Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Compelling Characters


Dystopian YA author, queen of the blogosphere, bottomless well of spunk and energy, and troubled outliner Elana Johnson is helping coordinate a vast blog experiment in which hundreds (literally, I believe) of blogging writers are tackling the same subject today: writing compelling characters. I don't normally bite on these things, but since character is so central to what I do, I thought I would take this one on.

I'd like to focus my attention on the word compelling. I have a feeling that a lot folks will take the aspect of that word that means interesting, so I'll leave that alone for now. What else does compelling mean? Something is compelling when readers are driven to keep seeing what's next. Interesting helps with that, but interesting only captivates the attention. It is essentially static. The part that keeps people turning the pages is potential.

Potential suggests the possibility of change. Potential suggests that there is a what is and a what may be -- and that's what compels readers. They are driven to see if what might happen does happen, and what it means for the character if it does.

A character can face all sots of potential. The potential for redemption. The potential for self-destruction. The potential for growth. The potential for back-sliding. The potential for happiness. The potential for misery. The potential for achievement. The potential for failure.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you're dealing with potential in character:
  • If the reader has no clue about the potential, it doesn't count.
  • If the reader knows for certain what will definitely happen, it doesn't count.
  • What the reader suspects need not be the way things turn out.
  • Offering up potential and then ending in status quo will result in little more than ticked off readers. There is a way you can make this work, but it takes a very skilled literary touch. Your end change can be totally different than what readers suspect, but you should very rarely suggest the possibility of change and then deliver nothing.
I hope these tips help you turn your interesting characters into compelling ones, and I'd love to hear the thoughts of others, either about potential or about compelling characters generally.

Author Michelle McClean has already posted her take on this topic, talking about consistency among other things -- go read and learn! Elana Johnson herself has also put up her post, talking about humanness -- learn some more! And keep your eyes open -- there will be lots more!

ADDED: Summer Ross, who will be featured in the upcoming Notes from Underground anthology, has also put up her post, dealing with voices and relatability -- learn lots more!



  1. Very interesting. I'm going to have to go check around all these different blogs. I love Elana.

  2. Well, so far the experiment is a winner. None of our posts are the same.
    Love it.

    I'm new here (from the blogfest)...nice to meet you. *waves*

    Have a wonderful weekend,

  3. This is brilliant! It's not having interesting relateable characters that keeps us reading. This is what makes us like them, but it's this "potential" you speak of that makes us turn the page. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Awesome post! Potential in a character is huge, and something we often don't think about when we're creating them. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Interesting take on compelling. I like your list of potentials, but not sure what you mean about delivering something the reader doesn't expect - plotwise this makes sense, but you're talking about delivering something different than what we expect from the character's potential... hmm, I'll have to think about that!

  6. @Lois - Do check them out, there is a lot of great insight out there!

    @Lola - Nice to meet you, too! This event has been really impressive. I've enjoyed it more than most blogfests, because it's all about the writers and their craft. It's fantasic.

    @Nicki - You're welcome! Glad you found it helpful.

    @Shallee - It was interesting writing this post because even though I incorporate this into my writing, I hadn't actually thought about it so specifically until I was drafting this post in my head last night instead of going to sleep.

    @Margo - Apart from Boromir, another way to think about it is like a teacher who sees the potential for a trouble kid to turn around. The potential is always there, but it's hard to tell from the outside it it will actually lead to a turn-around or might lead to a sadly wasted life. (Not that I actually believe in the idea of a "wasted life.")

  7. This reminds me of advice I got about college applications (a long time ago!) Someone had written an essay about her elusive Potential. It was an animal, slithering away when she thought she just might catch it. Potential is a moving target, the carrot on a stick.

    Great Post!

  8. Yeah, you make such good points and I loved the comments you left on blog. IT's true, if you know the outcome is bad, you're less willing to invest. Thank you for your post.


  9. @Carolyn - I love that description of potential! Thanks for adding that to the conversation!

    @Clarissa - Thanks! And like I said, I do think there is room for different reader responses, and I also think your tips were dead on.

  10. I'm also here from the blogfest, and I have to say I loved your post! I never thought of the "potential" of my characters to change. Definitely a lot to think on while I'm revising - do my characters show the potential to change in the right direction? Thank you!

  11. Great take on this experiment! You have useful ideas that I'll consider while working on my characters :)

  12. Great post!

    I can feel I am growing too tired to say anything smarter than that after a long week, but I have remembered to add your blog to my blogroll today so you can expect to be stalked & haunted from now on ...

  13. I love this. I like the idea that if the reader doesn't count. Great post! :-)

  14. Potential! Ha! I hadn't thought of that, but in truth you are right.

    Thank you for the extra link on your post- It was very nice of you to do and I found myself humbled by it.

  15. Love the word! And when I know something that the character doesn't (and should!) it annoys me to no end. Definitely doesn't count. :)

  16. Oh, I love the potential aspect. When you look at it like that, there are endless possibilities for how to create a character someone will love. Great post!

  17. Well said. If the reader doesn't see potential in the character, then how can that character be compelling? And I've never considered how important it is for the reader to see that potential without a predetermined outcome - excellent insight.

  18. @Rebecca - I'm glad you found it helpful! It was sort of an a-ha moment for me, too, when I thought about it like this.

    @Lettuce Head - Excellent! Glad to help!

    @Dorte - Thanks for stopping by and welcome! It's nice to have a little Denmark around here. My dad's from Hamburg, so once our ancestors might have been nearly neighbors. lol

    @Shannon - haha Yes, I know I sometimes find myself toiling around with these great secrets and then later I realize there's no point in a secret that's kept entirely from readers. It's actually kind of pointless, as far as I can tell.

    @Summer - Thanks for popping over! And you're welcome!

    @Janet hahahahaha Yeah, that soooooooo doesn't count. And it ticks me off. lol

    @Elana - Thanks for finding the time to stop by; I know you had a full three days today. :)

    @VR - I'm glad for any contribution I can make to your recovery. ;)

  19. Wow! Potential . . . I hadn't thought of that movement in character growth with that word before, and yet here you have it, and it is a perfect fit. I especially liked "Potential suggests the possibility of change. Potential suggests that there is a what is and a what may be -- and that's what compels readers."
    Thanks for the great post!
    -Tyrean Martinson

  20. @Tyrean - I'm glad I hit on a different aspect for you to think about!

  21. This is a great pov on the topic. I never thought of the potential angle.

  22. Very interesting post. I've been thinking about this very thing with my current WIP not just in terms of character but the scene and story outcomes in general. Thanks!

  23. @Alicia - Thanks! I always try to find weird POV's, so that's appropriate. :)

    @Paul - Synchronicity, as Jung would say! You're exactly right, too. Potential is important for more than just characters in a lot of ways. Since character really drives my stories, that's naturally where I run into most, but it's by no means exclusive to that dimension.

  24. Nevets, this was an amazing piece of insight. I'm certainly looking at my MC a bit differently right now.

  25. What an insightful post!

    I really love what you brought to this experiment.

  26. This was great advice. I love that you look at the potential that characters have. Well said.

  27. @Deb - Awesome, happy to do anything I can do to help advance the Markanton juggernaut!

    @Melissa - Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate it!

    @Renae - Glad you you found it helpful!

  28. That's a very good point and thanks for dropping by my blog post too. Yes I agree that not all main characters are ones you'd actually like to meet, but nevetheless they can be very compelling ones. If you can identify with them as plausible people then in my book that makes them compelling.

  29. Ok, first, that was the best intro for Elana I've ever read. I think she should use it as her jacket-flap bio. ;)

    And I *love* what you said about your character's POTENTIAL. That's freakin' brilliant; you've totally opened my eyes to the truth of that one statement. Thank you!

  30. If Elana has a bio contest...You wrote the winning entry. :)

    You make some great points...

  31. Potential with the possibility for change - great point :) Love your post!

  32. Good angle Nevets. I hadn't really thought on that idea before. I have heard once that the usefulness of an object is in what's NOT there and not in what IS. I took your idea of potential to mean just that; a character is compelling (or of great use to the story) not because of what is on the page, but what is not there yet, of what may be there. And I like that idea. I'm rambling...good share. I'm going to be rereading this post again!

  33. @Madeline - Yeah, I think it's an okay starting place to think about how interesting your character is, but shouldn't be treated like a rule, as too many people do.

    @Ali - haha I'll admit I was pretty happy with the intro to Elana that I came up with. :) And I am very humbled by your words. Thank you, and I'm glad to help!

    @Sharon - Thanks, I tried to make Elana out to be the compelling character she herself is. :)

    @Rachael - Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

    @Scott - That's a good way of describing it. What makes a character interesting is what's on the page. What makes them compelling is what we think might be on the next page.

    Okay, I have some more entries in the event yet to visit myself (including some of yours!) but that will have to wait until tomorrow. It's after 1am and I should not be awake.

  34. This is a very unique approach. I like how you returned to the definition of compelling itself. Really great.

  35. @Elena - Thanks. If I have one trick in my bag, it's being nit-picky about definitions. :)

  36. Potential - awesome approach. Love it. Excellent post.


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