Friday, September 24, 2010

How to Make Compelling Characters

This post is part of Jen, Alex and Elana’s Great Blogging Experiment.

What makes a character compelling? What is that secret ingredient that makes us care about what happens to them? Below I’ve listed a few elements that add to a character’s charm.

Believability: characters should come across as real. Not cardboard cut outs. Compelling characters should be like onions. They should have more than one layer. They need to have depth, history, motivations, goals.

Relatability: characters should have traits we can all relate to. We like the people we connect with the most.

Flawed: characters who have flaws are more interesting and believable and in turn become more relatable. No one likes a perfect person. No one likes a perfectly bad person either.

Conflict: even the most interesting character becomes boring if they are placed in a story with no conflict. Our characters need challenges to overcome.

Envy: This might sound strange, but even a boring person becomes interesting when they have something we want. I’ll travel through a book with a bland character and hardly notice their blandness if they are living the life I want to live, overcoming the odds I want to overcome.

Uniqueness: the same ole clichéd characters we’ve all seen before won’t pique our interested. We should try to give them something new, something unexpected.

Consistency: characters need to react in a consistent way. We put our guard up when they do something totally unexpected without motivation.

Likeability: No one likes a whinger. Even a whinging villain can become a groan.

Can you think of other elements that make up a compelling character?

55 comments:

  1. Now, those onions must be for me :)) Don't tell me you ate them as well already.

    I'd say originality is the best trait I like to see in a compelling character and complexity above all, I like when the writers forms the character in a detailed way like a psychologist.

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  2. Definitely all good factors for a compelling character! I think another good one is desire-- they need to WANT something. Something compelling for them, and for the reader.

    Thanks for sharing this! I liked your thoughts on having a reader envy the character-- very good point I've never thought of before.

    I'll be posting for the blog experiment tomorrow, and it was nice to read yours a little early! Thanks!

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  3. I think the most important character traits for me as a reader are likability and relatability. If I can't like or relate to the character, I won't enjoy their story for long.

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  4. Dez, um..no, they remain safe until dinner time ;) They are all yours if you can come to Oz and pic em up before then ;)

    And yes, complexity is so important.

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  5. Shallee, yes, compelling characters need goals :)

    I'm ahead of my time in Oz so I end up always posting first in blogfests..lol. It's Friday morning! Woot! Friday!

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  6. Jeffrey, even well written nasty characters should have an element that connects us to them --vulnerability maybe, or we like to hate them, or we secretly relate to their bad traits.

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  7. Great list! I love your ingredients :)

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  8. What about a character that is based on someone (in real life) who is too strange to believe? Do you think his character should be toned down?

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  9. Great post - I agree good characters and ogres are like onions, not parfait!

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  10. Lynda, I think you've nailed it! I especially like the envy. I never really thought of that before. =)

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  11. You've started us off strong Lynda! Of course I'm still several hours away from Friday, but I can certainly appreciate an awesome post such as this to get us started!!!

    You nailed it!

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  12. That's a great list! Likability and relatability are definitely important. And where would we be in any story without conflict?! :-)

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  13. I think this will be a great blogfest. Cant wait to see what kind of posts we get. Yours is great.

    CD

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  14. Pat, I think for fiction you may have to tone it down. As they say, often real life is "stranger than fiction".

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  15. Jen, it's the benefit (or disadvantage) of living on the other side of the world. Thanks :)

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  16. Clarissa, I'm looking forward to seeing all the different variations too :)

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  17. I definitely like onions!

    Flaws are uber-important. There's a fine line between making a flawed character likable or not, but every character needs some sort of problem. Otherwise they're too darned perfect!

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  18. Great list! You know if you put them in a different order you could create an acronym: CLUBFER (the key for character success) ;o)

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  19. Stephanie, true..can't make them too flawed or flawed in a way that's annoying, but there must be flaws :)

    Jessica, or it could be CREBUFLC...sounds like a sneeze you make while eating a cookie.

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  20. Great list! Can't think of anything to add. A combination of any of these traits would make a compelling and three-dimensional character.

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  21. Jennifer, I think it can all be melted down to complexity and realism.

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  22. Great post, Lynda! :) You've got all elements covered! :)And nice to meet you...I'm now following your blog :)

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  23. Believability and consistancy are the two big ones for me. I hate it when I'm half way through a book and a character does something that to me is completely out of character, so I'm left there yelling' "Why?! You'd never do that?! That's not how you work!" and I get frustrated with the story :P

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  24. That's a great rundown of what compelling characters need! Now just to figure out how to do that!

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  25. Lynda..for me a compelling character has all these elements. If he or she is a strong character with loads of self confidence, then I am hooked.
    Thanks for this wonderful advice and post.

    http://rachnachhabria.blogspot.com/2010/09/13-elements-of-good-story.html

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  26. Those are all characteristics that make up a compelling character! I never really thought of Consistency that way . . . but I realize I should take that into consideration! Nice post and advice. :)

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  27. Great stuff here, super reminders. I know a lot of writers (myself included) have tried to make the typical melodramatic teenager, full of angst, but then that person is SO bratty no one wants to read about them. LOL Toning 'em down is recommended!

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  28. Lots of good info. So many good blogs.

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  29. Ah, Envy! Yes, I agree. We definitely want to want what they're having. All great points! ;)

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  30. Envy is a great one. Don't we all want to live vicariously through a character once in a while?

    Great post!

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  31. Just attended a workshop on character goal motivation & conflict last night. Excellent way to make juicy characters.

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  32. Oooh, envy. I like this. I like it a lot. Maybe that's why I read Twilight? I think you might be on to something here...

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  33. Blogger stole my comment!!!!!

    I feel cheated.

    Well, now that I've got that out of my system, I agree totally with you.

    Even as a child your thoughts applied to me. Superman was too perfect. I could envy but not like him or imagine myself to be him.

    Batman, dark and driven, yes. I could train and study and become him. Green Lantern needed only will power and imagination -- and what child doesn't brim over with those?

    Come check out my own advice. See what you think. Roland

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  34. Oooh! I hadn't thought of envying the characters in books but it's so true! Great job!

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  35. great post. Envy is a new thought. Yeah, make us want what they have. Good thought.

    Someone pointed out that no one is talking about characters having a sense of humour. Perhaps that's something to state explicity. I always think that's implicit..:)

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  36. Great list, Lynda! You are right...one I hadn't really thought of or seen elsewhere was envy, but it's true. You want your reader to want to live the character's life or solve the problem....WTG!

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  37. Envy and consistency - why didn't I think of these? Totally awesome.

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  38. Len, nice to meet you too :)

    Jamie, isn't it infurating when a character does soemthing out of character for no reason at all.

    Rachna, yes, self confidence is a winner. I didn't mention that.

    Carol, yes, super bratty characters are just annoying.

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  39. Elana, I think that's part of twilight's appeal (most of, infact)

    Roland, blogger is a hungry beast. Yes, superman's only weakness was kryptonite... hardly a flaw. You are right: he is too perfect.

    L'Aussie, another great point! Characters need a sense of humour :)

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  40. Great post, I agree with all your points.

    Knowing that my characters have something to learn through the course of the story is pretty important to me. That's something I tie in with the character's flaws and strengths.

    Jai

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  41. This is a great list!!! Love the envy one. ;)

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  42. Envy is a good one! And it's true, even if they aren't interesting, if their life is, then it's fun to read.

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  43. good points. sorry its taken an extra day for me to get back to you. there's alot of entries! Have a great weekend.

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  44. Thanks everyone for leaving so many great comments. There were so many fab entries in the Experiement! :)

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  45. Hi Lyn! Great post. :) I especially liked your suggestion that every character needs conflict. I just read the most awesome book by Blake Snyder and in it he suggests that every scene needs a +/- emotion. It needs conflict--just like each character. So this was a great reinforcement for me, thanks!

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  46. I like your point about envy. I think a lot of the more popular books out there are popular because the characters fulfill the secret or not-so-secret ambitions of readers.

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  47. Oh Envy! Yes, that's a new one I've seen. Great list ;o)

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  48. Thanks again for all your awesome comments

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  49. All excellent points, especially envy. That's one I had thought about. Great post!

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  50. All good things in that list!

    Great post!

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