Writing Compelling Characters

Ah yes, the GREAT BLOGGING EXPERIMENT is here. And today’s topic? Writing Compelling Characters. Love this topic…but, I’ll admit, I am keeping this one a bit brief. Why? Big presentation day. And I am busy prepping for it.

But, I couldn’t pass up the great blogging experiment…

So, here it is:

Nothing is more amazing to me than reading a book with a character that just sticks with you long after you finished the book. Hunger Game’s Katniss was that kind of character for me.  Good characters are full, rich, diverse. They are a bit messy, confused, broken. The villains are a little redemptive; the heroes, a bit villanous.

In short – THEY ARE REAL.

But how do you write compelling characters?

I think it starts with the layers. As human being we are all diverse in our thinking and our behaviors. Our characters need to be just as diverse and deep.

Typically, I start with a basic description of the character – not in terms of looks (though that may be part of it), but in terms of the “thing” he or she is into. In my current novel, my mc is a cutter.

Once I have a word or two describing them, I make a list of their traits. For my cutter, my list went something like this:

  • perfectionist
  • angry
  • bitter
  • hopeful
  • afraid

Notice these are emotional and behavioral traits – yeah, that is always where I start. It’s just the lens I look through. Analyzing behavior for a living tends to have its advantages. 

I continue with the lists until I have a sense of her in my head. After which, I start to write.

Through the writing process I begin to develop the layers. I ask myself questions about the character – their likes/dislikes. The things that make them happy, etc. Most of the info is never known to the reader, but it helps me write a stronger character.

The layers come through the editing usually. I specifically look at character arc and the overall richness of the characters – are my heroes a little bad; are my villains a little good – that sort of thing.

Bottom line – writing compelling characters is all about creating a believable character that is rich in their layers and diversity. Someone we can relate to on some level, even when they are completely different from us – their humanity just rings true.

I wrote a lot more on this topic a while back – so if you want to know my “secret” of my “method writing” with regards to compelling characters, click here.

And be sure to check out Elana’s LONG LIST of bloggers participating today. It is truly an amazing list!

56 thoughts on “Writing Compelling Characters

  1. You’re exactly right. Compelling characters need to have depth, otherwise the whole story can fall flat. Every good guy has to be a little bit bad. No one’s perfect!

  2. Layers are one of the best ways to get a reader hooked. If they want to peel back the layers to know the character, you have them hooked for the whole story…

    Loved the post. I’m so following you😉

  3. I like the idea of coming up with a list of personality/ behavioral traits. I’ve never made a list, but that’s usually how I start when I’m coming up with a character. I’ll think of what I want the person’s personality to be like — that’s the easy part — and then I’ll spend tons and tons of time trying to figure out what they look like.

  4. I’d never thought about creating characters in terms of layering. What a great approach. Layers add depth and texture (like Shrek and his onion comparison) to a character. Very cool. I can’t even tell you how much this is going to help me!

  5. I go back and add to my characters through the editing process too. So often, the beginning drafts are like a “getting to know you” and then, when I do, I can bring in more layers to a character’s personality.

  6. “The villains are a little redemptive; the heroes, a bit villanous.” I LOVE this! That’s exactly what they all need. And it seems that everyone I’ve read so far agrees – the characters need to be REAL.🙂

  7. Dude, major eye-opening moment here. With this line: “The villains are a little redemptive; the heroes, a bit villanous.”

    That’s it, right there. That’s what makes people interesting. Because we all have those qualities.

    Perfection.

  8. Yes! I like that you point out that sometimes those layers come after the editing. And I like that you’re constantly checking with your character as you write. It shows!😀

  9. The psychology of how people react in different situations is so important to get right in a story. And remembering that your hero can’t be perfect and your bad guy can’t be evil to the core definitely makes the characters more compelling. Great post.

  10. This is great Christine! I especially like how you start building your character, working through the “lens”, as you put it, starting with the traits that are immediately obvious to you. Thank you!

  11. Rich with layers and diversity…and THEY ARE REAL! I love that part, Christine. You have a great post here! Making a list of their traits is good, too! Me, I do a similar thing – I write down their beliefs and values. I enjoyed reading this post, Christine! Love it!🙂

  12. Layers! Looking back on it, that’s exactly what all my favorite characters have, but I never had the correct word to put on it until now. Layers that are diverse, layers that sometimes conflict with each other… yes, yes, yes. Thank you!

  13. Eleven Eleven

    Layers is a great way of describing it. Real people have more than one thing they want, and struggle to figure out which of their wants they want more.

  14. Interesting that you don’t find the layers come through until the editing stage! I’ve read so many different ways of writing compelling characters today, and how/when the layers & complexities are discovered, that I think my brain might explode. It just goes to show that there’s not one “right way” to do this — we all have our own methods and approaches to character development. Thanks for sharing yours!

  15. Layering in a character is definitely important. I once called one of my characters an onion, described via a secondary character in the book itself: “So many different feelings, each one contradicting another…your mind is such a chaos of warring sentiments. And each layer of emotion I tried to peel away only revealed another underlying layer…you almost remind me of an onion, but with onions, they are completely made of layers, with nothing in the centre. The question I am wondering is: if I were to remove all the layers from you, would there be anything left?”

    Hopefully!🙂

  16. Nice post. I like the idea of jotting down a list of character traits/behaviors. You have an advantage, maybe, being a psycologist, but I bet any observant writer can intuit a pretty accurate profile. 🙂 Thanks for the advice!

  17. sarahwedgbrow

    layers. (that word reminds me of the chewing gum commercial where the babysitter gets paid in Trident Layers and the phone line repairman outside has a sad look on his face and says, ‘no one pays me in Trident Layers.’)

    totally agree…and for me, I find that each draft adds a layer to the characters and story, making it more compelling.

  18. Pingback: Yea, I FEEL ya! « CHRISTINE FONSECA, AUTHOR

  19. I like the layers idea, and thank you for sharing your process! It’s cool to not only read what you find compelling but also get a glimpse into what you actually do.

  20. I usually start with a few visuals so I can keep a picture in mind (my thinking is predominantly visual) so I love the idea of jotting down some traits. That is something that just wouldn’t occur to me other than the occasional very distinctive trait.

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