Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 27, 2019

How to Create A Compelling Character

Shirley Jump

My number-one goal as an author is to create a compelling character, one so amazing that readers will talk about him/her long after they have finished the book.

So what makes for a compelling character? Look around you at the books you read, the shows you watch. Which characters draw you in the most? Which ones have you hooked and coming back time and again?

Take an especially close look at the “unusual” characters who hook you. Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Jax from Sons of Anarchy. The Godfather. Reacher from the Lee Child novels. Sayid from Lost.

They Are a Cut Above the Rest

These are characters who don’t fit the norm. They are people who make questionable decisions yet still manage to resonate with readers and viewers (like the man who pretends to be Jack Sommersby in Sommersby). They are multi-dimensional characters who often have dark sides that are tempered by strong moral compasses, flickers of conscience and/or incredibly interesting personas (like Hannibal Lecter).

Take Jax from Sons of Anarchy, the FX channel show about a motorcycle gang in California. This is a classic good versus evil show—the “good” Feds and cops against the “bad” motorcycle gang who is trafficking in guns.

No doubt about it, the SOA gang does some very bad things. They kill people. They torture people. They run a business producing hard core porn videos. They sometimes even kill their own. They have an interesting job that is far outside the realm of the rest of us, and when you watch the show, you are part of their world. And you can’t tear yourself away, no matter how hard you try because that dark side, mixed with a strong moral code, creates a gripping show that hooks you early and keeps you hooked.

They Love, and Love Deeply

But the one thing that Jax (and all the others) has is an unbreakable devotion to family, both their blood family and their gang family. There is nothing they wouldn’t do to protect those they love, and no stone they’d leave unturned if one of their own is missing. You see quiet moments where Jax is holding his baby or talking to his mother, and you see a multi-dimensional man who is basically just trying to do the right thing. Granted, their version of right and wrong is a little skewed from the rest of the world’s, but it’s close enough that you can relate to their care and concern.

When Jax’s baby son is kidnapped, there is no doubt that he will do whatever it takes to get his child back. He does step over the line of the law many times, but as a viewer, you can see his pain and desperation and you can relate. You find yourself cheering for him, even when he does something you might not support in any other circumstance.

They Are Relatable

That’s the key to a compelling character. You can make them do the most heinous or generous things, as long as the actions are properly motivated. With proper motivation, a character can do nearly anything and the reader will be captivated because they can empathize, even put themselves in that character’s shoes. Even Tony Soprano, the famed fictional mob boss, has his moments where what he is doing is purely wrong, but you understand because he is protecting his family. In the end, that’s what Tony does everything for—his family.

You need to find the elements of your character that everyone can relate to. There’s commonalities among everyone—love of family, love of children, fear of failure, etc. Reacher, from the Lee Child novels, is a loner with a checkered past in the Army. He crosses the line sometimes, but that’s because he is living his life by his rules, rules based firmly on wrong and right. He does what he has to in order to protect and save the weaker among us. You can relate to him, care about him, support his actions, because in the end, he’s doing the right thing.

On Lost, Sayid, who was an Iraqi Republican Guard soldier who tortured people before he landed on the island, had perhaps one of the most reprehensible careers among the cast. But as the show wore on, you learned about how what he had to do tortured Sayid as much as those he hurt. How he paid a huge price for what he had to do, and how he would do whatever it took from here on out to protect and save his friends. Sayid is a loyal and generous man, the kind you want behind or beside you when things get dicey.

They Are Strong

Compelling characters are can-do characters. They have moments of doubt—everyone does—but they don’t stand there waffling for 20 minutes. They make a decision, good or bad, and they stick with it. Reacher, for instance, runs through a quick paragraph or two of the pros and cons of his decisions and, in the end, usually chooses the one with less cons because it’s the right decision, the one that protects or saves the most people. He is prepared to make sacrifices, even get hurt himself, as long as the outcome is the right one.

These are characters you can depend on in a crisis. They can be affable and funny (think of Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs,) or stern and almost scary (think of Dirty Harry) but in the end, if you had to pick one person in the room to have with you on an adventure, that’s the name that comes to mind. Their spirits don’t break easily, and even when everything seems lost, they forge forward. Because that’s all they know how to do. They don’t sit and wallow. They act.

Tips for Creating Compelling Characters

  1. Layer their pasts: People who have had flat, uninteresting pasts don’t make for interesting people in the present. The guy who grew up with two parents and lived in the same house all his life and had a puppy that became his best friend…blah, blah…that guy doesn’t become a Jax or Sayid or Reacher (same with female characters). Batman became Batman because of what happened to his parents. Not because he was wealthy or privileged or went to the opera a lot.
  2. Give them tough moral choices: The most interesting novel situations arise from moral quandaries, whether neither this decision or that seems totally right. Put your character into what seems an impossible situation, and make them choose.
  3. Give them something worth fighting for: A compelling character also has a compelling goal. Study the movies, books and TV shows that grab your attention and don’t let go. Why are you so hooked? What has captured your attention so thoroughly? They can be fighting for something as small as saving their home, or as large as saving the world. Will Smith’s character in Seven Pounds makes some questionable choices, but in the end, you see why and you understand. The last choice he has to make is a heartbreaker. No matter which way he goes, someone will lose, and you feel his pain as he fills that tub.
  4. Give them heroic tendencies: What makes a hero? Someone who will run into a fire when everyone else runs away. Someone who will fight, even when the battle seems impossible to win, someone who will sacrifice themselves in order to save others (think of the best heroes in movies, books and real life). Write down 5 heroic tendencies you have seen in those you admire and use those with your protagonist.
  5. Give them worthy adversaries: It’s no fun to watch the good guy battle everyone to the ground in one fell swoop. You want him or her to fight someone who is as strong as the protagonist. Whether it’s the birth mother trying to get her child back (Losing Isaiah) or the wizard who feels he was wrongly convicted (Harry Potter), you should give your compelling character and equally compelling antagonist.

What do you think? Do you have examples of other unforgettable characters for us?

18 comments on “How to Create A Compelling Character”

  1. It seems so simple, when you read great characters (my two faves, Scout and Scarlett). But writing them is hard! I never want to be mean to mine, even though I know that the best ones face the most adversity.

    Thanks for blogging with us, Shirley!

  2. “They have moments of doubt—everyone does—but they don’t stand there waffling for 20 minutes.”

    Unless they're Hamlet...

  3. Some excellent advice and reminders here!

    Memorable characters...well, I could name dozens, probably, but there are a few that stick out in my mind from recent books I've read

    One is Eleanor Oliphant from _Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine_. She's so snarky about everything, and her passive-aggressive relationship with her mother will make readers want to reach through the pages and shake her by the shoulders. Until they find out why the relationship is the way it is.

    Also, I fell in love with the books by author Fredrik Backman, and his first, _A Man Called Ove_ still makes me laugh and cry (sometimes on the same pages.) Ove is just so pessimistic, and the simple goal he has, to commit suicide without interruption, seems horrifying when we spell it out like that but had me in stitches as I read the book.

    Another one is Herr Thiessen from _The Night Circus_. That man is just so endearing. I wish he was my friend and that I could spend hours talking to him about that magical place.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

    1. I have heard great things about A Man Called Ove. I definitely need to read it. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Very good advice. I remember a character named Hershel Greene on the TV series The Walking Dead. He was killed off but not forgotten because he made mistakes as everyone else and was a recovering alcoholic. In spite of those things he was the moral compass everyone flocked to for advice. He was a fan favorite. Id like to write a character like that.

    1. I LOVED Hershel. I was soooooo sad when they killed him off. You're right--great character!

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