Building Compelling Characters

How do we build characters our readers want to follow? How do we engage the reader at an emotional level to where she will want to stay with them through the entire story?

There are a slew of books, articles, workshops, podcasts and other forums that address this element.

Let me share my experiences and thoughts on this. I’d like to stay this is all original with me and what follows is the writing blockbuster that will solve all your problems. As Al Borland would say, “I don’t think so, Tim.

I will share what I’ve learned along the way in the hope it may encourage you and give some insights you maybe haven’t thought. In all this, I must acknowledge those from whom I have learned: James Scott Bell, DiAnn Mills, Steven James, Brandilyn Collins, and Orson Scott Card to name just a few who have taught and inspired me.

Think about characters you’ve read, characters you connected with at a deeper level, characters you remember long after the book is finished. What was it about them?

When I think of my favorites characters—Harry Bosch, Maisie Dobbs, Ender Wiggins, Adam Dalgliesh, Barbara Havers and a host of others—I remember I responded more to what they did than what they felt.

We begin to care when we see the character pursue a goal, when their actions show their real values.

In real life, we admire those who both talk the talk and walk the walk, even when we don’t agree with them. But those who only talk the talk and walk an entirely different philosophy leave a sour taste. Beyond not liking them, we don’t trust them.

One school of thought for creating compelling characters is sometimes called the ‘dossier’ method. This is where we write a thorough background of at least our main characters before we start actually writing the book. These take the form of biographical studies back to our character’s childhood. They frequently involve long, detailed questionnaires that sometimes delve into their parents’ generation and even their grandparents. Some techniques include questions such as:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?

Others recommend Myer-Briggs or other personality profiles.

I’ve tried just about all of them at least once. Yes, they can provide useful information. They also solicit information that isn’t useful or is never used in bringing the character to life on the page.

I also discovered they frequently lock the character into the profile, making her inflexible or stifling his growth and ability to change. Many times, the character can’t change because of the restraints imposed by the character profile.

Stories only work when the character has to deal with change in a significant way. And all stories are about characters changing in the face of obstacles they face.

Another method is sometimes called the ‘discovery’ method or the serendipity technique. This is the one I use now because it brings the character more vividly to life as I follow her through the story.

I begin with some knowledge of the character: age, gender, and basic demographics. I may try to find a photo online that best seems to capture what I imagine or the actor or actress I think would best portray the character on screen. Next, I imagine what the character’s voice would be like. How he would come across if I met him on the street or at a party? I look for things that would influence her as the story moved along:

  • What are her core values?
  • What does she want at the story’s beginning more than anything else in the world?
  • What’s her secret? What does she not want any other character to know?
  • What is she willing to die for physically, emotionally, professionally, or psychologically?

Then, like William Faulkner, I set the characters loose and follow them, experiencing the story though their eyes and actions. As we move through the story, they reveal aspects of their background that drive them to behave and think and feel they way they do in that story moment. When this happens, they become more real and compelling on the page.

I talk with my characters. Frequently. My wife says I’ll never be lonely because I have so many people in my head. In my first book, I got stuck because my main female character came across as too stereotypical. Finally, I asked her, “Rachel, I don’t get it. What do you want?” She huffed and said, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you read the book?”

And it clicked. I had completely missed her snarky independence. When “I got it,” she came to life on the pages.

What are some of the things you’ve learned to make you characters complex and compelling?

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