Tricks for Creating Compelling Characters

Thanks to those who have been waiting for this post. I evidently forgot I was still doing the compelling characters theme. But never fear!
Writing Tip for Today: Tricks might not be the best way to describe creation of a character. It’s mostly trial and error and a lot of writing and exploring. But there are a few things you can do to get your reader hooked and stay hooked:

  • Know Your Character. Do as much background exploration as you need to do in order to make a character come alive. This might include but isn’t limited to: writing in a journal where you allow your character to tell you about him/herself; gathering of photos or drawings of not only your characters’ physical appearances but the setting, the supporting cast and other pertinent info; or newspaper/magazine clippings, (especially obituaries or feature stories) that highlight an activity or habit you have given your character. Combining several real life people into one composite character will help your character be unique. The obits are also great places to spot unusual names.
  • What’s the Secret? Your character (and also your antagonist or villain and supporting cast) should have a secret that can be revealed slowly over the course of the story. This secret might be central to the story or it may be more peripheral. Secrets make characters more interesting.
  • Where’s the Redemption? In order for hope and/or redemption (not only in a religious sense) to occur, the reader must have an idea of a character’s major wound. Ask yourself what has hurt your character the most?
  • Larger-than-Life. Readers want a character who feels larger-than-life in some sense. Perhaps this person takes risks most people wouldn’t take, or is an extremist in personality traits such as determination, love, honesty or forgiveness. In the beginning of the story the character can possess these qualities but maybe he/she applies them in ways that hurt or don’t help the character. Over the story, you as the writer can document the character’s growth toward (we hope) a more positive version of the attributes he/she already has. Try listing all the attributes you think your character possesses and then link them with an action that backfires for the first part of a story. 
  • Learn to Weave. Last, but not least, learn to weave your character’s attributes into the action. Chunks of “he was this or that,” followed by action and then back to more description stalls the story and usually forces the writer to use a lot of passive language. Take a recent novel that you admire and look for places where the author has used the action of the scene (and not only through dialogue) to paint a compelling character. Note how this writer inserts short but essential “beats,” or clues to this character’s personality, attributes and wants/needs. They are written directly into the scene without resorting to separate chunks of narrative where the action stalls. Practice these “woven” techniques, and you’ll see your story suddenly pick up in tempo and in interest. And, we hope, the character you describe will be so compelling that readers will have to keep reading.

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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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