How to Create a Compelling Character : Part I


Creating characters is a tricky business. If they are too life-like they will be boring. With too many quirks, flaws or features they will be confusing. Compelling characters have a little of each of these things. But mostly they have a strong desire or longing to accomplish something or a problem to overcome.

One handy way to begin designing a character is to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Decide where on the pyramid your character is located and go from there.

Figure out what your character is seeking on the diagram and you will know how to start building their personality and such.

Quirks Don’t Equal Character

Many beginning writers make the mistake of thinking that giving a character a set of mannerisms or physical quirks is “characterization”. But these alone don’t make your characters compelling.

When your characters do have unusual quirks they need to be relevant to their back story – the things which happened to them before they appeared in your book. Compelling characters need to resemble an iceberg.  Readers should have the sense that there’s a lot more under the surface. Characters shouldn’t feel like they didn’t exist before page one.

  • Don’t make your characters too one-dimensional-they’ll be boring. Everyone is multi-layered and complex. Characters should be even more so.
  • Characters need to do exciting things to keep a reader’s attention. Real people are boring. Don’t base characters on real people unless you spice them up some.
  • Don’t put a laundry list of physical traits in a clump in the story. Design the character’s physical attributes, but spread them out throughout the story. And don’t include anything not relative to the story.
  • Watch people when you’re out and about. Keep a notebook on you at all times to record odd characteristics you see. If someone walks differently or dresses strangely, record it.

Readers don’t have to like your characters, but they should be able to feel a sense of empathy for them. Even antagonists shouldn’t be purely evil. The explanation for why they’re such awful people forms part of their back story.

On the flip side, heroes shouldn’t be too perfect. Readers enjoy reading about people with flaws, problems or situations larger than ones they deal with daily. They also enjoy reading about characters who are larger than life. Characters are more compelling when a reader can share their struggles and cheer on their victories.

Ways to build empathy are:

  • Show a character’s suffering, either mentally or physically
  • Include a flashback to an unhappy childhood or traumatic incident
  • Share your character’s thoughts
  • Use the first-person or third-person limited point of view
  • Show a character being misunderstood or bullied by others
  • Have the Antagonist frustrate a character’s attempts to meet their need

Finally, have fun. If a character bores you they’ll bore the reader. If a character is exciting or enticing to you, the reader will enjoy them as well. You may have to revise a character several times before you get it right; don’t be afraid to do so.

In my next blog I will post a spreadsheet I use to design characters.


2 responses »

  1. Good lesson, Rebecca. One of the things I’ve been getting lately is that folks hate my characters. They think they’re unsympathetic and *rude*. One person said one of my characters lacked integrity–ugh! But at least they’re not boring!!!

    • I know what you mean. Mine tend to be too boring. I have to think hard to make them ‘bigger than life’ because I write realistically.

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