“It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years of writing. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.” Andre Dubus

Friday, 24 September 2010

Blogfeast below: This entry - Writing Compelling Characters Blogfest

Thanks to Elana Johnson, Alex J Cavanaugh and Jennifer Daiker for their blogfest, Writing Compelling Characters. I only heard about it a day ago, so my entry may be no great shakes, but I'm sure the hundreds of other entries will be amazing. There is much to learn.


As John Gardner says in his book, Creating Fiction, characters are the first reason readers read a book, therefore they must be alive and three dimensional, in other words, compelling.

How do we make our characters compelling? Aristotle, writing 2,000 years ago, wrote that sound characterisation was founded on four principals:

Aristotle thinking
  1. good (morally worthy and sympathetic)
  2. appropriate (representative of their sex, class or age)
  3. lifelike, and
  4. consistent
Do you think Aristotle's list is still relevant?

I'm no Aristotle, but I have a list too:

  1. They must relate somehow to the real world, while at the same time be larger than life.
  2. They must be believable - they must be written as convincing and consistent.
  3. They must be fully fleshed, motivated, interesting.
  4. Characters must speak with the right voice, often the most difficult part.
  5. Let the characters face the expected, but also the unexpected to bring depth.
  6. Let the characters reveal themselves through believable exchanges with other characters.
  7. Minor characters have their place. They are not so important in a short story, but in a novel minor characters help move the plot along, bolster the main theme, add layers of suggestion. A good writer always uses minor characters well as they keep an eye out for their potential in the story. We've all heard cases where the minor characters take over the story, demanding a bigger role.
  8. Take maximum advantage of brief moments in your story to let your characters shine.
  9. Even if your character is a monster, they should/might/ have a soft spot, a crack in their armour.
  10. Finally, if your readers don't care about your characters, they won't bother reading on. Make your characters sparkle, make them capable of change.
Okay, there you have 10 tips from me.

I always like to do an exercise. Here's one if you wish to work on your characterisation:

Recall someone you met briefly but who made a strong impression on you. Write everything you can about that person and the encounter you shared. Describe their dress, speech, the place, the weather, the scents, the discussion you had.
Then imagine that person stands up from your meeting and walks away. Where is he/she going? What did he/she think about? Who was the next person he/she met? What happened?
Let yourself go. Write quickly without stopping, then pause to examine where you've gone. How does the character you developed differ from the real-life person who inspired him/her? 


  1. Isn't it so true that secondary characters threaten to take over the story? For some reason my secondary characters end up being more interesting than my main one's. Due to this, I recently gave one of my secondary characters a bigger part :o) I hope I don't regret it!

  2. Jessica, I've heard this so many times. I've currently got a minor character who I'm thinking of dropping altogether and write their own story..:)

  3. Woah. Aristotle knew his stuff! I think all of those are important for creating compelling characters- good job!

  4. Aristotle was a smart guy wasn't he? :) I like your characterisation exercise, can definitely relate to doing this myself. And fully fleshed and voice for me are key.

    Have a fab weekend! ;)

  5. You're the second person I've seen so far who talks about minor characters. I guess that shows compelling characters can't exist in a vacuum.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Hi L'Aussie,
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Actually, you didn't miss the giveaway at all--it goes until 9/29.

    Anyway, great blog post about characterization. I'd like to add "complexity" to the list. I enjoy antagonists that are well fleshed-out, perhaps with a dark past that explains the way they are today.

  8. That Aristotle was a wise man. Great tips and I could use them right now. I love my characters but I need to make sure readers do too. Thanks for the tips!

  9. Great 10 tips! I especially with no. 9: to show the redeeming qualities of a seemingly unlikeable character.

  10. Good post! However, I will take exception to Aristotle's first point. Although I generally prefer heroes who are "good," or at least trying to be good, I don't think characters *have* to be morally good to be good characters. Some of the most fascinating characters in literature have been very, very bad.

  11. I have a secondary character that is now demanding her own story. Sheesh! Some characters can be so pushy;0)

  12. Great thoughts, and I love the exercise! Thanks for sharing.

  13. I do like how you said they must have a crack in their armor. I think even the toughest characters are made better with those tiny cracks.

  14. Secondary characters are a challenge! Telescoping some of them seems to work for me. Keeps my cast smaller and more interesting.

  15. Jennifer: Oh, I'll have to have another look. I'm sure Mr LInky was closed. Thanks for commenting..:)

    Jules: Yes, so many posts so little time..:)

    Karen: You're welcome..:)

    J C Martin: Yes, I agree, everyone must have a redeeming quality..:)

    K M Weiland; I expected more people to comment re Aristotle being relevant today. Of course society has changed and so have our expectations of characters..:)

    Cinette: Oh I do love secondary characters who take the bit intheir mouths and run away..:)

    Shailee: Glad you liked the exercise, thanks..:)

    Elana: Yep, a crack in their armour definitely makes a character more likeable..:)

    Carolyn: Secondary characters really know how to take over..:)

  16. ohhh - good list - very helpful.
    And in response to my post - "method" acting - I remember it well...
    It's the main motivation for writing. For me, it's all about the people.

  17. Joelene, great. No doubt your characters are amazing..:)

  18. Oh, I thought you were talking about my giveaway. Yes, Mr. Linky is closed. :`(

  19. Oh man... my secondary characters have lives of their own... BUT I have a sort of strange situation with my book... see, I sort of have seven mainish characters and then a villain. I have eight characters who talk to me all the time. Are always there. And, in all honesty, the story could have been written from any of their perspectives. It would have been different stories and I am happy with who I chose because it really is the best channel and the most happens to her....but I could do it from any of them...

    I hope it still works though!

  20. Melissa: Lucky you to have such a lot of responsive characters. The best for the book..:)

  21. You have a great well-rounded list there. Great post :)

  22. To highlight one of your Aristolic (is that a word???) points, minor characters do play an important role in a story. Sidekicks for example compliment and contrast major characters. They bring out elements of the protagonist and antagonist that they themselves are not able to do, especially when the story is told in the third person.

    Stephen Tremp

  23. Yep, secondary characters come up trumps..:)

  24. Great tips! I agree with all of them. Especially how every character has to have a flaw or weakness of some kind.


  25. A great list! Agree with everything you've said...now let's see if I can make it happen!

  26. I don't agree with Aristotle's first point -- good. Some of the most compelling and interesting characters, at least for me, have been villains. And I totally agree you with that the villain can't be completely evil with no additional layers, but that doesn't mean they have to be good.

    I agree with all of your ten tips though. Great post!

  27. Thanks Quinn. I thought the Aristotle tips might generate more of a debate as you'd expect things to change over time..:)

  28. The crack in the armor is essential. Even Voldemort had mommy issues.

  29. I agree with #9. And just as a bad character has to be humanized in some way, lead characters have to have flaws.

    I agree with Jessica that there is danger that a secondary character will take over. The author of Evermore, but published Radiance, which is a story of the dead sister from Evermore. She was quirky and endearing, and deserved her own book.

  30. Very good points on character development - and certainly easier to follow than the last prof I had explain it!

    Since I am more journalist than an author I've had little characters to actually develop...however I making an attempt to develop a book based my grandmother's life for the children in our family so this will come in useful for that!

  31. "Characters must speak with the right voice, often the most difficult part."

    This is so true - a character must have a good, consistent voice, and often that's the hardest part of writing! I often struggle with trying to give each character a unique voice and keep it consistent.

  32. Great advice!

    I too enjoy minor characters. They don't need to take over but they can be so much fun to play with and have them play off of my MC. They are also great for comic relief:)

  33. Awesome way to work in Aristotle!

    And I have the same problem with secondary characters as Jessica does. You're right--they can take over the story if you let them.

    Great post!

  34. For me, the touchstone is always - is the character AUTHENTIC?

  35. I've had to stop and take stock of my characters, so this is a timely post. Glad I stopped by.

  36. I love this - Take maximum advantage of brief moments in your story to let your characters shine. I think characters are more important than setting (at least they are in my books) and so I try to focus more on them and let them shine, rather than overly flowery descriptions of setting. Not that setting doesn't have it's place, but I love my characters took much to overshadow them.

  37. Great post, with tons of helpful suggestions. :)

  38. Overall, pretty positive comments. i hope you learned as much as I did with this blogfest. It was great, wasn't it?


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