinely perfect lives?

Give us a reason to empathise and identity with your characters. It’s hard to invest in a narrative when you aren’t rooting for the characters. I think this might be one of the reasons certain books feel like a new read ten years after you first pick it up; you’ve grown up a bit and you get a fresh perspective on the dimensions and motivations of the characters. The story hasn’t changed, you already know who the killer is, but it still feels very fresh.

This is actually a great thing to ask for feedback and critique on. Instead of throwing open the floor to any kind of critique, why don’t you ask your beta reader how they feel about certain characters and their actions?


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Cover image by NeONBRAND via Pixabay


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