Creating a Compelling Character

What comes to mind when you think about characters in fiction? How about your characters? How do you reveal them to readers?

Creating characters readers care about is an essential step to creating a successful novel. It’s not only a character’s physical description. In fact, what a character looks like is only a very small part of creating a compelling character, and probably one of the least important aspects to a character. (Think about it. When you and your friends read the same novel and then talk about it, how often do they picture the characters the same way you did? I know my imagination adds to characters. I’ve even had it where a novel says a guy has black hair, and yet I still picture him blond.)

Here are some ways to reveal a character to readers:

  • Voice. What a character says and what they don’t say tells you something about what that character is like. Also important is how a character says what they say. Think about the statement, “I love it.” If spoken flatly that statement means something very different than spoken excitedly.
  • Action. What a character does in a given situation, or what they don’t do. Action is character. Actions carry more meaning than words. People can say anything. It’s easy to speak, but it’s what a character does that’s truly revealing.
  • Background. A character’s background. I.e.- occupation, family, where he’s from, era, significant events of the past and how he handled those situations, culture, religion, economic situation, gender, race, individual skills and society’s evaluation of those skills, his philosophy of the world (how he views the world), etc.

A character’s reaction to significant events in his life is telling. Multiple people can experience the same event, but each individual reacts differently. Most people have lost a loved one sometime during their life, yet not everyone breaks down in tears or shuts down emotionally, or smiles and seems like nothing’s wrong.

There’s a quote a professor once shared with me. It sums up the previous paragraph. “Not every male who’s close to their mother ends up like Norman Bates.”

  • Internal World of the Character. What a character fears or wants in the larger sense. This relates back to last week’s post on internal pressure, where a character weighs his fear of a situation against the possible outcomes or gains from overcoming his fear.
  • Exposition. This is what you tell the reader. Exposition provides context about the character directly to the reader. This is a vital part of creating a compelling character; however don’t go overboard with exposition. Telling a reader something is good, as long as you don’t forget about also showing the character to the reader.

When creating a compelling character, you need something to tie all the pieces together. Characters, just like people, are made up of a ton of different parts. There’s a reason many consider humans puzzles. But just as puzzles can be put together to form a whole, so must a character. If a character isn’t whole, then his actions won’t make sense.

How do you go about creating compelling characters?

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