When we talk about compelling characters, character or plot: which comes first?
Barbara Kingsolver says:
Plot comes first. The plot is the architecture of your novel. You wouldn’t build a house without a plan. If I wrote without a plot, it would be just a pile of bricks. Characters are your servants. They must serve your plot.
However, Ray Bradbury says:
Plot is no more than footprints in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.
Two impressive writers disagree.
Arguably, their opposing views show two sides to the same coin.
Every great story needs both fantastic plot and compelling characters (and immersive setting) to hold readers’ interest. Plot, character and setting are differing threads which must interweave tightly across the structural loom.
Why are compelling characters important?
Easy to assume this is a redundant question. Surely no writer sits down and thinks, hmm, I’d like to fill my story with boring characters.
Yet, it’s a natural instinct for many to write what we know—realistic people, struggling with everyday problems. People like you and me. Plenty of literary writers seem to pull this off beautifully, helping us better understand ourselves and our lives.
But if readers feel bored by your characters, they’ll probably never finish your book—or worse, will write scathingly resentful reviews after forcing themselves to the final page.
Chances are, in this case, it’s not only your characters that are boring, but also your story.
Herein lies the crucial point:
Everyday characters generating compelling stories aren’t boring.
Boring characters are the ones who don’t actively create stories.
To put it another way: Compelling stories require compelling characters we root for (or against) as they pursue story goals.
- Frodo’s goal to destroy the ring in The Lord of the Rings,
- Elizabeth’s goal to marry for love in Pride and Prejudice, and;
- Dorothy’s goal to return home in The Wizard of Oz.
Without these goals, the novels’ protagonists and plots would drift. The setting descriptions wouldn’t hold our interest. We’d have nothing to root for and no interest in reading onwards.
There’d be no story.
And so, in my quest to help you write compelling characters, let’s look at my…
5 Helpful Tips for Creating Compelling Characters
Tip #1: Goals
Your protagonist needs an over-arching external story goal, which carries us through the entire plot.
Furthermore, any point of view (POV) character—that is, a character from whose eyes we watch a scene unfold—also needs a plot-relevant external scene goal for any action scene carrying their point of view.
Tip #2: Depth
Point of view characters should be affected emotionally by every scene. In other words, compelling characters need internal goals.
These may relate to their:
- Inner flaw,
- Conflict, or;
- Fundamental misbelief.
The protagonist’s inner goal should be inextricably intertwined with both their emotional reaction to each scene, and their story goal.
The plot should force your protagonist to change (whether they succeed and grow, or fail in tragedy) in order to overcome their most fundamental flaw or misbelief. That’s why it’s their story. This is where you meld plot and character together. And this this is what makes for compelling characters.
Going back to my earlier examples:
- Frodo must overcome his susceptibility to the ring’s seductive power,
- Elizabeth must overcome her prejudice against Darcy for the insult he gave her pride, and;
- Dorothy must realise the power she had inside herself all along.
Characters often won’t consciously know their inner goal at the story’s start. The reader, however, should recognise it fairly early on as the story develops.
Tip #3: Conflict and Tension
Compelling characters are forged under pressure and sharpened through conflict.
Story conflict arises when characters face external obstacles to their goals, and these obstacles force them to confront inner weaknesses. Tension arises from high stakes of failure.
A strong story structure helps readers engage with story conflict.
Powerful midpoints show the fusion of external and internal goals as the protagonist experiences a shift in perspective through story-generated conflict.
Throughout the story, conflict should serve to heighten tension in the eventual climax: has the conflict strengthened or weakened the protagonist’s ability to reach both inner and outer story goals?
At the midpoint of The Fellowship of the Rings, the Nazgûls attack. A desperate Frodo, seeking invisibility, slips the ring onto his finger. In doing so, he bonds himself to its evil, making both inner and outer goals harder to achieve.
At the trilogy’s climax on Mount Doom’s fiery precipice, tension arises as we ask:
- Has Frodo grown stronger or weaker through the story’s conflict?
- Will he surrender the ring?
Tip #4: Unique Perspectives
Readers can’t truly connect with literary characters without seeing inside their heads. We need sufficient backstory to understand how they’ve developed their individual perspectives.
When a scene is narrated through any character’s point of view, don’t just narrate action or describe setting: show us their perspective on it.
Sequel scenes give readers time to connect with characters without disrupting high-action scenes. Sequel scenes contain greater thought and description than movement and dialogue.
They help show a character’s inner conflict.
Go deep inside your character’s head here: show us what makes them unique. But don’t forget: while characters should be individual, they must also possess…
Tip #5: Relatability
Characters don’t have to be likeable, but they must be relatable.
The more universal a character’s inner goal/weakness, the easier readers will find it to connect with them.
Frodo’s susceptibility to the evils of power is relatable. Like any soldier, he grasps at the best weapon available to him—the ring—for self-protection.
Most of us would do likewise.
But power corrupts, even when used reluctantly for self-defence.
Frodo’s connection to the ring prevents him from living out the rest of his days peacefully in the Shire.
The story’s battle changes him. Frodo’s character arc would have been relatable to millions of people when Tolkein’s book was published, nine years after the Second World War ended.
So, how do you feel about creating compelling characters now?
All Sounding Easy?
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Fictionary Storyteller Can Help
When editing your character’s Goals use Storyteller’s Character Arc
- Positive Impact on Character Arc: If a scene takes your character closer to achieving their story goal, it’s positive.
- Negative Impact on Character Arc: If a scene takes your character further away from achieving their story goal, it’s negative.
- Neutral or No Impact on Character Arc: If your character is no closer or no further away from achieving their story goal, it’s neutral.
For neutral scenes, consider amending or removing the scene because they don’t make for compelling characters, and may bore readers.
The scene goal should always relate to the story or inner goal.
See L Cooke’s blog here for further guidance.
For Depth, look at the Emotional Impact on Character
Every scene must impact your POV character emotionally, or readers may struggle to connect with them.
For more, see Kristina Stanley’s blog here.
For Conflict and Tension
Fill out the Conflict and Tension tabs, ensuring they link with the POV Goal, Scene Middle and Climax If these don’t connect with the story goal or internal goal, consider revising.
Look at the Action/Sequel.
Have you correctly balanced these for your story? If beta readers felt pacing flagged, increase action. If they didn’t connect with characters, consider increasing sequels.
Look at the Inner Goal Is the inner goal clear? Does it link with a universal human need? If not, revise.
Creating compelling characters isn’t easy, but once you understand how different story elements interrelate within intriguing character arcs, you can layer in complexity through editing.
Ray Bradbury Quote: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/writers-on-characters-ccbfad3ad463
Article Written by Polly Watt
A former refugee lawyer in the UK, Polly Watt honed her skills working on cases where careful editing often really was a matter of life and death.
As a Fictionary StoryCoach Editor, she will apply the same care and attention to detail to your structural story edit. She’s passionate about stories and loves working on all different types of literary genres.
Speaking of Compelling Characters…
Want to attend a FREE Character Voice Workshop with Jeff Elkins (aka The Dialogue Doctor)?
Join the Fictionary community for free, HERE, and reserve your spot now.
Jeff is speaking to community members on Thursday March 16, 2023 at 2PM (ET).