September 24, 2010

The Great Blogging Experiment: Writing Compelling Characters

Elana Johnson, goddess of all things internety/literary, has organized what shall from here on out be referred to as The Great Blogging Experiment. Today's (inaugural) topic? Writing compelling characters.

I have to say that character does not make or break a book to me. Some of my favorite books have had rather Mary-Sue-like characters, which I recognize and choose to accept anyway because the rest of the book is just that good. That being said, I've been struggling a lot in my current WIP with character.

I wrote about this recently, where I bemoaned the fact that my main character's main motivation at the beginning of the story is a man, her romantic interest. It's not necessarily that this makes her uninteresting and not compelling, but rather that I'm afraid of writing a weak main character - especially one who's a girl.

But today we're talking about compelling characters, not weak ones. And what I think makes a compelling character, or what I try to avoid when trying to write a compelling character, or what happens when compelling characters choose today to kick the bucket...

I think a lot of what makes a compelling character is realism. To me, a well-developed character, which a strong and believable history (known to the author, at least) goes a long way toward making a character compelling. If I believe in a character, if I understand their thought processes and the origins of their motivation, then I'm more likely to find him/her compelling.

And this is what I'm struggling with right now. One of the most interesting characters in my WIP when I started was a strong secondary character, the brother to the lead. But then I started writing him, and instead of being sad and soulful, he was suddenly snarky and kind of a jerk. Which isn't a problem, but at the least means I don't know him as well as I thought I did. And then what this means is that instead of being interesting and compelling (because of a great back story which, of course, I should have memorized), he's just a jerk. Without a back story. Which is not compelling.

Long story short, your main character can easily be made into a compelling person people will want to read about. The magic ingredient: back story. A believable background that provides your character's motivation, which turns him from a jerk you'd like to defenestrate into a jerk with a tragic past who you can't help but root for.

And all that means that you should spend time - a lot of time - with your characters. Get to know them. Have afternoon tea! Or trade snarky insults while you wait for the bus. Trust me, that's what I'm doing. Although it'll probably take a looong time to turn my formerly soulful secondary character into someone people have sympathy for. But it'll be worth it. Because in the long run, he is pretty awesome. You just have to get to know him first...

20 comments:

  1. Realism is definitely the key to a compelling character. So far of the few posts I've managed to read so far for this fest have been great -- yours included :)

    Lyn
    W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

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  2. I'm not sure about realism. Terry Pratchett has enormously compelling characters but I think that all of them are exaggerated for comic effect. Somehow for me that seems to make them more real than a "realistic" character.

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  3. Realism is very important. If the character seems fake no one will stick with it! Great post! Nice blog. I love the name ;o)

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  4. Great post! I am enjoying reading everyones post about compelling characters.

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  5. Great post. I'm going to have tea parties with my characters.

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  6. Reminding us about backstory is great. Your words make me keep in mind the difference between weaving backstory and info dumping too. Great thoughts!

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  7. Dude, your first few sentences imply that there might be more of these... Interesting thought.

    I totally believe that to create a compelling character, they must be whole. And they can't be whole without their backstory. Great post.

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  8. Good points!! I think knowing what your characters think, why and whats inside their heads are important - what motivates them. We want to know! ;)

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  9. I think a cup of tea with my character is in order for this afternoon, it's about time I really dig deep and learn more about them.

    Through this experiment I've learned that I can search a little deeper with my characters. What are they fighting for, how thick is their skin, etc.

    Thanks for participating! This has been a blast!

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  10. Realism, definitely required. And yes, backstory which has to be sprinkled in here and there. Great post!
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

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  11. @fairyhedgehog: I may have misspoke when I said 'realism' -- what I was trying to get across (in a hazy, sleepy, "Oh my gosh I haven't written this yet" way) is more realism in the sense that the character needs a developed history that makes them "real" -- most characters don't just pop out of nowhere, and if characters have no back story that drives their motivation, that's what makes them less compelling to me.

    @Elana: That's just the way it seemed to me -- SO easy to create a series of these. The potential is totally there.

    @Everyone else: thanks so much for stopping by! I'm glad you're enjoying this experiment - I am too, although I haven't had time to read everyone else's posts yet.

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  12. I'm pretty sure I spend too much time with my characters. They never shut up, they are always there. I never get a moment alone.... I hope it pays off in the end.

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  13. Great post..thanks for sharing your struggle with your characters...(very cool of you)

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  14. Great advice! I've discovered so many cool new blogs through this blogfest--yours included! :D

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  15. I think you hit it on the nail when you said you need to believe in your character. Great insight!

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  16. It sounds to me that you develop your characters as you write. So do I. But I keep notes in a word doc. that help. Good post, back story and all.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  17. My characters constantly surprise me too. I had one idea about this one character, and she totally threw me for a loop with how crazy she really is. Didn't see that one coming. But yes, I totally agree that the WRITER has to believe in the character first. If not, we can't expect readers to believe in the character.

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  18. Backstory is key for a character's development. Great post.

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  19. Authors need to know more about their characters than just what appears in the story. It's like each character is an iceberg, with the backstory supporting the events in the "real" story. Great post.

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  20. "Or trade snarky insults while you wait for the bus."

    The fact that you trade insults with your character makes both you and him altogether compelling. :)

    Great post!

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