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