How to Create Compelling Characters

Revealing Character

Story-telling is a process of
EXPLORING
DISCOVERING
REVEALING


Controversy:  Plot v Character
What will happen next? Or What will the character do next?

  • Plot only – engrossing but forgettable
  • Characters only – may not be dramatic enough

The Golden Mean – The best stories are a well-balanced blend of both.

Why we love great characters

  • People yearn to understand human experience
  • Readers empathize with characters taking an active role in their lives – wish fulfillment
  • A believable and sympathetic character gives the reader an anchor
  • Stories with compelling characters remain in our minds long after the last page is read

For characters to be compelling, the reader must have strong feelings about them.
Usually, the main character should be sympathetic.

Conflict is the soul of the story.
The character has a goal.
He meets obstacles.
The result is conflict.

Character vs. Character
Character vs. nature, the system or other entity
Character in conflict with himself


A character’s goal hints at his nature.
His nature is revealed best by the way he responds to obstacles.

What makes a character sympathetic?

  • Weakness – flaws or vices in characters make them appear more human – easier for reader to identify with
  • Strength – Strengths play to reader wish fulfillment

 

Sympathetic strengths:
Honesty
Courage
Love for another – or many others
Self-sacrifice
Passion for a good cause
Loyalty
Intelligence
Friendliness
Sense of Humor
Etc.


A well developed character has many traits – slowly revealed

In every scene – let the reader get to know your characters a little better.
Characters must be:

  • Plausible –  Reader must understand and believe their motivations
  • Consistent – act according to their nature, inconsistencies bump us out of the story
  • Unpredictable – surprising but still consistent
  • Dynamic – able to change in response to experience

SWOT Analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

Characters may be revealed by:

  • Actions
  • speech
  • inner thoughts
  • physical description
  • mannerisms
  • demographic details
  • possessions
  • advantages and disadvantages
  • relations with other characters
  • judgments by other characters
  • details of setting– a person’s home, car or workplace
  • backstory

Physical Actions
Physical actions and reactions show internal feelings.  They range from intense physical movements to small incidental gestures.  Actions can be choices, such as picking up a ringing phone – or not picking it up.  Doing nothing can be an action.

Speech
Dialogue is one of the best ways to reveal character.  Dialogue includes not only what is said but how it’s said.  Both are equally important.  Dialogue lets your reader listen in and judge for himself what kind of a person is speaking.

What about Internal Monologue?

Internal monologue is one-sided dialog.  It’s a form of mind-reading that lets the reader peek into the brain of the POV character.  It can be useful, but it can also be problematic for three reason:

  1. People don’t think or feel in words, so the concept is artificial.
  2. Too often, it Tells what the character is thinking or feeling.  It doesn’t Show.
  3. It’s abstract, rather than dramatic – so it slows down your story.

Tip: Use internal monologue sparingly – and follow the rules of dialogue.  Keep it short, and reveal thoughts and feelings indirectly.

Physical Description – the Five Senses
Writers often focus on visual descriptions.  That’s important.  But using the other four senses adds richness to a scene.

Touch – texture of skin, hair, clothing
Taste – a kiss, taste of emotion in the mouth, air, food or drink
Smell – character smells of horses, car engines, cigarette smoke, sweat
Sound – voice, breathing, wheezing, sneezing, scratching, clicking teeth, whistling
Sight – Face, body, clothing, facial expressions, body language, posture

Tip: Use description in small bites.  It’s static and too much will slow the pace.

Back-story adds rich details
Write outside the story
Character biography – the life line

  • key turning points
  • past accomplishments
  • trials and sufferings
  • good deeds
  • bad behavior
  • deep secrets

Tip: Use back-story in small bites.  Like description, it can slow the pace.

What to Avoid

  • Stock characters, archetypes, stereotypes or pawns that merely act out the scenes.
  • Anything Predictable  – write it, recognize it, cut it
  • Shortcuts – Writers can’t be afraid of work.


EXERCISE:

Write down your main character’s name.
Now just think for a moment about what kind of person he/she is.

Write what he/she smells like.
Write how his/her voice sounds.
Write how his/her hair feels when you touch it.
Write about his/her posture.
Write his/her favorite saying.
Describe one of his/her trademark mannerisms.
E.g., clicking a ballpoint pen when he’s thinking
Write a habit he has that’s annoying.
Write a habit he has that’s endearing.
Write a line of dialog using his personal speech patterns.
Describe an object he always carries, everywhere he goes.

EXERCISE:

Write down your character’s overall story goal.
Write down one major obstacle to the goal.
Freewrite about how the character responds to the obstacle.


Take-away suggestion: write your character’s life line, birth to death.

Writing Sharper Dialog

“16 Rules of Dialog”

Rules are made to be broken by their masters.

 

1.    Cut chit-chat, greetings and polite phrases.  Keep dialog lean and muscular.

2.    Speakers are not articulate.  Use vernacular, contractions, etc.

3.    Make different speakers sound different.

4.    Build dramatic tension with contrapuntal dialog.  Each speaker has his own agenda, so the dialog is pulled in two different directions.

5.    Don’t use one speaker’s dialog to advance the other speaker’s dialog.  Example:  “Tell me more.”

6.    Don’t exceed 3 sentences of dialog per speaker.  Exception, a lecture.

7.    Don’t include direct exposition in dialog.

8.    Use deflections and concealing phrases to disguise real meanings.

9.    Tag should almost always be “said.”  Do not invert, e.g., “said she.”

10. To avoid too many “said” tags, use an action (beat) to reveal who’s speaking.  Example:  Jane picked up the dog.  “What’s your name?”

11. Don’t use modifiers to describe how someone speaks.  Make the dialog better, or use an action.  Example:  “Are you okay?” he said with concern.  V.  “Are you okay?”  He squeezed her hand.

12. Avoid misspellings to show someone’s accent – this might be viewed as demeaning.  It’s also hard to read.

13. A dash – implies an interruption.  An ellipsis … implies a fade-out.

14. Don’t overuse name reference.  Example:  “Jane, did you put out the trash?”

15. Avoid two characters speaking the same words in unison.  It’s not believable.

16. Use foul language sparingly, or it loses its impact.