So as you know from the title of this presentation, we're going to be talking about creating compelling characters — a key topic for writing fiction. We're going to look at actionable ways that you can create more compelling characters in your work and break down some examples from books that are doing these things really well.
Principle #1: Characters must yearn for something
You've probably heard many times before and you'll probably hear again: characters need to have goals. That's Writing 101 and it's true!
Goals are really important to fuel a plot. Just when you're conceptualizing a piece, it's really great to nail down your character's goals. That's gonna drive the plot. A character that doesn't have goals will be passive and unchanging, as they don't really have anything to pursue that's going to push them to change.
But when we're thinking about creating complex characters, we want to look deeper than that tangible goal and start thinking about what they are yearning for. This is something in their soul — something that they are craving in their lives.
It could be intangible or even impossible to obtain, but it's what's missing from their lives and making them sad. While they may or may not be aware of this, it's a really important part of a character. It could contradict their concrete goal, inevitably forcing them to choose between these two opposing desires or it could be the thing that's fueling their goal. We often call this an internal goal, but I like to think about it as what's missing from a character.
Principle #2: Complicate, don’t explain
A really common impulse in writing is to try and explain why a character is the way they are.
There’s definitely truth to this as a lot of the time we're writing to unpack a character and figure out why they are a certain way. However, sometimes it can make the writing very prescriptive and it feels like we're just being shown certain scenes to prove a point about the character. For example, a flashback that just explains why a character has a certain trait and it's very neat.
People are really complicated and trying to simplify characters into something neat or formulaic removes that complexity. Think of character development less as explaining why a character is the way they are and more as complicating them. So, instead of using a flashback to explain why they hold a certain belief, you can use that flashback to complicate their belief.
If you're explaining, you're making them more simple with time, but if you're complicating, you're making them more complex with every new thing we learn about them.
One of the main differences between a real person and a fictional character is that in real life there isn't an author, who's manipulating everything we do and unifying all of our experiences to make a point. People have the freedom to just… live our lives and no one is turning it into a story. A character might do something in a piece that readers would say was ‘out of character’. But if a real person did that, it would just be something that...they did.
I think the biggest challenge of creating a character is being able to convince a reader that a character is as complicated as a real person while still having a unified theme to the piece.
While the goal of most fiction is to have a unified purpose to the story, focusing too much on that can cause your character to lose the messiness and complexity of a real person. Real people are free of the confines of needing to serve a story.
Oftentimes, a good character is someone we've never seen before. So in every scene, it can be good to ask - what can I learn about this character in each scene? Every single scene is an opportunity. If there are 146 scenes in a book, that's 146 different opportunities to learn something new about the character. Every scene is a way that you can complicate their yearning, their goals, their beliefs, and their desires. This will just continue to develop the conflict because they'll be more and more in conflict with themselves with each scene.
Here's an example from You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat. It’s a flashback from pretty early in the piece:
I remember falling down the stairs when I was two and looking up to see my parents laughing at the top. They claimed to have laughed so that I wouldn’t cry. But I rarely cried. “You were a happy baby,” Teta used to tell me, back when she could still remember my infancy.
I also remember when my mother asked me to tell my father she was in labor. I was three years old.
Hours later I was staring at newborn Karim through the glass partition, thinking him superfluous and knowing things would now be different, my mother no longer entirely mine.
Throughout the novel, we see the main character in a lot of different romantic relationships, but at the core of the novel is the relationship the main character has with her mother. The book explores the strain of loving someone who doesn't understand you.
This flashback shows the first moment of disconnect in this relationship. It doesn't serve to explain the relationship or why they have this disconnect. Instead, this flashback complicates their relationship.We see in the scene how the protagonist interpreted her family's perception of her when she was very young. This was long before factors like her queer relationships start to cause tension with her mother.
So through this scene, we can see that this is not just a case of a homophobic parent, unable to accept their child, but more a case of two people who've always struggled to understand each other's love. So, we can see the relationship is much more complex than it first appears by going back to the first moment of disconnect. This sets the stage for this whole relationship to be explored rather than just explaining why it is the way that it is.
Dynamic flaws: What makes a good character flaw
This is another Writing 101 — characters should have flaws. Let's break this down and talk about what makes a good character flaw. It’s a little more complex than just naming a trait and saying this character is impulsive or this character is overconfident.
Good character flaws are dynamic parts of the story. This means that they're changing and they're active. A lot of the time a misbelief is going to be more interesting than a static trait. There isn't really much unpacking in just a static personality trait. Flaws in a character's worldview or perception of themselves are a lot more interesting because they impact a character's choices in a more compelling way.
A flaw isn't just how the character is (inherent), but it's what they believe (informed). The latter has a cause that can be explored throughout the piece. I like to think about character flaws as actually what's the most interesting thing about the character. We want readers to be interested in characters because of their flaws, not despite them.
It’s not about just picking a couple flaws to tack onto a character, but actually making those flaws active in evolving traits that:
- cause consequences within the plot
- cause internal consequences for the main character.
So, an example of a flaw can be— the character is mean. This is just static and unexplained. There's nothing to really unpack there.
But what if we took that same flaw and instead looked at it this way— the character is afraid to get close to people because they've been abandoned in the past. So, they act cruelly to others before any bonds can be formed. This is active, it's informed. We could then spend a whole novel unpacking why the character’s like this and how it's going to affect them. It's a lot more nuanced, interesting and complex than just naming a static trait.
Here's an example from Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh:
I kept in the glove box of the Dodge a dead field mouse I’d found one day on the porch frozen in a tight ball. I’d picked it up by its tail and swirled it through the air for a moment, then slung it in the glove box with a broken flashlight, a map of New England freeways, a few green nickels. Every now and then that winter, I’d peek at the mouse, check on its invisible decomposition in the freezing cold. I think it made me feel powerful somehow.
In this novel, the title character Eileen is a young woman who lives with her abusive, alcoholic father. She works as a secretary at a juvenile prison and she feels very ostracized and ashamed of her life. She's disgusted by herself and she seeks any way that she can feel control.
A new coworker recognizes this flaw within Eileen, takes advantage of her desire for social capital and ends up luring her into complicity in a crime. This is way more complex than saying that she's power hungry or has poor self-esteem. Her flaws are actually the driving force of the novel. They are dynamic and cause not just the consequences in the plot, but in fact the entire plot to happen.
Specific Interestingness: What makes this character worth reading about?
A reader needs to be convinced that there's a reason we're reading about this character.
If we think about real people, every single person has something interesting about them, probably many interesting things about them. And so you need to find that same uniqueness and same interestingness in a character.
I had a writing professor once who said that if you're struggling with this, use yourself as the baseline - it's easiest to understand your own complexity. So, what is the specific interestingness of this character? This is just a difficult term to say why am I reading this character?
It could be:
- Something about the character that makes them compelling.
- Something critical about them makes their thoughts and choices interesting to read about
- Something that convinces the reader this is a character they have never seen before.
- Something about them that feels both unique and truthful.
The fourth point is key- something that we can recognize is unique to this character but reflects something that we know to be true about human nature. If you can find that thing, then you have a really great foundation for a character study.
So, we've got an example here from a novel called When I'm Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry:
I wonder how long it takes him to acclimate the trappings of this new life. I myself am my own planet. Everything I need is right here—in my body, in my heart, in my mind. As I think this I sense Mun’s agitation. Tonight the journey I set out on from the gates of Gandan Tegchenling does not sit well with him. He wants no part in it. To him, the idea of branding another as a tulku, a reincarnated being, is abhorrent. He knows better than anyone the subsequent responsibility of such a naming. I wonder if there is something else my brother, the Redeemer Who Sounds the Conch in the Darkness, is not telling me. I am your servant always, I say.
Cut it out, he says.
Let's talk a little bit about why this book does character so well. The initial setup of the book is really interesting. We're introduced to the main character Chuluun, a Buddhist novice, whose twin brother Mun was identified as a reincarnated Lama when they were children.
While these are really interesting details, it's not just the exterior details that make him such an interesting character. It's also Chuluun’s inner world that makes him so compelling. The core of this novel is Chuluun trying to reconcile his faith with the relationship he has with his brother, who he has a psychic-like bond with. And he struggles to comprehend Mun’s decision to leave their monastery and become a tour guide.
This specific original character psychology that's found in the bond he has with his brother is the driving force of the novel. It makes him a character who really feels worth reading about.
Point of View: Where is the story being told from?
Point of view is a really valuable character-building tool. It's the specific mode through which we’ll access a character’s psychology. Think of it as the angle the story is being told or seen from. Imagine you have a statue on a table and you shine a light on it.
The statue will look completely different as we shift this light around it. That's what the point of view is to your story. So, it's really important to choose the best point of view to showcase your character’s psychology. Note: Think it through in the beginning because it's a very difficult edit to make later on.
The main question to ask when choosing a point of view is which point of view best showcases my character’s psychology?
- 1st person past tense: ideal for a character who has changed significantly from the events, since it allows them to reflect on their past choices and actions
- 2nd person present tense: can be used to show a dissociation from their own identity
- 2nd person past tense: can show the character telling the story to themselves in order to process it.
- 3rd person: ideal for a character who wouldn’t be observant or articulate enough to examine their psychology on their own
Let’s look at a couple of examples of point of view. The first one is from Disorientation by Elaine Chou. This is in third person limited.
Added to that, Ingrid was obsessive and neurotic, traits well suited for academia. The real world, or nonacademic world, frightened her with its largeness and unknownness—far better to cozily burrow into old texts, to safely engage with dead authors who couldn’t talk back. To live inside the past was to debark from contemporary events and concerns, floating away until she landed on a minuscule, highly specialized planet where only a dozen other beings spoke the same language. Ingrid could conceive of nothing better. She even imagined a new wardrobe to complement her future title as Profession Yang: brooches, practical but devastatingly fashionable eyeglasses, perfume that reminded people of their great-aunt (in a good way).
This novel is in third person and it's an ideal point of view to examine this specific protagonist. Ingrid is naive and struggles to stand up for herself, and the novel slowly unpacks her naivety and obliviousness.
She wouldn't be a valuable first-person narrator. She's not self-aware enough to examine her own character or to articulate her story to a reader. We could maybe tell the story from a first-person retrospective after she's already undergone this evolution, but then we wouldn't be getting to see her evolve in real time.
So the third person gives her a helping hand, showing the readers aspects of herself that she's not aware of yet.
The next example is from The Lightness, by Emily Temple, and is in a first-person retrospective.
I am a person of binges. I have never understood the phrase “too much of a good thing.” Look: it’s irrational, impossible. See fig. 1: when I was a child, I became obsessed with horses. I know, I know, all little girls are obsessed with horses. But I lived for them. I gorged on them. I begged for them in any incarnation: films, toys, patterns, photographs, posters. Once, I cut the hair off a Barbie and super glued it to the base of my spine. I thrilled to wear my ponytail under my clothes, in secret, my parents knowing nothing, thinking me merely human, but it rubbed off after two days, leaving long blond doll hairs clotting in the corners of the house. My birthday came, and my parents, who were still together then, splurged on an afternoon of horseback riding lessons. When it was time to leave, they found that I had knotted my hair into the horse’s mane so elaborately that they had to cut me away from it with a pair of rusted barn shears. I still have the clump of matted girl-and-horse hair hidden in a drawer, though after all the times I put it in my mouth, I admit that it is somewhat the worse for wear.
That is all just to say that in retrospect, I’m not so surprised by what happened that summer. Like everything, it was my own fault.
In this book, which is told from the first person past tense, the main character is telling the story after it's already ended. The protagonist, Olivia, was only 16 when the events were transpiring, but her true wisdom on her character and the events is better accessed in retrospect, after she's had time to truly process what happens and knows the outcome of her choices. And as an adult, she has the distance needed to truly understand her 16 year-old psyche and she can tell a more complex version of the story than if she were telling it in the moment.
Throughout the book, she comments frequently on her own flaws and misbeliefs. She is able to recognize these things because so much time has passed. This gives a sense of awareness and credibility to her narrative that her teenage self wouldn't have been able to provide.
Voice: Building character through word choice
All aspects of a story are delivered through voice and you can never disengage from the voice of a piece as it's present in every single word. Readers may not be aware of the ways that voice builds character, but it's a really important character-building tool.
The word choice and cadence with which a character tells their story is the most tangible way that we interact with the character. It's how the character is speaking to us. It's just a constant aspect of the story.
- the diction your character would use.
- details that are (or aren't) important to them
- the way they structure and perceive their narrative
- their speaking rhythms.
So, now we're gonna look at an example from If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga:
This story is told from two alternating points of view.
Question: If a girl misremembers the first time she saw you, can you ever truly fill her eyes?
I saw the American girl’s ankles first. I recognized the foreignness in their brown angularity. Before I could arrange my body in response to this realization, the rest of her had descended from the ceiling, down the steps, into the basement stationary shop. Petite, expensive-looking clothes, and hair shaved close to the scalp like a sniper’s. I was seated, blocking most of the narrow space, but she swept past (over) me, her flying silk dress licking my knees. She had trapped me on the floor, nowhere to go.
In this excerpt, we're seeing the first time that the two POV characters meet.
The excerpt has a really exceptional sense of rhythm. It's almost musical. It's not just pleasant to the ear, it's also showing us the personality of the speaker. If we look at just the verbs in this piece, they really pull their weight.
- ‘Before I could arrange my body,’ feels very intentional. Something like before I could move feels a bit more haphazard.
- The girl being described as ‘the rest of her had descended’ feels a bit mystical. It creates this dichotomy between the two characters.
- The narrator is arranging himself, which feels very autonomous. Whereas the girl is ‘descending’, which feels like it's happening by like a force of nature.
- The line, ‘the silk dress licking my knee’, makes the moment her dress brushes him feel very intimate.
The descriptions also do a great job to separate the two characters. He describes her as petite, with expensive looking clothes and hair shaved close to the scalp, like a sniper’s. She would never describe her own hair as shaped like a snipers. It’s just not in her character. She probably wouldn't note her own clothing as expensive, but it stands out to him immediately. So the way they describe each other is very deeply entrenched in their specific worldviews.
In this excerpt, the voice manages to capture the main conflict and tension points of the book and the two characters.
Revealing action: Developing character through choice
Character’s choices and actions are really important touchstones for their character development. It's through a character's active choices that their character arc roots itself and manifests tangibly in the plot.
Important choices can :
- Show a character choosing to take (or not take) the opportunity to change.
- Show the character choosing between two paths they want
- Show the moment they become a changed version of themselves for better or worse.
- Show them choosing their yearning over their concrete goal or choosing their concrete goal over their yearning.
- It could be a form of sacrifice.
- It could reveal their true, true desires.
Every time in the story your character makes a choice, think about what that choice is revealing about them.
As a little tip: avoid binary choices. Choices that only have two clear options.
An obvious example is a love triangle, where the protagonist is going to choose one of two romantic interests. It's not inherently bad writing, but it’s just hard to make the inevitable choice satisfying because the two options are so clear from the beginning.
A character's thoughts, their internal narrative, develops them, but it's in the moment of choice that we actually see their true nature.
The most impactful choices are often the ones that are both surprising and coherent.The choice reveals something new about the character, but feels set-up by what’s come before
It's hard to set up those kinds of character choices, but if you can sow the seeds for that properly, the payoff is really impactful.