Writing Compelling Characters

This post is a blast from the past on my blog. I originally delved into this topic two years ago, here. Since I’m still doing revisions on my next novel, I’ve been looking at each character, examining them to make sure they have their own motivations, quirks, unique personalities, and mannerisms. This was a great reminder for me. Hopefully it will help you when you place your characters under that magnifying glass.

Writing a compelling character is as multi-faceted a topic as the character itself can become. There are so many points to concentrate on developing to make your character come to life and compel your reader to continue turning those pages. Here’s a few of my ideas.

When I’m writing and reading, I need to see the character–their movement, general appearance, mannerisms. I also need to hear them. How do they talk? What happens when they enter a room?
To write a compelling character, you first need to create the character by answering some of the above questions plus a few more. When I’m working on a novel, I use a character note document where I write the name of each character, age, hair color, eye color, height, striking factors in their appearance, where they live or where they are from, some of their hobbies, what type of work they do. The list can go on and on, but it’s important for each character to be different, not cut from the same cloth. I need to have identifiable differences between the characters and so I’ll make notes of how I can show that to my readers by certain mannerisms, speech, and specific appearance points.

Each character must sound like himself. This means if I pull out a string of dialogue from a novel, it should be indicative of the character speaking. If all the dialogue sounds the same, then a reader will not be able to differentiate clearly between the characters. You have to know your characters so well when writing, because your reader will know them and will pick up immediately if the character says something that is out of sync. You don’t want your reader thinking, “He wouldn’t say that.” You also don’t want them thinking, “he wouldn’t do that.”

So, writing compelling characters is all about making the characters REAL, making them come to life and step off the pages of the book. One of my favorite tips that I heard several years ago (sorry, can’t remember who said it) was, “You should know your character well enough, that if you passed them on a busy street you would recognize them.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg on writing compelling characters, but it’s a great starting point.
Think of your favorite books. Are they your favorite because of the plot or the characters? Who are some of your all-time favorite characters?

Some of mine? I love Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson definitely stays with you. Katniss from The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. All of these characters are so well-written, I feel like they are my friends–especially Anne!

*This is a great exercise, as it helps to pinpoint reasons why certain characters resonate with you.
Okay, your turn to share. I’d love to hear some of your favorites.

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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4 Responses to Writing Compelling Characters

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    One of the signs of a good story, in my opinion, is that other characters besides “the” main character show signs of existence outside the needs of the story, with motivations and history of their own. Back when I was writing No Going Back, I remember deciding that each character I was bringing in as a POV character really should have his or her own story arc if at all possible. Don’t know how well I succeeded in that — and it was a lot more work that way — but it also made the story seem more real to me as an author, and I hope to my readers as well.

    One of my pet peeves in my current writing group (YA authors, all but me female) is teenage boys who exist only for their impact on the female main character. That, and boys who don’t really sound like boys at all. Sometimes as a writer, I have struggled with characters who have to say something for plot reasons, but who just wouldn’t say those things in any terribly coherent way. (Teenage boys, again.) It’s a trade-off. Part of what makes characters compelling is seeing their motivations and emotions come to the surface, but many of us in real life hide those things. The job of the novelist is to bring those emotions to the surface through a combination of circumstances — the plot of the story — and carefully crafted words and actions. When it works, it’s like seeing someone unpeeled, if that makes sense.

    A writer I particularly admire in this connection is Ray Bradbury in Dandelion Wine. What he does there with Douglas and Tom Spaulding is create a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old whose words and actions and thoughts ring utterly true to who and what they are — if boys that age were articulate enough to express who they are that clearly. And yet he still does it in language that *sounds* like boys that age. I don’t entirely understand how he does it. I’m terribly jealous.

  2. Those are excellent points and I love the examples. Especially like the idea of peeling the character and looking inside. :)

  3. Nice post and nice comment by Jonathan. I like that he mentioned a pet peeve because when we feel that way, it makes us particularly sensitive to getting that part right.

  4. Characters are the reason I ever write. I’m not so good at the whole plot thing… hopefully getting better, though :)

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