Sunday, June 12, 2011

Creating Compelling Characters

“So her dog died and her husband is leaving her and her teenage son is peddling meth and now she’s fallen into a viper- and rat- infested mineshaft in the middle of Waziristan,” my friend said. “But I just don’t care. I don’t feel anything for this character, so I’m not emotionally invested in her outcome.”

We were discussing the most recent book she’d abandoned (I’ve taken liberties with the plot outline). This was usually the problem, she said: too many books about perilous things happening to utterly boring – or downright irritating – characters. I empathized, having recently slogged through a series of novels (from such literary darlings as Colum McCann and Joyce Carol Oates, no less) full of characters I didn’t care about.

Plot is important, but character is, perhaps, more important still. If you can create a few fascinating characters, it almost doesn’t matter what they do. People want to read about them anyway. But oh man, is this hard to pull off. It seems the job for a god: give me some clay and a puff of magic, life-infusing breath. How can I make a fascinating character from scratch? What’s going to convince the reader to care about her troubles?

Maybe it helps to look at actual people who fascinate us: usually they’ve got some combination of admirable qualities and sympathetic flaws. We’re rarely interested in the guy down the street who just goes about his workaday business, being pushed along through life, asleep at the wheel. The drama queen also annoys us: she is reactionary, fluttering her hands and bemoaning her fate. We root instead for dynamic people, larger-than-life people, people who surprise us with their boldness. We like quirky folk, too, so long as their eccentricities don’t cross over to psychoses.

Some authors can get away with creating thoroughly unlikeable characters: Nabokov with Humbert Humbert, for example. I’m reading John Updike for the first time and finding Rabbit Angstrom to be quite despicable. But Nabokov and Updike can get away with this because they’re masters of the craft. Most of us can’t afford to toy with unsympathetic characters, not even if we have a great plot.

When I took a hard look at my protagonist recently, I realized she was mired in self-pity. If I was reading about her, I’d want to smack her and tell her to stop brooding. Nobody wants to read about a moper. I had to make her more dynamic. Yes, she’s gone through some horrible things and is about to go through more, but I want my readers rooting for her, not pitying her. So she’s not always gloomy, I gave her an acerbic wit. Ideally, her observations will make the reader laugh, or nod in agreement. So that she’s not passively accepting her fate, I made her scrappy: I borrowed a situation I was in, and then had my hero do what I wish I’d done: when a teacher fails her unfairly, she takes the test from him, lights it on fire, and drops the flaming paper on his desk. I hope these changes have made her more compelling: certainly she’s more fun to write.

I find inspiration in Claire Fraser, Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous protagonist from her bestselling Outlander series. Claire would be justified in some passive brooding, given what she goes through, but she’s a fighter. Often her attempts at getting herself out of trouble land her in further trouble, but that’s not always the case: sometimes her toughness keeps her alive. Sometimes the man rescues her, but pretty frequently she’s rescuing him: a refreshing change from the distressed damsels of vampire lit. Claire is not a perfect character, her primary flaw being stubbornness, but she’s immensely likable.

What about you? What makes your favorite fictional character(s) so compelling? Do you find yourself putting down novels because the protagonist isn’t sympathetic enough? What about the characters you create? How do you ride the balance between creating flawed characters and likable ones?


  1. I think it's often the little touches the make the difference. Having a hard-boiled detective emotionally attached to his cat; a composed, fashion-conscious woman spilling a drink and blurting out an expletive at a dinner party; these are the little things that make me nod my head and start to believe that they are real. Too many authors make their characters - well - caricatures. If I feel like I could stop on page 30 and finish writing a lot of the dialogue myself, then I won't finish the book.

  2. Li, that's such a good point! I have a real-life friend who is a macho firefighter type, and who was also once a male synchronized swimmer. I love that! His wife, who obviously agrees, said she loves incongruous bumper stickers (an Obama sticker on a Hummer, or an NRA sticker on a Prius) because it makes you so intrigued about the driver: you know he or she is not a stereotype. Giving characters a surprising twist is a great way to add instant interest.

  3. Well said! We get whacked over the head constantly with adding tension, creating conflict, and must remember to make our characters memorable!

  4. What a great post, Sister Steph. Along with pacing, characterization seems to be one of the most difficult elements of fiction writing. Part of the problem is that liking or disliking a character is EXTREMELY subjective. (Like in real life, we may like someone that others can't stand, and vice versa. So chemistry must play a part, too.) Not everyone will find a character sympathetic even if we give them positive traits like humor (also subjective), morality (could be considered annoying or being obtuse/uptight), or generosity (some may consider this a weakness). Nowadays, it seems that "passive" heroines are no longer tolerated (at least in certain types of fiction.) So is the secret to give them a quirky trait? Should they all be strong? (but what if it's historically incongruous?) We are warned about always creating sympathetic characters, but if only the positive elicit sympathy in readers, then why are we also drawn to negative characters, like Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, Vito Corleone, Scarlett O'Hara or Jack Sparrow?

    When I think of memorable characters in fiction, TV or film, the first ones that come to mind are Forrest Gump, Lucy Ricardo and Kramer from Seinfeld (actually, I like all four of them, even George, who is an extremely negative character but eventually grows on *some* viewers. Does this mean that comedy is more tolerant to flawed/negative characters?)

  5. Power to Sister Stephanie for a much needed pos! I am fond of a good story but good characters have to be behind the wheel.
    Sister Lorena has mentioned to not-so-nice characters. Hannibal Lecter and Scarlett.
    I like Hannibal because of his uncanny wisdom that goes beyond intelligence and slyness. He is highly educated, has refined tastes, and has developed a wisdom that few psychiatrists ever achieve. He really knows his friends, foes and victims and dares to say aloud what others fear to mention. He could be a great detective.
    I suppose all GWTW love Scarlett because she is plucky and unconventional, but I confess, that like her author, my sympathies are always on Melanie’s side. She is a fighter just like Scarlett and even though she lacks her sister-in-law’s health and vigor. Melly possesses many traits that Scarlett lacks: generosity-without-guilt, wisdom, fairness, moral courage and she even has a healthy attitude towards sex.
    Recently I have met a writer who is also a master in developing unusual characters. For years I had looked down on epic fantasy, but after watching the HBO adaptation of “Game of Thrones” I have fallen in love with George R.R. Martin´s saga and I’ve started reading it on line. I was told that Martin was a genius when it came to plot twists and that he achieves through multilayered characters. Indeed, you have evil people suddenly exposing human sides and performing kind acts. You find innocent characters doing evil or being cruel. It has come to the point where you cannot hate anybody because they are so rich, so amazing, and so identifiable.

  6. As a lifelong obsessive reader of fiction, and one who has been known to start literally thousands of books only to put them down when deemed unmoving or flat or unsuitable, as well as to find others so gripping and infectious I must read an entire series or all books by a single author as if they were meals for a starving man, I feel compelled to respond to this as honestly as possible. What keeps me reading? Why do I toss other books aside in disgust?

    One line will always stick with me, the opening to one of my favorite books of all time, Gunther Grass' The Tin Drum: "GRANTED : I AM an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me." Knowing this is a book about Poland and Germany during and immediately following WWII, knowing the Nazi worship of the blue eye, knowing the Jewish trait of brown eyes, knowing this small, stunted person is being kept captive by a large but gentle, caring non-Aryan orderly of a mental facility and I am wrapped, totally rapt and wrapped up in this enormous, convoluted, treacherous and brilliant novel. It took one line and I was in. How does one do that? What makes that character real enough, or surreal enough in this case, to keep me plowing on to the end?

    The same can be said of Humbert Humbert, as Stephanie mentioned in her blog, or the opening of Jane Eyre....

    It's the promise of dimensionality, of metaphor, of multi-faceted possibilities. What keeps me going is complexity mingled with beautiful language, but with flow from description to dialogue to action and on and on. Does that make sense?

    Too dry, too detailed, and I fall asleep. Too much talking and I get restless. Too much thinking or stasis and I feel the same. But too much action gets confusing. If the character can move, talk, think and dream all whilst interacting with multiple levels of reality, moving forward and backward through time as realizations are made, as truths are uncovered, etc...that is what keeps me going. It can be sci-fi, fantasy, classic lit or biography and I will stick with it or toss it down depending on these elements.

    Now, if only I could write the sort of thing I like to read, then I would count myself a success!

  7. Thanks for your insights, Becky! It's really hard to pin down, isn't it? It's almost easier for me to sort out why I abandon a book than to pin down what keeps me hooked. As I said, I'm reading "Rabbit, Run" by Updike and even though I really don't like Rabbit, I don't want to quit reading. Your observation about dimensionality and possibilities is exactly right: if you're not sure what the character will do next, how he'll handle the next hurdle, you want to turn pages and find out.

    With Rabbit, I can see he's digging a really deep hole for himself and as the pressure mounts, my curiosity about how he'll react grows. Updike also gives us a sympathetic secondary character, the preacher Eccles, which I find helpful. For one thing, it shows that Updike knows HOW to create a likeable character, so I trust he has some reason to make the actual protagonist such a self-centered, thick-skulled, selfish jerk. :)

    Lorena: Oh, how I agree with you about subjectivity. Someone else may find Rabbit charming in a roguish way. What I consider whining in my own protagonist may seem very sympathetic to someone else.

    If I knew I was as skilled as Updike, I might ignore my own advice and go ahead with my more brooding protagonist. But because I know I'm not Updike, I figure I better make her more accessible. It's subjective, yes, but there are some folk everyone seems to like, and some folk we all know to avoid. I don't want her to be the latter.

    It's probably easier to get away with a creating an entertainingly flawed supporting character, like Jack Sparrow. He's a good foil for the immensely likeable Will. I haven't read Thomas Harris, so I don't know: Is Hannibal Lecter ever a protagonist? I've seen Silence of the Lambs, where he's clearly an antagonist. I'm guessing there's some more flexibility with antagonists.

    Believe it or not, I've never read Gone With the Wind. It comes up here so much, I feel like I'd better put that on my to-read list!

  8. I like how Violante said Hannibal Lecter has "refined tastes." Perhaps with a nice chianti and fava beans? Tasty!

    When it comes to writing my characters, I'm always people watching especially when it comes to interesting quirks real people might have. I have a friend whose nose flares every time she genuinely laughs. So I gave that trait to one of my characters. I know someone who wears so many souvenir t-shirts from every place she's ever visited that I'm dying to use that on a character. I love finding bits and pieces that really pull the characters together and brings them to a level the reader can understand.

    Great post, Sister Stephanie!

  9. "I love finding bits and pieces that really pull the characters together and brings them to a level the reader can understand." I agree: it really helps. It's like adding color to a black-and-white sketch.

    I keep a journal of favorite passages from books I'm reading, one in particular for characterization. I'll share some random quotes that caught me. Look how much character you get from such short snippets:

    "Kruppenbach grimaces. He has a massive square head, crew-cut. He is a man of brick: as if he was born as a baby literally of clay and decades of exposure have baked him to the color and hardness of brick." (John Updike)

    "He was a stiff-kneed man with eyes like raw eggs in a dignified ruin of a face." (Joyce Carol Oates)

    "Mrs. MacIntyre was a small woman of sixty with a round wrinkled face and red bangs that came almost down to two high orange-colored penciled eyebrows. She had a little doll’s mouth and eyes that were a soft blue when she opened them but more like steel or granite when she narrowed them to inspect a milk can." (Flannery O'Connor)

    "The little boy stared at her silently, his nose and eyes running. He was four or five. He had a long face and bulging chin and half-shut eyes set far apart. He seemed mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out." (O'Connor)

    "He was a pale, freckled boy, black-haired, with a nose at once large and squashed-looking, and wide-set blue eyes half a candle too animated by sarcasm to pass for dreamy." (Michael Chabon)

    "Archie had a face as smooth as a skinned aspen, his lips barely incised on the surface, as though scratched in with a knife. All his natural decoration was in his red cheeks and his springy waves of auburn hair, which seemed charged with voltage." (Annie Proulx)

    "He was a swarthy little man, sparely built, with sharp black eyes. His bare arms were knotted with muscle and his whole frame gave the impression of being made of some resilient material such as bedsprings. No beauty either, with pockmarked skin, a low brow, and a narrow jaw." (Diana Gabaldon)

    "He did nothing and knew how to do nothing. He was as flabby as though he had been made of boiled turnip; he used to doctor the peasants by homeopathy and was interested in spiritualism. He was, however, a man of great delicacy and mildness, and by no means a fool, but I have no fondness for these gentlemen who converse with spirits and cure peasant women by magnetism. In the first place, the ideas of people who are not intellectually free are always in a muddle, and it's extremely difficult to talk to them; and, secondly, they usually love no one, and have nothing to do with women, and their mysticism has an unpleasant effect on sensitive people." (Chekov)

    These descriptions do so much more than just paint a picture: they also describe, very succinctly, actual character. Not only that, but they often tell you as much about the narrator: you can especially see this in the last quote, from Chekov. The narrator's own attitudes are clear as the man he's describing.

  10. Those are great descriptions, particularly the John Updike one (it immediately evokes an image, not a very pleasant one, but an image nonetheless.)

    This is one I like a lot (by crime fiction author Cornell Woolrich)

    "Cameron's first name was MacLain, through some odd ancestral switch from front to back. It was of no consequence to anyone but himself, anyway. He was too thin, and his face wore a chronically haggard look, probably due to this fact. His cheekbones stood out and his cheeks stood in. His manner was a mixture of uncertainty, followed by flurries of hasty action, followed by more uncertainty, as if he already regretted the just preceding action. He always acted new at any given proceedings, as if he were undertaking them for the first time. Even when they were old, and he should have been used to them.

    There must have been times when his clothing had been at least passable, if nothing more than that. But he must have been entirely alone when that happened, because no one else could ever remember having seen him at such a time.

    On the present occasion his shirt hadn't been changed in far too many days, and it wasn't only your eyes that told you that." (ha ha)

    (Rendezvous in Black)

    This subject reminded me of the book you recommended me, The Painted Veil. I can see why you were so fascinated with Kitty's character (though I have to admit that the end was somewhat disappointing for me.) I'm not sure if my interest was peaked by her circumstances rather than the character (she was extremely negative for most of the novel, even in the end.) What do you think? What attracted you to her?

  11. Ah, flawed vs. likable. Ideally, characters are both, but you're right, it's such a careful balance. So in the end, I focus on authenticity. I try to create characters that people believe. This will always result in flaws, but not necessarily likability.

    Great post!

  12. Jennifer, as I finished Rabbit, Run last night, I was thinking of your comment. Rabbit has a very authentic character that never becomes admirable, but Rabbit, Run is now a classic. People are fascinated by Rabbit. So obviously a protagonist does not have to be likeable to appeal to readers ... in spite of what *I* say, haha. :)

    I wanted Rabbit to be redeemed, but in spite of what he suffered it seems his character never was improved. He didn't grow. Worse, Rabbit made everyone around him (everyone!) suffer, too. I wanted some justice for that. But that's not the book Updike wrote. He had something else to say. I think a writer who really knows what they're doing can get away with a character like Rabbit, but for most of us on the beginning of our writing journey, that's quite risky.

  13. [Hmm, I just reread that and I don't mean "on the beginning of our writing journey." I've been writing, like many of you probably, since I was a child. I mean those of us who are still trying to get published.]

    Lorena: One thing I found compelling about Kitty was what went on in her head as she was getting set to confront Walter. And how she justified her affair with Charles. Even though she was shallow and vain, her *thinking* made sense to me, I could see how someone would do precisely what she was doing. I thought Maugham did that so brilliantly. Then, as she suffered, she grew. That's satisfying to read about, at least for me. I can see why you'd be less than thrilled about the end: did you prefer the movie ending?

  14. Isn't that the mystery of the century. Especially in the beginning of a novel, you want to grab the reader yet your character should be flawed so he/she can emerge a better person.
    I love Claire Fraser! You describe her so well, makes me want read the books again:)

  15. Deana, welcome to our blog! I've heard so much about Claire and the Outlander series that I'm looking forward to starting it when I'm done reading my current book.

    Steph, the movie has a different ending? (then I *must* watch it! It's with Edward Norton, right?) Please tell me he plays Walter (I can totally picture him in that role. But don't tell me what the movie ending is. Sister Violante can tell you how much I hate spoilers. :)) I really like how Maugham delves into Kitty's brain (perfect example of what I'm trying to do with Sofia, thanks for recommending me this book!) and you're right, he did a good job with her transformation (it's fascinating to me when male authors grasp the mind of their female characters so well.) (SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't read "The Painted Veil" yet, you may want to stop reading right here!)

    I guess I was expecting (hoping) that Kitty would fall in love with Walter or realize how wonderful he was, and that he would forgive her now that he saw how much she'd changed. BTW, I loved it when he told her that she'd "thrived" in that place. I liked that the nuns were portrayed as positive influences (it seems that lately in fiction, they always show the dark side of religion, and it's getting old/cliche) and how they respected her beliefs and never tried to push anything on her. Another disappointment, of course, was that she gave in to Charles. (It was ok for her to do so at the beginning, but after going through so much, to fail again was disappointing.) Even if the author *had* to kill Walter as a last heroic act, or even to have a more realistic ending, I would have liked for Kitty to realize that she did love him, a la Scarlett O'Hara. At least then there would have been a more cohesive growth. (And not just growth when she didn't have Charles around!)

  16. Welcome, Deana! Diana Gabaldon fascinates me for a few reasons. I love that she took up novel writing as a second career: she was originally a scientist. She had a podcast for a while, in which described her early struggles with writing: that's always nice for a struggling writer to hear. :) I find her inspiring on many levels.

    Lorena ... you are going to love the movie. I shall say no more. :) As for nuns, you'll probably enjoy Gabaldon for this reason (among all the others): she's a devout Catholic and although I'm not religious, I appreciated her representation of religion. It's complex, nuanced, not preachy, not stereotyped. I hope you enjoy her book as much as I did!

  17. A number of years ago I tried reading Outlander, the first book in Gabaldon's series, but for some reason got maybe a third of the way through before pushing it aside. I know I was very busy with grad school at the time, so perhaps that's why I stopped reading it when I did. I still have the novel and, now, after Stephanie's glowing remarks regarding the series, I'm going to pick it back up and give it another try. Maybe there's something in the storyline I just wasn't getting back then. I'll just have to see!

  18. Steph, I just wanted to let you know that I just saw "The Painted Veil" and I LOVED IT!! Yeeeey, this story has been redeemed. Absolutely loved the cinematography and the performances of Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. I thought casting choices were perfect (including the actors who play Charlie and Waddintgon). The only surprise was the protagonist, I had imagined her blond and younger. But I was very pleased with Naomi's performance.

  19. Loved this post as it's been something on my mind of late. I think characterization is the thing that takes a novel from good to brilliant. As authors I think that means we must know backstory inside and out so that the motivations are intrinsic as we write. (Candy Lynn Fite just linked to this - that's why it's so late when I'm posting :0)


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