What Makes a Compelling Character? Part II

Last time, we focused on writing dialogue for your character. Today, we’re going to talk about figuring out who your character is as a person.

A lot of times, you won’t know who your character is when you start writing them. You might know one or two of their dominant personality traits, but the odds are you will discover the shades and nuances of their personality during the writing process. This is not only okay, it’s wonderful. Writing should be as much a process of exploring and learning as it is a process of merely dictating to your readers what to think or feel.

It is okay if you begin knowing one thing about your character and nothing else. For example, you may know your character is a smooth-talking con artist. You may know they are a soldier struggling with PTSD. You may know they are a kind, patient teacher. Starting from one point and building up from there is a great way to begin the process, as long as you don’t leave their entire personality at that one trait. Writers tend to write flat, uninteresting characters when they mistake a single trait for an entire character. No person is one thing and only one thing. No one is all noble and good all the time, and no one is generally all evil all the time. There are nuances to humanity, and a character without any nuance will feel two dimensional to your readers.

For many writers, it is easier to write a character if you “base” them on someone in real life. Sometimes, this means basing your character on yourself. Now, there is nothing wrong with giving your character some personality traits that you have, or that your family has. The danger, however, is when you don’t go any deeper than that. If your character is merely a stand-in for yourself, you won’t be able to objectively find their flaws and downsides. You will be so concerned with the audience liking your character that you will try to make them flawless and perfect. Not intentionally, of course, but it will happen. That’s when the dreaded Mary Sue label pops up. Your audience is smart. They’ll catch it. Don’t take them for granted, and don’t try to fool them.

Please note, this does NOT mean that you just tack on something like alcoholism or a drug addiction to every character just to give them depth. That is not depth, it is lazy writing. Whatever flaws your character has must grow organically out of their core. Any “turns” a character takes, such as a villain having a moment of nobility or a hero falling from grace, have to make sense for who they are and who they are trying to be.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when your character begins to do and say things you would never do. When your character can wholeheartedly believe and defend a position you disagree with, you have a fully fledged character and not a Mary Sue.

  • Sarah

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