How to make a compelling character
Characters are a big part of fiction, obviously. They drive the plots—if there was no character, there would be no plot, no emotion for the readers—and make us want to read on, caring for these characters. But making a character can be hard—but focusing on three simple steps makes people enjoy your nice, well-rounded character.
STEP 1: MAKE US CARE FOR YOUR CHARACTER
The character is the guide throughout the entire story, the one who tells us what’s happening. If we dislike the character, it will be hard to enjoy the story, because the character will be too annoying or ignorant. There’s a reason most people don’t enjoy Twilight – and that is because Bella is annoying and people don’t want to read it due to her character.
There are lots of ways to make us care for your character. One example, used in Harry Potter, is reverse character. The Dursleys hate Harry, so we automatically like Harry because we hate them. This is a good technique to use if you have more “evil” characters in your story. If you use this technique, be sure to show how much they hate your main character, so that we feel more sympathy. (Note of caution: don’t use too much sympathy, because then we may dislike your character as well! Keep a fine line between the two.)
Another example is showing their good traits. Maybe they’re a kind friend, or love their family. An example is this:
“I hurt my knee and can’t get up!” Betty exclaimed.
“Oh, I’m sorry, let me help,” Joey said.
Bad example, but that shows that Joey cares, that he has compassion. Everyone needs to have compassion, kindness—some way to care for us. Even if your main character is evil (think Artemis Fowl), they need to have some redeeming qualities so we care for them. If they have no qualities, we just think that they are silly.
These are two of the most major ways to get us to care for your character. Make sure that you don’t ratchet the sympathy up too much, as I mentioned before, because then we care for them a lot less.
Okay, so we have a character that people care about. They’re kind and caring…now what?
STEP 2: GIVE YOUR CHARACTER FLAWS
Okay, if your character is perfect, kind and caring for everyone, we hate them? Right? That’s one of people’s major concerns about Twilight, to go back to the book I mentioned before. They think Edward is too perfect—he has no flaws. And that’s a major issue in a story. Perfect characters are boring, quite frankly. They never make mistakes. And many plots revolve around characters’ mistakes, and the consequences they receive.
Make sure that your character has a flaw, something that is not perfect about them. More than one flaw, but make sure we don’t have so many flaws we begin to dislike them. Like perfectioness, draw a fine line there.
For example, when I make character sheets, I make sure to include flaws. Like let’s say I had a character named Robby. He is tall, funny, and smart—those are his good qualities (except maybe not the tall part). But now he needs some flaws. Maybe he yells all the time, or gets into fights, or doesn’t care for his siblings.
Make sure you know what your character’s flaws are, so you don’t get confused and change the flaws around like crazy.
Character sheets are not for everyone, but they can help with flaws and good qualities. If you ever are struggling with that, I recommend making a character sheet.
Now that we have flaws, we can add them into the story. Using the Robby example, let’s say that the story is he goes on a road trip. One of his flaws, though, is he gets angry easily.
So maybe this happens:
“Come on!” Robby yelled. “Stupid motor, stupid motor!” He kicked the motor loudly, causing a crash.
Flaws can be especially good for major scenes, such as a scene that drives the entire plot. Putting flaws in those scenes can be good—to make sure that the main character suffers consequences.
Make sure that the main character suffers consequences. It can make your story more interesting and well rounded. A common complaint I see in online reviews is lack of consequences. If I start dealing drugs out of my house, and Mom’s like “Oh, honey that’s OK”, that doesn’t make sense. I should be punished—maybe even arrested, and that could drive the story further.
Flaws are an important part of all of your characters—and make sure that each of your characters have some.
STEP 3: GIVE YOUR CHARACTER PERSONALITY
So we’ve got this great character. He/she has flaws, good traits, and propels the plot. But face it, they’re boring. They’re nice but mean at the same time. the one thing that’s missing: personality.
Personality is focused less upon—at least in articles like this—but it is still majorly important. Your character will be flat and boring if they don’t have interests, personality.
Let’s go back to the Robby story. So he’s driving a car in a road trip, and gets angry easy, but is very nice to his siblings. B-oring! Where’s his personality? Interject it through the story. Maybe as he drives he likes to listen to 80s music. Or he loves medical shows and watches them on his iPhone.
I recommend, again, knowing your character’s personality very well, like knowing their flaws. A fun way to do this is to make a list: what is my character’s favorite music? TV show? Game?
You may not use it all, but it can help. There needs to be personality, which makes the character the way that they are. A character who loves cats and tea probably wouldn’t go to a sports bar.
Many authors use this technique, and this backstory can be helpful but not always necessary. Again, like the character sheets, not required but helpful.
Make sure that we don’t get personality overload, such as this: Robby leaned back and listened to 80s music. Then he took his phone out and watched his favorite medical show.
Personality needs to be interjected throughout the story so we know who your character truly is. Maybe when they ride the bus they listen to music on headphones.
Make sure, again, not too much or not too little. With all of this advice, keep a happy medium.
This is all important for a character—we need to know their personality, their good qualities and why we like them, their flaws. With these put together you have a fairly well-rounded character. This is a great quote I’d like to end with by the writer Daniel Keys Moran: An attempt to write nothing but characterization will soon bog down; I for one don't want to have somebody tell me about someone else.
I end with this quote because make sure that your character doesn’t take over the story. Make sure that your character is well rounded, but that there is still plot and emotion there.
Otherwise, you should have a great character, one who can propel a plot, whether it be in a short story or novel.
Thanks so much to Peony for letting me write this! I hope that you enjoyed this “article” and I didn’t bore you with 1.2k of info