Friday, September 24, 2010

How to write compelling characters

Blogger friend Elena Solodow posted a link to this cool blogging experiment at Elena Johnson's blog. At the time of writing, there were 193 bloggers signed up to post about this topic: How to write compelling characters.

OK, I confess some small feelings of fraudulence here, because I know that characters are one of my weak spots. Along with plot, tension, story arc, dialogue, punctuation...

So who am I to be giving advice here? But I'm a sucker for an interesting experiment, so, in the name of science, here goes...

My piece of advice is simple: Observe real people.

Your characters are people, and people are infinitely interesting. How better to make your characters compelling than to look at what you find compelling in people? Besides, truth is stranger than fiction, so I bet you can find more depth and variety in the real world than you'd ever be able to dream up for yourself. And if you ground yourself in reality, I bet you can envisage a characterstic more fully and therefore write about it more compellingly than if you'd just invented it.

Even your non-people characters probably need to have some kind of recognisable traits for readers to identify with. And if you are trying to emphasise the alien-ness of a character, you need a solid reference point of how humans behave from which to depart.

Of course, I don't mean just copy any old features you see, but rather draw your inspiration from real life.

For example, if you need a villain, rather than drag out a stereotype from the dusty "villains" box on the shelf above your desk, look at some real villains. What motivated Jack the Ripper? Can you capture the ruthlessness of Al Capone? What compelled millions of decent, upstanding citizens follow Adolf Hitler so enthusiastically into war?

Or add depth to a character by using details you've observed elsewhere. I don't mean to base your characters on people around you, but take note of specifics that really caught your eye. Maybe a characteristic gesture or manner of speech, or something about the way they walk. Someone's insistence on dunking their teabag for no more than four seconds when making a cup of tea. Someone else's collection of pysanky lining the bookshelves in their living room.

If you introduce things that truly fascinated you, then you can bring that fascination out on the page. Polish it up to a shine and share it with your readers. But be sparing. You don't want the detail to overwhelm the character. Tease your readers with tantalising glimpses of these gems of insight. I'm sure they will thank you for it.


  1. I have to confess: as I was scrolling through the blogs listed on Elana's list I saw the title of your blog and instantly liked it because I'm starting to thin on top myself. Male-pattern baldness.
    What you've said about characters strongly resembles my own thoughts. I'm a novice writer so I don't have a lot of experience to draw on but when I do write I tend to pour what I've observed in others in to my characters.Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I like your idea for 'teasing your characters.' I find myself over-detailing to the point that it's annoying! No one's ever too revealing, huh? Thanks for sharing. :-)

  3. I agree with you completely and have already said something similar with my own post. Like I've always said - If you don't like/love your characters, no one else will.

  4. P.S. Welcome to Canada. I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - the heart of the prairies.

  5. Well, I'm going to have to try these blog experiments more often :-)

    Welcome, folks!

    Scott, I like my blog title too. I say: if you ain't got it, flaunt it!

    Hello lettucehead, great screen name! Yeah, I think character details are a bit like backstory and world building. It's one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of writing: putting all that effort into juicy detail...and then leaving most of it out! But it still leaves its mark on your writing as I mentioned in a post about setting here a while ago.

    And Wendy, too true! And thank you. Canada is such a welcoming place.

  6. Welcome to CANADA! I hope you LOVE it here as much as I do.

    Observing real people is a great way to get fodder for our characters. And teasing our characters is a great idea as well.

    Excellent post.

  7. You saying that truth is stranger than fiction reminded me of THE BROTHER'S GRIMM. I can't remember the exact quote, but the Queen says something along those lines.

  8. Great point on observing real life people, and teasing with glimpses of insight. Will have to remember that for my WIP :)

  9. Bald is beautiful. And sexy. But back to the experiment. I like your take on characterization. Oh wait, it's also MY take. But you said it so eloquently.

    I'm marking this to read again later. You made some most excellent points.

    Great post, that rebel, Olivia

  10. I am starting from the bottom of the list to make a comment. Lovely to write to an ex Brit.
    I as a poet never knew what it took to write a story or a column so now I understand a wee bit more how it al comes together,
    I found your post most interesting and a great pleasure to read.

    Enjoy your week-end;

  11. Melissa, yes, we LOVE Canada. In fact we always have done, ever since we first visited. This blog only has an occasional writing post, mainly because I only occasionally get around to actual writing, but if you follow the "Immigration" label there's a lot about our experiences of moving and settling in. To us, this is home now.

    Quinn, not sure where the quote first came from, but many people have used it over the decades.

    Thank you, Rachael and Olivia. BTW, Olivia, my wife reads this blog too ;-)

    World of poetry (if I am permitted to call you that), I in turn know nothing about poetry. And precious little about writing, come to that. But I can say that this is but a tiny part of the writing process, and is only my take on that part. Everyone's approach is unique to them. Everyone's writing experience is different. Which is why it's so valuable to compare notes from time to time.

  12. Every good writer needs to observe real people in real life. Love that's where you start your creation of compelling characters. A lot of writers start out doing that but then lose track of it when they bury they nose in their manuscripts. Your advice should encourage us all to keep us alive and stop us from becoming hermits.

  13. Excellent tips! There's enough originality in those around us to supply a thousand stories.
    Thanks for posting - Elana, Jen, and I were astounded so many participated!

  14. C.N. Nevets, I only wish I took my own advice as rigorously as it might appear from this post! I realised it's something I've done unconsciously, but this post is the first time I've actually articulated it as a method. For that, I thank Elena for seeding the thought.

    Alex, I'm glad I stumbled on Elena's blog last night and sneaked into the pool before the door closed. Seems like you guys hit on something that struck a real chord with the writing community.

  15. Pysanky? Perhaps I'm showing my ignorance, but I've never seen the word before.
    Welcome to Canada! I'm from Southern Alberta, myself.

  16. No worries, Cinette, I hadn't heard of them either until my daughter's class made them last year. There's a good description on Wikipedia, but as a writer I'm sure your curiosity will already have driven you to look it up ;-)

    I threw it in because it stuck in my mind. Of course, if I was including something like that in my writing I'd make sure to show the vivid colours, the intricate detail, and the endless variety. In other words, try to bring the small snippet of detail briefly to life for the reader in the same way as it caught my own eye.

  17. I never thought of actually wondering about motivation of real-life "evil", like Capone & Mr. Ripper. That's a good idea. I suppose people watched The Sopranos to glean the same kind of information - to see what really drives these people. Thanks for the shout-out!

  18. And thank you again for posting the link, Elena. I only spotted it by chance last night and read about the blog experiment. Even then, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to join in. I had no idea how much excitement the whole thing would generate.

  19. For someone who claims to be weak in the area of characters that is pretty darn good advice!

  20. Laura, my thoughts, exactly.

    I don't normally write fiction (I've had one short story published, but it was based on my maternal grandmother's story), so Botanist, your advice resonates with me. And I'm so glad you didn't use the word "flawed." I think that is the most used word in this experiment. Flaws do not make a character... they may help round out a character, but to for me to truly sympathize with characters, they need to have courage and a sense of self.

    Thank you for the original thoughts about writing compelling characters.

  21. Aah, but Laura, you notice I never claimed to be any good at following my advice ;-)

    I can prove it, in fact. I'm embarrassed to see that I used the phrase "infinitely interesting" above, only days after ranting at length on the perils of the word "infinity". So bang goes any last shred of authenticity...

    I think if I have an area of strength, it is in describing scenes. Several critters have commented on that at different times. This exercise has opened my eyes to the need to get to grips with my characters to the same kind of depth that I can visualise their settings.

    And LOL Saloma, I noticed that "flawed" was a popular theme amongst the posts too. You're right, they don't make a character, but (as I commented on another post) I do think flaws and weaknesses are necessary to give a character room to grow and develop. That is an important element in fiction, which may be why it was such a common observation.

  22. Awesome. You make such a good point! Reminds me of that quote, "How vain it is to sit down to write when we have not stood up to live" (or something like that -- Thoreau, I think... I really should google this, lol). If we don't observe real people, how on earth do we expect our characters to be realistic? And like you say, truth IS stranger than fiction -- there are truly fascinating people everywhere. Thanks so much for posting!

  23. "Observe real people," Well said. I think that really sums characters up as a whole! Sorry I'm late, just finally making my rounds to everyone!!

    Thank you so much for participating! It's been a blast running across all the different views! You've given us excellent advice!

    I'm looking forward to being a new follower!

  24. Shari, that's a great quote! I don't care who said it, I like it.

    And welcome, Jen. Are you one of the co-conspirators then? Sorry to plead ignorance, I'm a newcomer to Elena's of Friday evening...and I've seen several references to "Elena, Alex, and Jen" or variations thereof.

    It was a last minute scramble to get a post together but I'm so glad I did. This has been one crazy weekend in the blogosphere.

  25. I enjoyed your take on this topic. (I think Elana can keep her kidney...while we've all had some similar thoughts, we've all had our own flavor)

    Nice to meet you. Love your header...and LOVE the pirate ship!! (my kid is in high school now, but I'd still love my own pirate ship. I think I'd take my MacBook on the ship and do some writing there. :)

    Have a great week,

  26. Hi Lola, and welcome aboard. Glad you noticed the header; writing is not my first creative outlet ;-)

    Hmmm, now there's an idea, pirate ship, deck chair, beer, and...hey! how did you know I had a MacBook?

  27. Great advice! I particularly enjoy all the references to people that would make villainous characters.

  28. Thanks Deni. Not sure why I focused on villains, just seemed the most interesting to give as examples. Why are villains always the most interesting? And what does that say about me? :D

  29. Teasing your characters - love it. Great post!

  30. Glad you enjoyed it, Nicole. I'm still working my way through the many excellent posts in the blogfest and learning new things along the way.


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