Creating Compelling Characters

In fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir, one of a writer’s most important tasks is to create a narrator who readers are compelled to follow. I remember not quite getting the idea of compelling early in my writing life. I finally understood compelling to mean a character who I may or may not exactly like but whose goals and the risks to attain them are urgent and thus pull the reader forward. It’s that “I couldn’t put it down” idea.
Writing Tip for Today: Your narrator must possess an inner and outer life that mirrors the urgency, high risk and difficulty of the story line. Many characters who fall short of this goal are written in a way that either confuses or turns off the reader. Here are some examples:

  • Your Mother-in-law’s Character. A protagonist (hero or heroine) whose inner thoughts are critical of everyone around them. Most of the time, the writer is trying to contrast the character’s usual setting or station in life with the one they’ve just walked into. But if the character comes off as intolerant, hypercritical or haughty, it’s not going to sit well with the reader. My apologies to the many mothers-in-law who are like me, kind and never critical.
  • The Midlife Crisis Character. This character is often confused and doesn’t know what she wants. Right away, the writer is at a disadvantage, trying to sell someone who isn’t passionate about anything, or would be if he just figured out what it was. A character who doesn’t “want” anything in particular makes a reader want to put down the story. Give your character a clear goal and high stakes.
  • The Social Misfit Character. Many writers tell me they don’t want their character likable, they want their character to be anti-hero. I once had a student whose character had 3 months to live and was determined to go out and kill everyone who’d wronged him before he died. Uh, even Dirty Harry had a few social skills. If your anti-hero has a few attributes, such as generosity in some way or forgiveness or redemption, readers are more likely to buy in. It takes a very high skill level to pull off a Hannibal Lecter-type character.
  • There are more un-compelling types of characters–more on that in the next post.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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