Elana Johnson, Alex J. Cavanaugh, and Jennifer Daiker are hosting the Great Blogging Experiment. I am joining many others in addressing the topic of "Writing Compelling Characters".
The topic: Writing Compelling Characters.
Writing compelling characters is not so much about the characters themselves as it is about writing about the characters in a compelling manner. All characters can be compelling. The most boring person in the world can be compelling in their boringness.
The skill of the writer is what creates the illusion of a character who is compelling. In reality a character may be interesting beyond belief, or the character may be as dull as a dry lecture in an unadorned lecture room with no windows. When the latter is the case, the writer needs dress up this drab subject in literary finery to make this character stand out and become worth looking at.
Flannery O'Connor expertly used very average individuals and turned them into people of interest. Take for example her classic story A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The family that the story focuses upon is annoyingly average, yet O'Connor draws the reader into the story. This family could be our own or some other family we have known. The family embarks on a very typical vacation, but we are kept interested by O'Connor's style. Curiously, the most intriguing character of all, the criminal with the compelling nickname of "The Misfit", when we meet him near the end of the story turns out to be a very ordinary looking and sounding guy. This assortment of oddly matched seemingly uncompelling characters is brought together in an event that is anticipated through skillful dialogue and plot maneuvering.
Any average person can become compelling due to their response to a situation in which they find themselves. The character portrayed by Michael Douglas in the great film Falling Down is an obsequious, bland unemployed man for whom his life's frustrations cause him to explode. The once unnoticed man becomes of great interest to many and we want to know what he is going to do next.
Sometimes the writer must take us into the mind of what would appear to be a dull individual to show us that character's inner mental state which piques our interest about that character. Walter Mitty, the main character in the famous story by James Thurber, by all appearances to anyone passing him on the street would appear to be one of the dullest men in the world. Thanks to the purview of the author we see a man made fascinating by the fantasy life he leads unbeknownst to anyone and how that fantasy life comically juxtaposes with his true dull life.
I like to read a good story about a character who is bigger than life. However, my real preference is to read stories about common people in uncommon situations or observed from a unique point of view. Most readers want to be able to identify with someone they are reading about--to find a common ground in which they can have greater empathy with the character. Just knowing that Superman is also Clark Kent, mild man and reporter, makes the super hero seem a little more like us.
Frequently in my blog posts I have told stories about people that I have known or heard about. This is one of my favorite things to write about. When I have written about people who were significant I have often tried to downplay who they were and make them seem less big than they were in life so that they are easier to relate to. When I've written about ordinary people, I've tried to make them stand out so that readers would have a greater interest in these characters.
Usually I'll focus on something that they did that was somewhat unique or something about them that made them stand out. When I write about someone, I like to portray them as though they are a character in a book or a movie. I attempt to see them as a star and build up their importance in my own mind. If I don't see that character as extremely interesting, then how can I expect to make my readers see them that way either. When I am fascinated by my character then it is much easier to make that character more compelling to the reader.
My compelling character should also be someone whom I like or dislike a great deal. Ambivalence toward a character is not going to motivate me to be very descriptive or to create much empathy. I need to have emotions that will pour into the words I use to paint a verbal picture of the character I want to illustrate for the reader. If I am enthralled by my character then hopefully my writing will convey this enough to tantalize the reader to become engrossed in my story.
A bad writer can take the most interesting man in the world and make him seem like an absolute bore. A good writer can make a grocery clerk or a person in a coma deeply fascinating. In essence the story itself does not have to be absolutely compelling, but the telling of that story does need to be compelling. The story doesn't make the characters and an exciting story does not guarantee an exciting reading experience. There are no boring characters, just boring writers.
Do you enjoy stories about ordinary people? What attributes about a character create the greatest interest for you? Who are some of your favorite compelling characters?