How to Create Compelling Characters

Characters taking pictures of themselves with their phone.

From the moment you begin reading a book to the second you’ve finished; you want to be invested in the outcome. A story triumphs by capturing your attention.

To start leveling up your character development it helps to think about the characters you remember. Think back on their personality traits and their storylines. What made them impactful? I’m willing to bet there are probably a few different reasons.

Maybe it’s because they were decisive and brave, or because they had something in common with you. Perhaps it’s because in the final moments of the story they surprised you.  

How can you make your characters equally impactful? Well, if you want to level up your character development, you should consider a few core concepts. A short list of techniques, that can be used separately or combined to create a cast of characters that no one could forget.

Main Ideas

  1. Conflict is key. By creating tension within your character, you can raise the stakes, and draw in your readers attention.
  2. Readers are captivated by characters that are exceptional.
  3. Add vivid details that gradually show who your character is. 
  4. Leave your readers wondering as they progress through the story.

Give Your Characters a Clear Motivation

When you first start composing a character you always face a critical problem. You need the reader to believe in them.

That’s why it’s helpful to shed light on what motivates your character. It helps your reader connect with the story and keeps them interested.

Typically, you probably think it’s crucial for your heroes to have clear motivations, but it’s also important for your villains. From the very beginning, it’s more compelling to see a villain that has a clear goal in mind, even if the reader isn’t aware of it. Snape from Harry Potter is a perfect example of a memorable villain with a clear motivation.  Although Harry didn’t always understand it, Snape was following a definite path every step of the way, and he was never Harry’s real enemy.

This does not mean that a character’s motivation shouldn’t change, just that it shouldn’t be overlooked. Because your reader is also compelled by what surprises them, a character’s plans should be interrupted. It wouldn’t be an interesting story unless they were.

Consider What Makes Them Interesting

Simply put it is more fun to read about exceptional people. If you think back to a memorable character, I bet you could identify at least one quality that made them unique.

For example, within the Hunger Games series Katniss is an excellent hunter and a courageous young woman. It doesn’t necessarily have to be intelligence or bravery though, there are a lot of qualities that can help a character stand out. Some ideas include:

  • Naturally talented athlete
  • Inner wisdom beyond their years
  • Able to use their beauty to manipulate people
  • Innate ability to detect lies
  • The leading representative in their field of study

These are just some examples, but the world is really the limit.

You could also consider giving your character an exceptional personality or attitude. These are parts of the human experience that are really rooted in who we are. So, showcasing someone’s personality can provide a lot of insight into what makes them unique.

The Design is in the Details

Readers enjoy characters that have qualities they themselves would want to emulate. In addition though, you need to make sure they are well understood.

The way you describe your protagonist on the page gives your reader insight into who they are. You want to go into painful detail on this, because having too much information is often a lot better than not having enough.

Think about how your character acts in each scene. Every beat is an opportunity to connect with your reader, so it’s important that you are able to show their reactions and behaviors.

To get started it can help to ask yourself a series of questions about the character.

35 Questions to ask your character.

Create Believable Dialogue

Another important aspect that you should not forget when crafting compelling characters is their dialogue and voice. Obviously, dialogue is an important part of any piece, but in terms of developing your character it is incredibly helpful. Through good dialogue and description, you can say a lot.

Weave Conflict into Their Journey

One character I know that was memorable for many was Regina George from the iconic classic Mean Girls. When I think back on what it was that stands out about her, it is partly her personality and the place she ends up. Unlike other stories, even as a villain she was given a full story arc, and at the end of the story she learned something. To get to that point, though, she needed to face challenges.

Crafting tension is vital to keeping your audience’s attention. Beat by beat or chapter by chapter you should raise the stakes. This technique of writing is extremely effective at compelling an audience to turn the page. Even if your heroes’ goal is not lofty or difficult, the reader wants a pay off at the end.

Exposing your character to a variety of challenges also helps you as a writer, because it allows you to see how your character reacts, thereby teaching you a little more about them. We put characters in moral dilemmas to figure out who they are. After all writing is also a process of discovery.

And I encourage you to think about conflict as not only a force outside of the characters circle, but a force within the character themselves. The more you can create conflict in the experience of the protagonist, the more compelling they will become.

Internal Vs External Conflict

Average people experience pangs of fear, longing, and loss. Your characters should be no different.

Introducing alternate sources of conflict besides the main antagonist or villain will make your character more compelling. This is because characters who are flawed, are more human and therefore easier for readers to connect with. Internal conflict can be an extremely powerful technique for a writer to try.

On the other hand, developing your external conflict can also make your character more compelling. Try exaggerating the external conflict by creating a strong antagonist who pushes your characters to their limits. The greater the danger the more compelling your story will be in general.

Introduce a Rich Backstory

Your character’s history colors their entire world.

A lot of our perception comes from our upbringing. That is why it’s important to draw connections between their past and present.

Especially important is the first few years of their life. Funny how writing opens us up to experiencing parts of a person’s life that they could not have known existed.

The more you build out their backstory the better you will understand your character. Often if a character’s behavior makes sense a reader is going be more involved in the story. Be careful when introducing elements of a character’s backstory though, you don’t want to give too much away. It’s important that you guide the reader along, feeding them backstory morsels, until you are ready for them to know everything.

Write in Mystery

Incorporating mystery creates a more compelling character as well. Maybe you are thinking about allowing the audience into your character’s mysterious past chapter by chapter. Or perhaps you want to give your character a secret and allow it to come out in one giant climactic ending.

Whatever strategy you take it’s critical you leave your reader hungry for more information.  Creating mystery within your piece is an excellent way of compelling your audience to continue reading.

Some Final Ideas

Developing a compelling character takes a little bit of creativity and a strong understanding of the fundamentals.

Remember you want to give your reader the biggest pay off. So, make sure some question is answered, or a goal obtained. Make sure your character changes through the story. Starts out evil becomes good. Starts out good and becomes evil. This can give your writing more depth.

Create a character that is at odds with his allies. Set up an internal conflict or make your character helpless. All these techniques could help you by making your character human and flawed and therefore relatable.

You could even try highlighting the contrast between the character’s inner dialogue and those around them.

There are a lot of different roads to make your character more compelling, you just need to figure out what feels right for them. If you are finding it difficult to even come with good character ideas, one technique that helps me discover new concepts, is free writing.

It’s all about trial and error, until you figure out what feels exactly right.

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