Monday, February 18, 2013

How to Write Fictional Characters That Compel Their Readers

Today I have the lovely Michelle Eging guest posting for me today. Michelle is currently shopping an AMAZING book, which I've had the privilege of reading. This girl has character down pat, so I asked her to share her wisdom with the rest of us. 

You can visit Michelle at her blog, Grab Life by the Pen.


I've heard it said over and again that there is no such thing as a new story. People with fancy degrees have written papers breaking down stories into formulas with words like “archetype” and “anthropological reflection” thrown in for good measure. (Ok, I might have made that last one up.) However, with the same seven or so stories being told over and again (or was it twelve?), why do authors even bother? Shouldn't we just wash the ink off our hands and take up a more useful trade like space pirating or discovering the gene for immortality? 

When Charlie asked me to write a guest post on creating fictional characters, I kind of scratched my head and went, "Huh." It's kind of a broad topic and I had no idea where to begin. With a Dungeons and Dragons manual?

As I brainstormed this topic, I thought of the novel I've been working on for eight years and that the reason why I cannot leave the story alone is that the characters have an almost physical pull on me. Even after writing and re-writing their story, they still surprise me and I am still moved by who they are, the situations they face, and the bonds they forge with one another. So although I am fully aware that elements of my story are not new, the characters make the story new for me and, hopefully, my readers.

To me, characters can be the lens that makes a story engaging and new. 

Take the story of Cinderella, for example. We have the Brothers Grimm version of third person omniscient with a definite bias leaning towards a girl covered in soot. However, tell that story from any other character's point of view, be it the step-mother, the step-sisters, or the Prince, and you have a different story.

And yet the story of Cinderella doesn't even need to be told from a different character's prospective to make it fresh. A Cinderella who witnessed her would-be step-mother murdering her mother, for instance, would experience her story very differently from a Cinderella who's mother dies at childbirth and who lives with a reclusive father.  A Cinderella who grew up learning her father's dry cleaning business might use different metaphors or adjectives in describing her experiences (something like, "It was a polyester sunrise, the kind that made you sticky and wet before you even lifted a finger”) than a Cinderella who grew up mucking stalls ("Even before the sun began to rise, the dirt in the air turned to mud on her skin").

When I was in middle school, I spent hours scouring the Internet looking for the ultimate method in character creation. Almost all the sites I found at the time told me to write lists. How tall is this person? What does he/she wear? What is his/her favorite foods? Facial features? Hobbies? Etc. While I do find this helpful at times, there comes a point where the writing can become stiff and dead because it is composed of nothing more than lists, and your characters interact almost independent of each other rather than with each other. 

It wasn't until college when I took a few acting classes that I learned something that helped me set aside my lists and let my characters duke it out, so to speak, with not only their circumstances, but with each other. We did this exercise where two people have something that they want from each other and they use tactics to get it. So, these two boys pretend that they're roommates and there is one hot dog left in their fridge and they try to talk the other person into letting them have it. My professor stopped the scene and said that if they truly wanted the hot dog, they would not just stand there talking about it. So, they redid the scene. This time, both of them looked at the hot dog, looked at each other, and then lunged for the processed meat in casing. Something of a brawl ensued as they both fought for what they wanted.

That exercise made me think of my characters and what they might want from one another. Sure, sometimes it is something tactile, like once character wants to kill the prince and the other character has sworn to defend him. Make those two characters siblings and the story becomes even more gripping. But, sometimes, what my characters want is more subtle. One character—let’s say his name is Bob—might want Vera to forgive him, while Vera wants nothing more than to wreak revenge on him. Put those two together at the dinner table and the result is awkward conversation for everyone. Put those two in charge of saving the world and suddenly the stakes seem even higher because of their dynamically destructive relationship.

Another thing personal experience has taught me is that senses trigger memories and behaviors, good and bad. Take the Cinderella example from earlier. The Cinderella who witnessed her mother's death might have memories triggered by a certain song that had been playing when it happened, a song that perhaps begins to play the night she first dances with her Prince. That sounds like a far more compelling and rich scene that makes the familiar ball scene in the fairy tale unfamiliar.

Sometimes we create this awesome setting plush with detail, but how the character moves through and interacts with that setting makes the character far more interesting, at least to me, than the setting itself. A valley girl moving through the jungle is going to interact with it differently than a soldier or a local. A germaphobe at the roller-rink is going to notice different details than, say, an eight-year-old.

 One final thought on character is the fact that, upon our first encounter with another person, we are already formulating opinions about them. We size up a person's personality based on their shoes, their tone of voice, their eyebrows, their jewelry, and so on. I once knew my relationship with a new roommate was doomed from the start because she decorated the toilet paper in our bathroom with ribbons. When characters interact with one another, they are forming opinions as well and that can, once again, make for a more fascinating story. Especially, in my opinion, when those judgments are inaccurate. For instance, we have Cinderella once more, and her step-mother is abusive. However, Cinderella thinks the abusive behavior is normal and it takes the reader reading between the lines to discern that it’s not. If it takes Prince Charming for her to see that she's been abused all her life, then the twist will come out in the prose. Perhaps it’s a bit darker now, more bleak. 


  1. Great post about the nuances of character. For me books area all about the character. Plot is secondary.

  2. Great post! If you can't fall in love(or at least be intrigued) with the characters, both good and bad, it's really difficult to be pulled into a story.

  3. This is excellent! Characters are so important and I want mine to be great! Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Thank you everyone for the feedback! I'm glad you've enjoyed the post:)

  5. Really great post. I like your thoughts on opinions, too. This is very true. I think it would be neat to have something form a trigger (like the toilet paper thing, lol) and that lead to a bunch of character misconceptions. :)