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!