What Makes a Compelling Character? Part I

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do when writing is to create a compelling character. Think about it. What are the most common criticisms you hear about characters from various books or movies? I know the ones I hear a lot are:

* “That character wasn’t likable.”

* “I didn’t understand their motivation.”

* “I didn’t care what happened to them.”

* “They didn’t feel real to me.”

* “They were such a cliché.”

It can be difficult to avoid these pitfalls in your writing. The truth is, there is no real shortcut to writing a compelling character. It will take a lot of trial and error on your part as an author, but it will also be so rewarding in the end when you finally nail it.

The best advice I can give you is from my own experience. It may not work for everyone, but I’ve found the following techniques are a good place to start. Today’s advice for building a character will focus on writing that character’s dialogue.

First of all, you have to get a “feel” for how your character speaks. This goes beyond simple things like dialect or accent. It’s about gaining a deeper understanding of how your character would form a thought, and then how they would express that thought with words. Are they terse and monosyllabic? Are they verbose? Is proper grammar important to them, or are they more loosey-goosey and free-flowing? Are they logical and practical, or more emotional? Do they get directly to the point, or are they more poetic and abstract? Do they find a punchline in everything, or are they more serious and deadpan?

The reason this is so important is that your audience gets to know your character through their dialogue. Dialogue is central to understanding a character, and understanding a character is central in forming a bond with that character.

The best way, in my experience, to get to know you character is to write two-person conversations. This is a simple exercise that won’t take you very long, but it can yield some great results. Take the character you want to create and put them in a situation with someone else, then just write what they talk about. For example, interacting with an airline employee or at a job interview. By limiting the scene to two, or at the most three, people you cut out distractions and are able to hone in on what makes this particular character unique.

These conversations don’t have to end up in your final story. In fact, they probably won’t. No one but you will ever see them or care about them. That’s not the point. The purpose is just to let you learn who these characters are and how they interact with each other. You can’t share your character with your audience until you know them yourself, and you can’t get to know them until you have actually written them. You won’t realize a line of dialogue rings false until you know what false for that character is.

That’s it for this post, but believe me we are far from done talking about characters! Please like us, share us on social media, and check back in for more! Subscribe to our RSS feed to get automatically updated when we post!

  • Sarah

5 Podcasts That Prove Not All Podcasts Have To Be “Dudes With a Mic Cracking Jokes”

Podcasting is still a relatively new medium, but it is quickly becoming more mainstream. Due to the success of shows like WTF with Marc Maron, it sometimes seems like the only viable format for a podcast is “dudes with a mic cracking jokes”.

This format varies slightly, but it basically boils down to one or two dudes sitting in front of a mic, just talking about life with no real structure. Sometimes, they do this with a special guest (usually a stand-up comedian), and sometimes they do it without a special guest.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these types of podcasts. I love them. There are some amazing shows that follow this format and use it to its full potential. However, just like I wouldn’t want every movie to be a comedy, or a drama, or a documentary, I don’t want my podcasts to all be cookie cutter shows. I want variety. I want originality. I want… more.

And that’s just what the Internet gives me.

I listen to podcasts every day of my life. I walk a lot and take public transportation, so I burn through my podcasts like a box of Girl Scout cookies. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t listen to them just how devoted you get to your shows, just how invested you get in that weekly fix. It’s different than any other medium. You feel connected to a podcast. You feel like part of a family. You feel like you’ve uncovered a long lost treasure, and you want to share it with the world.

That’s what this list is – my chance to share my treasures with the world. I’ve written about some podcasts in the past that I love, but this list is going to focus specifically on my favorite shows that shatter the “dudes with a mic cracking jokes” format.

1 – Limetown

Limetown is an old school radio drama that plays off of the success of Serial. In the first season, American Public Radio reporter Lia Haddock investigates the mystery surrounding the community of Limetown, which had a strange tragedy strike it ten years ago. As her investigation pries deeper into the mystery, she quickly starts getting answers to questions she didn’t even know to ask.

I don’t want to say anything else about the plot, because it’s far too delicious to uncover yourself. Do yourself a favor. Grab a cup of tea and a blanket, curl up in a comfy chair, and just enjoy the journey.

Intense at times, scary at times, and always intriguing, Limetown is by far the best example of the recent rash of serialized mystery podcasts. It is well-produced, well-written, and well-acted. It is also addictive from the very first episode. Luckily, the entire first season has already aired, so you don’t have to go through the agony of waiting for the newest episode to drop. Now is the perfect time to get caught up.

Of course, we’re still waiting on the second season…

You can check out their webpage at http://www.limetownstories.com/ to start your own listening adventure.

2 – You Must Remember This

If you have any affinity at all for old Hollywood, old movie stars, or history, you have to check out You Must Remember This. Helmed by Karina Longworth, who also narrates, this show takes you on a trip through the fist century of Hollywood, digging deeper into the lives and scandals of the people you thought you knew.

What impresses me most about this show is the depth of the research Karina does on each and every topic. It is truly a passion project for her, and it shows in every episode. She is able to present the history of Tinseltown in an informative, personal, and entertaining way that manages to humanize the revered, and revere the forgotten.

My personal favorite episodes are the series she did about Charles Manson’s Hollywood. They are truly frightening and sad. The episode focusing on Dennis Wilson was particularly moving and poignant.

To listen for yourself, you can check out the website at: http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/

3 – The Arkham Sessions

Okay, I’ll admit it. This one might be a little niche for some. Even if you’re not addicted to all things Batman the way I am, however, I think there is still something to enjoy. If you are addicted to all things Batman, how are you not listening to it already?

Dr. Andrea Letamendi and Brian Ward walk us through Batman: The Animated Series, episode by episode, and dive into the psychology of the characters, including Batman himself and his greatest foes. It’s a fascinating dive into the very nature of the human mind, and I daresay you may just come out on the other side a wiser, more compassionate person.

Who would’ve thought you could do all that with a cartoon show about a grown man in a cape?

I enjoy this show for the serious way they approach the subject matter, and how clinical the discussion is, while never losing the sense of fun and almost whimsy.

You can check out their website at the following link: http://www.underthemaskonline.com/the-arkham-sessions/.

4 – Crime Writers On…

Of course, anyone who has ever heard of a podcast knows about Serial. Its the gold standard against which all other podcasts are measured now. Crime Writers On… started off as a show about a group of crime writers sitting around and talking about the minutiae of every episode of Serial, but it has since evolved into so much more than that.

Rebecca Lavoie, Kevin Flynn, Lara Bricker, and resident naysayer (as they lovingly call him) Toby Ball have done an excellent job expanding a simple concept into an artfully produced show that discusses not just Serial, but all true crime related topics. This includes reviews of crime-related television shows and podcasts, interviews with authors, journalists, content creators, and law enforcement officials, as well as looking at current headlines for (often humorous) crime stories. The charm and chemistry of the hosts really sells the entire show, and the production values are top notch.

Follow Crime Writers On… at http://www.crimewriterson.com/

5 – Read it and Weep

Read it and Weep might, on its face, seem like just another one of the plethora of “bad movie podcasts” out there, but the truth is that it is much more than that. First of all, the hosts tackle bad books and television shows as well as movies, but that variety alone is not really what sets this podcast apart from the pack.

Read it and Weep is truly unique in the way it approaches the pain of enduring bad art. Most podcasts just go through the movie they watched plot point by plot point, poking fun and cracking jokes as they go along. Read it and Weep adds another layer of madness and hilarity by integrating games, elaborate ads, and forced, (mostly) genuine, compliments from each participant at the beginning and end of the show. It also benefits from having a mostly stable cast of hosts, with a variety of returning guests rounding out each episode.

Read it and Weep also allows sponsored episodes, so the variety of bad books and movies they are forced to endure is painful and wonderful. I haven’t researched it so I can’t say for sure, but I’d be very surprised if any other podcast has covered My Immortal, Look Who’s Talking, Fuller House, Star Wars Episode I, all the Twilight books and movies, and 50 Shades of Grey.

Catch Read it and Weep at: http://read-weep.com/

APRIL WINNER- AMBER’S PICK Sunday Afternoon By Rachel Oberg

Throwback Thursday! Let’s Throwback to last Friday, when I should have been posting this amazing story. It’s a great short story worth waiting for, though, so I think that’ll make up for it.

I present to you my pick for winner of the April submission period – Sunday Afternoon by Rachel Oberg. I dare you to read this and not be immediately a) compelled by the story and b) hungry! It’s such a descriptive and captivating piece. Like most good short stories, it’s a complete tale of its own but it’ll leave you wanting more.


Sunday Afternoon

By Rachel Oberg

The smell of garlic burning brought her out of her daydream. She swore and clicked off the flame. She dumped the scorched garliac into the compost, wiped out the cast iron skillet and set it back on the stove. She minced a few more cloves, setting aside their papery skins to use in veggie stock. The carrots were in the oven already, soon to be browned at the edges, sweetened by honey, with a touch of salt and pepper and a sprinkle of cayenne. The bread had come out just before the carrots had gone in. When she leaned in close she could hear it crackling as it cooled. She inhaled and closed her eyes.

Freshly baked bread took her back to childhood. Mom pulling out the fresh loaves of her signature bread, ready to be slathered with butter (or margarine, it was the 90’s). It took her to early memories, hazy enough that they could have been a dream. Oma’s hands showing how to shape the Zwiebach buns, her little hands trying to mimic the motion. Praise from Oma, her gentle voice encouraging her young granddaughter as she learned a generations old recipe. Her eyes flitted over to the framed recipe on the wall. Written by Oma’s hand. She would make them again soon aided only by memories this time. She couldn’t call Oma to help over the phone. She missed that.

She turned the stove back on and added a bit more oil. She loved the way it rippled when it got hot. She added a big pat of butter and then another and watched as they sizzled and began to brown. She threw in the garlic and the smell wafted up to her nose. She breathed deeply. The garlic just needed thirty seconds. This time it wouldn’t burn. She added some white wine and turned the heat down to low. It would reduce into a simple sauce, perfect to coat the homemade pasta she’d spent the afternoon rolling and cutting. She didn’t mind. That kind of work was good for the soul.

She opened the screen door and the dog shot past her. Hopping and barking at the tree where he’d seen a squirrel earlier. Then running over to her husband at the barbecue. She smiled. She bent over her garden box to see what was growing. The beans had popped up, some squash plants were flowering, and the tomatoes were getting tall. She snipped off some garlic chives and plucked a big handful of basil leaves. The smell was intoxicating. No wonder the bees wouldn’t leave the basil flowers alone. She walked over to the barbecue. Her husband pulled her over and hugged her tight. He smelled like campfire. “Chicken’s almost ready” he said. She smiled and called the dog to come back inside and keep her company.

She washed and dried the herbs, chopping them with her sharpest knife. They’d be passed around the table for people to sprinkle on the pasta as they wished. The salted water was boiling. Huge rolling bubbles, sometimes jumping over the edge of the pot and making the flame sizzle. She added the pasta, stirring so it wouldn’t stick. It would only need a minute. She tasted the browned butter sauce. It had reduced nicely, but still needed to be seasoned. Just salt and pepper this time. She added a bit of the starchy pasta water to the sauce before draining the pasta, then added the pasta to the skillet. She stirred it gently then tasted it. She sighed. It was good. She took the carrots out of the oven. They needed a pinch more salt. The best way to bring out the flavors of a dish.

She pulled the parmesan cheese out of the fridge and scraped it along the grater, transparent curls falling and melting over the hot pasta. The dog ran over, eyes begging for a taste. She laughed and tossed a chunk of the rind that bounced off his nose and fell to the floor. Her smile widened as she shook her head. As she sliced the bread she heard children laughing outside. Not hers. Maybe someday. Her heart ached a little at the thought. For now, this was enough. She walked to the stove and took another taste of pasta. The cool breeze through the open window mingled with the smell of the sauce. They were like refreshment to her soul. She heard voices outside. These she recognized. Their family away from family. The doorbell rang. She took a breath and walked over to open the door.


Rachel grew up in Ontario, Canada, but now resides in Southern California with her husband and dog. She loves everything to do with food (except doing the dishes), could spend all day reading Lee Child novels, and is obsessed with eating French baguettes and croissants.


Hey, all! We’ve picked our April winners. Now it’s time for you to get something submitted for next month!

We accept all fiction and non-fiction pieces, including blog posts, short stories, opinion pieces, thought pieces, clickbait, lists, news analysis, political analysis, general interest pieces, pop culture reviews and opinions, whatever you got, we want it! Send it to UpWriteLadies@gmail.com. This month’s deadline in 11:59 PM PST on APRIL 28. Get writing!


APRIL WINNER- SARAH’S PICK A Rainy Day By Susan Belshaw

Below is my (Sarah’s) pick for April, 2016. It’s called A Rainy Day, and it is a non-fiction devotional piece. I selected it because it is a beautifully written example of finding a spiritual depth in your everyday life, an example I personally aspire to each and every day.

A Rainy Day

By Susan Belshaw

“Mommy,” my 5-year old daughter called out to me from the kitchen table, “why doesn’t God make peas M&M green? I might eat them then!”

As I continued with my dishwashing I replied matter-of-factly, “Because that’s not the way He makes them. Now eat up, we have a lot of errands to run.”

I moved into the bedroom to make the bed. I heard Rachel in the living room beginning to serenade me with her banging on the old upright piano. “Mommy,” she called out, “why doesn’t God make it so everyone can play the piano? Then we’d have such beautiful music.”

“Because,” I called out,” He makes everyone special in his or her own way. Now get your shoes on, it’s time to go.”

I was putting on my coat and looking for the umbrella when she asked me, “Why doesn’t God give us whatever we want when we want it so we can be happy all the time?”

I found the umbrella, but couldn’t find the car keys. As I rummaged through my purse I answered, “ God knows what’s best for us, and He always does what is best, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.” Ah, I had found the keys, the umbrella and the answers to some of life’s tough questions all in one afternoon. I was on a roll!

The rain was really coming down. I got drenched trying to help Rachel into her car seat. I was thinking of all the important errands I had to run as I slid into the driver’s seat and hoped the car would start right up. As I put it into “reverse”, I noticed that the windshield wipers did not come on. I pressed the button again: nothing. I put the car back into “park”. I muttered, “ Not today, I need them today.” I repeatedly pressed the button to no avail. Why today of all days, I wondered.

“Mommy.” Rachel spoke up. “I bet God knew we needed to have our windshield wipers break today. He always does what’s best.” she smiled.

I dropped my head on the steering wheel and sighed audibly. The last thing I needed was a simplistic, childish answer to a very real and complex problem I was experiencing. Then it hit me. It hit me so hard, I sat up straight. Had I been giving Rachel simplistic answers to her complex questions all morning?

We all have questions. Life is a journey of ever changing circumstances. Nothing is set for life. There are always changes and with the changes come questions. Many times we offer each other solutions based on our own limited experiences, merely to put each other off instead of seeking after the truth. Look at Job and his friends. They were more interested in tying up loose ends than they were in trying to discover the truth.

The questions in life can be just as important as the answers. Life is a journey, a process, and that process contributes to our growth and produces our character. Why do we try to rush through it? Reaching out to God is as important as holding on to Him.

As I sat back contemplating the morning and the windshield wipers, I looked in the rear view mirror at Rachel. She was hesitant, no longer smiling. I knew she was waiting for a cue from me. The errands could wait.

.” What say you and I go into the kitchen and make some hot chocolate?”

“OK Mommy!” Dashing from the car to the house she squealed at the rain drops. I watched her as she wiggled out of coat and shoes. As she climbed up onto the stool in the kitchen, her eyes danced with anticipation of the hot chocolate. I poured some chocolate syrup onto a spoon and let her lick it while I stirred the pot. For the first time today I didn’t feel hurried or stressed. I was able to stop and smell the chocolate, so to speak, as we waited for our drink to heat. Life is a journey, not a destination. So right then, I decided while watching Rachel, with chocolate dripping down her chin, to enjoy the ride.

Susan Belshaw is an ageless writer and stand-up comedian who currently resides in Florida. She enjoys spending time with her three grandchildren.