A to Z Challenge 2013

Friday, September 24, 2010

Great Blogging Experiment - Writing Compelling Characters

I know it's Friday and that usually involves nonsensical fun, but Elana Johnson has inadvertently interrupted the schedule with...


It's not too bad though, because while we won't be laughing at insane cats (okay, I couldn't resist the picture) or watching cool book trailers, we will be discussing cool writerly things.

So what is the Great Blogging Experiment?  Basically there are a ton of bloggers who are putting up posts about a particular topic, and the interesting aspect of this is seeing how everyone addresses the same idea.  To paraphrase what Elana's already said, it's probable that all these posts will be different because all the bloggers are different.

The question posed is this:

How do we write compelling characters?

While there are general similarities I think everyone could agree on, there is an aspect of this that depends on the writer.  What is compelling for one person may not be for another.  For example, I enjoy everyman characters that find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.  I like initially unremarkable individuals that become (or reveal themselves to be) quite remarkable as the story progresses.  When I choose a main character (or they choose me, to be honest), more often than not these are the types of characters that appeal.

What I have at that point however, is a vision of the character in my head.  The character is compelling to me, and it's my job as a writer to bring this character to life such that everyone else finds them compelling as well.  How can I do this?

The first (and most important) thing to do is write the character as honestly as possible.  When we're describing a good friend to an outsider, it's human nature to leave off the traits that others might find less than appealing.  We sometimes paint a picture colored with a rosy shade rather than a vision of stark reality.  In our writing however, we must earn the trust of the reader by keeping the writing honest and real.  Our characters therefore, must be three dimensional and we have to expose their bad traits as well as the good.  It is this practice that allows the reader to trust that everything we tell them will be honest, real, and worth reading.  As they get to see the character through our eyes, the same facets that make them compelling to us as the writer will make them just as compelling to the reader.

The second thing is to give this character something to be involved in.  A story about someone who sits in their living room watching soap operas all day (even if written honestly) will not be all that compelling.  Our readers want to see something happen.  Take that character out and let them walk through the world, experiencing things, solving problems, discovering life.  Whatever the story is, the character needs to be actively involved.  They need to be an integral part of what is going on, even if it's a scene where they are not present.

The third thing to do is to change this character.

Say what?  Did he just say what I thought he said?  I just created this honest, real character, dragged him out of the house, made him walk down the path, and now he wants me to change things around?

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.  Your perfect three dimensional character needs to change over the life of the story.  Speaking as someone who has almost hit his 40th year, I can tell you that everyone changes.  Whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, every person changes over time.  This ties into the first part regarding keeping things honest, but if you want your reader to buy into the fact that this is a real person (or alien, or kid, or vampire), you have to keep them real throughout.  This means they need to be changed by their experiences, impacted by decisions they make, affected by the world around them.

There are many more ways to make characters compelling (and I'm sure my fellow bloggers will highlight other things, go check each of them out), but these are the top three as far as I'm concerned.  What are your ideas on making characters compelling?  What else should I have mentioned?  The comment box is open.  And everyone go have some ice cream.  Consider it a celebration of Friday.


Travis Erwin said...

Great concept Will have to read through the varying takes.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Nice post...I've thought about painting or drawing my character for a pb I'm working on...I know everyone cuts out their fav movie star and uses them as their mc....but pb's are different. :)

Have a great weekend!

Jen Chandler said...

"earn the trust of the reader "
Excellent point :)

Happy weekend,

Elena Solodow said...

I like the part about honesty. I think that's right. The last person you want to betray is your reader.

arlee bird said...

You and I are pretty much on the same page with this. As I state at the end of my post: "There are no boring characters, only boring writers." The job of the writer is to make the reader want to know what the character is going to do.

I especially like this post because I agree with it.

Tossing It Out

Eric said...

Travis - Thanks. This was fun to do.

Sharon - Thanks. I'll have to look up what a "pb" is, sorry. I think I understand what you're saying though.

Jen - Thanks. Have a great weekend also.

Elena - I truly believe in honesty in writing. I don't think anything else is more important than that.

Lee - Thank you. You are so right. If the writing is boring, it's because the writer allowed it to be.

Misha said...

Nicely put.

Character growth is so very important when it comes to writing a compelling character.

Part of every reader wants to see what happens to the character through the story. If nothing changes, the story becomes two dimentional...


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My character changes over the course of the story. Kinda lame if he didn't!
I like characters who appear confident and all-together but are hiding deficiencies.
Glad you could join the blogfest. I don't think Elana, Jen, and I could've predicted the number of participants!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Changing is key. Static characters are as boring to read as perfect ones.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I think it's interesting that you start with an ordinary character and make them compelling. That may be more challenging than starting with a larger-than-life character.

Thanks for the offer of ice cream, but I just had pie. ;)

Elaine AM Smith said...

You have a very valid point when you say compelling characters have to be individual. This is hard for everyone. The struggle to be like others but not copies? In some settings the uniqueness leeching through similarities is a great device.

Elana Johnson said...

I think giving them something to be part of is critical. Otherwise, why are we reading? But making sure they're pro-ing around, doing stuff, that's what creates the story. Great post, Eric!

Melissa said...

This is an excellent, excellent post. Seriously.

I'm amazed at all the amazing bloggers Ive been missing out on.

And, I'm actually eating some ice cream right now... how'd you know?

Pam Torres said...

I really like your ideas. There is a contract between the reader and the author and the honesty you speak of is crucial.
Thanks for the post. (And the pic is hilarious! I'm all for silliness.)

Lynda Young said...

great post with great points. Characters definitely need to develop.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Wonderful post, most interesting to read. I take it you're a novellist? I write poetry which is slightly different to wrting stories as I mainly write about my life's expereiences.
It was a pleasure to read your post.

Have a wonderful week-end;

Hannah Kincade said...

You're right about change. Everyone changes so why wouldn't our characters? Great post!

Julie said...

"... every person changes over time." Thank goodness for that. Great post!

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree, the character needs to change. While the essential person stays the same, they need to grow. If stuff just happens and they're in the middle of it just reacting, it's not enough of a story.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I like your point at the beginning that different people have different ideas about what is compelling in a character, but at the end of the day, a writer's job is to take whatever character we find compelling and make that person compelling to as many people as possible.

Cinette said...

Yes, people change over time, and not just get soft around the middle;0) Hopefully they grow in other ways.That's what we like to see in our characters.