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Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Compelling Characters

              Today  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?


  1. You have made an outstanding point about making someone uncompelling into compelling character, and I bet you are the only person in this blogfest to think outside the box like this. Loved this post. Unique. And I'd be able to tell it was written by you too, if it didn't have your name attached to it.

    I love writing about ordinary people too. I think that's why I feel this post speaks to me so much. I'm quite tired of reading about extraordinary characters, with more courage than God and Ghandi put together. I want to read about the average Joe, and about what makes him tick, right down to the way he wipes his mouth with a napkin. Great post Lee!!!

  2. Wonderful write Lee, My most compelling person must be my old mate Daniel, over the past few weeks he has been in Austailia/NewZealand whith the most awful weather imaginable, not only did he do a concert singing through a megaphone and in torch light as there were no electricity but he performed during a minor earthquake. What an entertainer>?

    Have a good week-end
    ps what do you think of the new "NEW POST" EDITOR? =I couldn't do my planned photo blog last night so have gone back to the old version,

  3. I agree with you to an extent.

    You see I don't think of anyone as being ordinary. Everyone has something that has the capability of making him/her special.

    So making a character discover that something is what makes the story.

    I need to see faults in people. Pure and nice people are bland. Call me twisted, but in books where the Main Characters are nice, I root for the antagonist, simply because they're more interesting.

    Have a good weekend :-)

  4. I love your post. Especially because I like to observe and write about ordinary people, as you have noticed. I decided to call them "treasured people" instead :-))


  5. Great post Lee! Your point of view is different from many of the others but it still makes great sense. Just like with story, sometimes it's not about what happens, but how it's told that makes the difference.

    Thanks Lee!

  6. I enjoy reading/writing about ordinary people! I love your point about making an uncompelling character compelling through the way the story is written.

  7. I like how you were the only one who said that a compelling character can be also someone whom we dislike, a villain or a negative person. Such characters are especially compelling when a writer pays special psychological attention in describing the inner motifs and instincts that drove them to becoming evil or negative.
    In positive heroes I like complexity, consistency and originality.

  8. Great points Lee. Any person can be a diamond in the rough. :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  9. I like how you talk about boring characters becoming compelling - it can be done!

  10. I like Special Agent Pendergast from the Lincoln/Child series. Used to like Alex Cross but have grown a bit tired of that series.

    Stephen Tremp

  11. Jessica -- Thank you for your exceptionally kind words. I would rather read about everyday Joe in fiction especially.

    Yvonne - It's for things like you mention that helps make Daniel of such great interest. An artist is compelling to begin with because of their creative abilities, but who they really are inside makes all the more difference.
    I have not tried the "post editor"--in fact I'm not familiar with it. I'll have to research this.

    Misha -- I like what you say about self-discovery. And faults make a character more true to life. I too have rooted for many an antagonist.

    Doris -- We are all "treasured", which is often forgotten in our celebrity worshipping culture.

    Matthew -- Thank you. Yes, the writer makes the real difference.

    Golden Eagle -- Thank you for this comment and glad you appreciated it.

    Dezmond -- A memorable character should have some spark of humanity that gives them a weakness or a special strength. A reader has to truly care about a character in order for that character to be memorable.

    Jules -- Thank you. Yes we can, can't we!

    L. Diane -- I don't remember having ever met a person who was boring every second of their life and if I did, that would be pretty compelling in itself.

    Stephen Tremp -- In a series especially I think character has to be revitalized. If it's always the same ol' same ol' then after awhile it's like the same book over and over again.

  12. You're right, the characters make the story. And even star characters can feel real when it's revealed they possess the same problems and issues as the reader.

  13. I'm loving all these great tips. Thanks, Arlee.

  14. I LOVE this post. Such a refreshing angle. I completely agree that it's the writer's skill that makes the character come alive for readers, no matter who/what they are. When asked to describe one of my main characters, I've often commented that she is the "ultimate average girl." And she is. but readers most definitely seem to get pulled into her story and care about what happens to her---whether they like her or not.

  15. I'm clapping, Lee--you've nailed it and your examples are spot on. I love reading about a seemingly ordinary (or even LESS than ordinary) character, who an author makes us feel for--and if they can do it subtly (like a slowly realized sympathy) rather than grand circumstances, so much the better.

  16. I liked the compelling looking characters in the photo! I do like stories about ordinary people doing unordinary things. I think imperfections help endear the reader to the character. One memorable character for me is Owen Meany, the main character in A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

  17. Alex -- Can you imagine trying to write a story without characters? Something would have to be a character.

    Carol-- It does make for some informative reads doesn't it. Thanks for your comment.

    Nicki -- And I loved that you stopped by. I enjoy reading about the "ultimate average somebody". It's like talking to a friend and just hearing their take on something.

    Hart -- Thank you and I do agree with what you've said. We are all heroes in our own uniquely epic situations even though it might not seem so at first glance.

    Jane -- I think the mark of a truly well written character is that they almost become as real as someone we have actually known in life. Compelling should equal memorable.

  18. LOL! Yes i agree with you, drab characters can be very compelling if written well. Bravo, what an excelent point!

  19. Why normal characters created to be compelling are so important is because we the 'boring' readers want to relate to the characters. To feel that we could be in a similar situation doing similar things. Great post.


  20. Wow, I'd never thought of it that way. In fact, I was planning to adjust the personalities of my duller characters during the rewrite. But now I see that's not necessary; I just have to display them in a more compelling light. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  21. I loved the way you thought outside the box (like Jessica said) it was really neat!!!

    I like to make sure that my characters are interesting, but not completely unrelateable. It's important to keep a relationship with the reader and the character, and sometimes a few quirks help us along the way!

    Thanks for participating!!! This was a huge success, sort of like your A-Z blogging challenge, the challenge that changed my life :)

  22. Madeleine -- Thank you for your vote of confidence.

    Clarissa -- Exactly my point. Thank you!

    Nate -- I think that everyone has some interesting side.

    Jen -- Thanks for those words. And like all blogging challenges this too is going to incorporate a lot of time and effort if done correctly. You guys really know how to throw a party!

  23. Oh Lee, unique as always! I love coming here to see what's going on in that mind of yours.
    About your poll-- wanted to choose "all of the above." Guess that wouldn't be much help, huh?

  24. Great post. While I don't completely agree with everything you've said, your last statement sums it up perfectly. No boring characters, just boring writers. And if you're writing is boring, I'd wager you won't be very successful at it.

  25. Oops, I meant to say if YOUR writing is boring, I'd wager you won't be very successful at it. Dang fingers typing faster than my mind can correct them.

  26. r-LEE-b ~
    It's like the old joke goes: "Every person seems normal until you get to know them."

    And the good writers really let us get to know their characters.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

    POSTSCRIPT: Did you ever think you'd see the day when I would leave just a two sentence comment? Make that 3. I mean 4... 5.

  27. Mary -- Thank you for those kind words. Actually I may end up going with "all of the above" in some way.

    Eric -- Thanks for the visit. I'd love to which parts you disagreed with-- you might convince me. :) I knew what you were saying--I'm not much of an editor--that would have flown right past me.

    StMc -- I always wonder why everybody can't be normal like me.
    Uh, yeah that was a pretty short post for you, but then again I know you don't have much to say for fiction.

  28. A person in a coma into fascinating? Dang. I have a long way to go to get there. But that's okay. It's all a process.

    I want to write about the ordinary person. I want to see the ordinary change into extraordinary. I want to live that with someone. I want to be that person. Maybe one day...

  29. For me, when writing, there is no such thing as an ordinary person. They may appear ordinary at first glance, but when I dig deeply into their background (free associate if you will) all sorts of things come up about them. I've found that by creating a biography of a character first (for a fiction)it needs to include almost everything about their personality - age, how they comb their hair, what foods they like, what were their interests as children, who were their heroes, etc. Eventually, my ordinary person magically comes to life (quirks and all) and they provide their own stories and dialogues.

  30. Oh for cryin' out loud Arlee, I think I may be the most boring person in the world. Which is why I sometimes will turn myself into someone else, hehehe...
    Have you ever seen the movie " Stranger Than Fiction" with Will Ferrel? Very different from "Falling Down" but it also portrays a boring character that ends up surprising us.
    Not always an easy task when dealing with everyday life! Love Di ♥

  31. "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."
    Well said!

  32. An ordinary person can be compelling--love this!!!! ;D

  33. Lee - you've got me shaking in my boots, but you're absolutely right. And A Good Man Is Hard To Find - you're right, I kept wanting to pull away. I remember thinking, "What is so exciting about this?" But is was her sotrytelling. I couldn't NOT read it. I had to finish it.

  34. I don't think characters have to be extraordinary to be exciting, but the story has to take the ordinary person to some unusual place, if only in his mind. Something has to happen to make a 'boring' character compelling, and I will agree with you that it is the writer who must accomplish that. Eudora Welty was another writer who could make everyday people fascinating.

  35. Terrific post Lee! "Common people in uncommon situations" is perfect. That's definitely my favourite kind of story to read and write!

  36. Elana -- I'm thinking of something like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"--not exactly a coma but.... I can certainly conceive of a person in a coma trapped in there unconciousness but having thoughts perhaps. I mean it could work. I like stories of underdogs and common folk.

    Paula-- that is precisely what I'm talking about. We often have a stereotyped perception of an ordinary or boring person, but everyone has a story worth hearing. To be compelling though it must be told in the right way.

    Diana -- you boring? And with readers waiting for each episode of your "boring" life. Not so boring I say.

    Jennifer-- Thank you for stopping by.

    IBD-- There is hope for us all!

    Rashelle -- It's a great story isn't it! Finally someone has acknowledged my citation. The family was so average as to be cloying, yet riveting.

    Tricia -- And actually I'd say that the place a writer takes us doesn't have to be absolutely extraordinary, just different from where we started. I've read many a fine story that doesnt' ever leave the norm and if we were just unaware observers we wouldn't even know there was a story.

    Jemi -- You said it! I prefer those characters to superheroes anyday, but that's just my preference.

  37. You did an excellent job here. Very out of the box and this posts stands out among the other 195 I've read today. So thanks.

  38. I particularly like your point about ambivalence.

  39. Different, beautifully so. It reminded me of my favourite TV show from eons ago, The Waltons. Very unremarkable people, but the way their daily lives were presented made them memorable characters to me. Thanks for reminding me of this..:)

  40. This is a thoughtful, well written post that brings up an important aspect. Making an ordinary person extraordiary in some way is a fantastic example of what makes characters compelling.

  41. Funny, I wrote my post last night, and now I find you are using the same example, Flannery O"Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." I used it as an example of how her writing confounds me about how she is able to make her stories so riveting. On the surface, they don't seem so.

    I also used other examples of compelling characters in literature. I'd be curious to see what you think... so the great Blogging Experiment turns up one thing... two people might use the same example... and I swear I didn't read yours before I wrote mine. You were the next one on my list to read....

  42. Melissa-- thank you for the compliment.

    Lynda -- If we aren't a bit excited about a character then what's the point of including them in the story.

    L'Aussie -- Exactly and that's probably what made shows like that so popular--they were us or people we knew.

  43. I'm still making my way through TGBE posts, but I have to tell you, so far this is my favorite. It's brilliant, so brilliant I wish I'd written it. I too like everyman stories, but the wonder is, each and every boring one of us is unique. Finding OR CREATING that original spark on the page is what writing compelling characters is all about.

    "There are no boring characters, just boring writers," puts the the responsibly squarely where it belongs: at the foot of the writer. With your permission, I intend to quote this often.

  44. Liza -- Some of the most compelling people are the ones who insist they are not.

    Saloma-- You had a great post that was quite different in approach, but made about the same point as mine. I'm glad that someone else used Flannery O'Connor as an example as I feel she is often neglected by many of today's readers. She used some wonderful commonfolk characters.

    VR -- I am flattered by your comment. And I would be honored for you to use that quote.

  45. I found you Arlee...and read today's post as well as this one. Good job outlining the compelling character.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  46. You bring up a very good point (and a different one!) about how all characters can be compelling, and that it's the job of the writer to make this happen! If the writer doesn't take care, a character will fall flat no matter how compelling/interesting/whatever they are. Thanks for this very appropriate reminder about the responsibility of the writer.

  47. I'm gonna write a story about the most boring person in the world and try my best to make him compelling, just because of this post. Great post!

  48. Nancy -- thank you for leaving a comment

    Krispy--You are so right. The author's job is to care enough about the writing to make the reader care just as much.

    Nicole-- I'd like to read your story! I have an idea-- You can turn it into a blogfest and see how many interesting stories could be made out of boring people.

  49. Great post! Common people in uncommon situations. I love it! Thanks for sharing ;o)

  50. I was about to say I don't see too many Everyman/Everywoman characters in SF/fantasy these days, but Connie Willis is using them in her Blackout/All Clear duology, which is set in WWII England and features people going about their lives during the war. I'd like to see more of them. Thank you for reminding us all characters don't need to be larger than life!

  51. "Writing compelling characters is not so much about the characters themselves as it is about writing about the characters in a compelling manner."

    Wow! You went in a very unique direction with this, and I wholeheartedly approve. Great post!

  52. Sandra -- And thank you for stopping by with your comment. Times of war or other calamitous events often bring out the extraordinary in common people.

    Julie-- I'm glad you stopped by and left me this encouraging word of approval.


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