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How to Write a Compelling Character

Rachael is a budding fantasy author in Peoria, IL. She has a wide range of interests. Her favorite author is Tolkien.

Who is your character, deep down? And why should readers care about them?

Who is your character, deep down? And why should readers care about them?

One of the hardest parts of writing a novel is also one of the most critical to the novel's success—the characters. In the beginning of a novel, the writer's job is to introduce a compelling character in an interesting situation. This serves the purpose of getting the reader, who is either picking up a physical copy in a bookstore or previewing the beginning of the book online, to become intently, passionately invested in the story. You want to get them eagerly turning pages, emotionally excited, hoping to find out what happens next to this character.

And as an avid reader of novels across many genres and ranging from amateur indie self-published works to beloved classics that are often hailed as the works of geniuses, I have noticed that many authors get this simple thing wrong. A lot of times, this could boil down to mere subjectivity; what's compelling to one person is not always compelling to another. For example, some people really love fantasy novels that start in a great battle scene. Others might find a gory description of the actions of battle either boring or overly graphic and nauseating.

But aside from personal taste, generally, a compelling character who is the centerpiece in an emotionally enticing beginning has the following:

  • Fear: They're in terrible peril.
  • Urgency: They must do something.
  • Discomfort: They are in over their head and in a shocking new situation.
  • Passion: They experience a strong emotional reaction to whatever the inciting incident is.
  • Rebellion: They clash with the values of their home society (or its rulers), and must abandon some value or belief they were raised with.
  • Moral Decision: Or they're faced with a big moral choice that won't be easy to make and will have big, permanent consequences whatever they choose.
  • Vulnerability: Not overly powerful; perhaps they're an "underdog" in their society or an "everyman" hero. They have fears and weaknesses.
  • Want: They are driven by strong desires to attain personal goals. Or they are after hearing their "call to adventure" or after the inciting incident.
  • Need: There is something they need, too. "Need" in storytelling is often, but not always, about the lesson they need to learn or a flaw they need to overcome.

Not all compelling characters will have all these characteristics. For example, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit specifically does not want to leave his home and go on an adventure! At first, anyway. This reluctance to venture away from the comforts of home turns out to be part of Bilbo's "need," a flaw he needs to overcome to become a hero.

Note that I'm mostly talking about "hero's journey" type stories and fantasy novels, but it applies to many other kinds of stories. For example, Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, a historical novel/movie, is a compelling character because of her persistence in going after her desires. The main characters in Casablanca are interesting because they're in fear of a great peril. You can find these characteristics in the main characters of almost every sufficiently compelling story.

A depiction of a trolloc, the monstrous creatures that destroy the main characters' village in the "Wheel of Time" series. It is eventually rebuilt, but the event signifies a clear "point of no return" for the characters from there.

A depiction of a trolloc, the monstrous creatures that destroy the main characters' village in the "Wheel of Time" series. It is eventually rebuilt, but the event signifies a clear "point of no return" for the characters from there.

Fear, Peril, and the Point of No Return: The "Wheel of Time" Series by Robert Jordan

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan's death, starts in a simple, isolated village that is suddenly met with catastrophe. Main characters Egwene, Nyneave, Perrin, Mat, Rand, and Tom (who is more of a side character) are rescued from the destruction of this village by two mysterious strangers who are "passing through"; a lady named Morraine and her bodyguard Lan. They are able to explain later why an army of evil monsters ransacked this peaceful, out-of-the-way village in the middle of nowhere.

The instant peril makes the reader want to read more because they want to see how the main characters escape or fight their way out of it. This example also shows how it's good to introduce action as quickly as possible, although the author spends a good deal of time setting up the locale of Edmond's Field, the village, before it is attacked. But it is the attack and the ensuing flight of a handful of major characters that makes the story compelling. Just describing a village without an immediate threat or peril would have made the story less engaging. Perhaps even boring.

This attack is also a "point of no return," a point in the story where things are changed forever, and the main characters cannot go back to their old ways of life. These are exciting plot points that move the plot forward because they make times when characters can no longer turn back, even if things get tough and they want to later. You don't have to literally raze their starting location to the ground to do this, but it is an effective method, especially in adventure or sword-and-sorcery fantasy.


Decision and Sacrifice: "Princess Mononoke"

In Princess Mononoke, perhaps one of Studio Ghibli's most child-unfriendly films, the main character, Prince Ashitaka, also has a point of no return and is imperiled by a monster. But his decision to go on a quest and leave his village explicitly requires that he never return because of the village's customs and traditions. He is impure because he has been wounded by a demonic beast. This impurity is what upsets the status quo of his life in a way that makes it impossible for him to continue as normal.

Ashitaka is faced with a difficult choice. In order to find a cure for his cursed wound and to make sense of why the demon-possessed boar attacked his village in the first place, he must leave and never return. In this case, his home town isn't physically destroyed, but as soon as he decides to leave, it will be just as impossible to return to.

This moral dilemma and being faced with a hard choice is what makes Ashitaka compelling in the beginning of the movie. Difficult moral choices should involve the potential for harm if the main character makes the wrong choice. For instance, if Ashitaka had remained in his village, the corruption in his wound might have spread to others. His decision affects more than just himself. The wound also requires Ashitaka to sacrifice something in order to gain the knowledge he's seeking; he must sacrifice the home he's known all his life, and unlike Bilbo Baggins, he can't return to it at the end of his journey. Facing the unknown world outside his village is made all the more scary by this fact.

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Hero's journeys involve the main character leaving the safety and comfort of their home in order to go on an adventure. Another example of this is The Last Unicorn, where the unicorn has to leave the safety of her magical forest in order to try to find and rescue all other unicorns in the world.

So to make a compelling character, give them a sharp kick out of the nest.

Elizabeth Bennet, the main character of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', is compelling to many readers because of her bold spirit clashing with what was the expected "ladylike" behavior of her society and time period.

Elizabeth Bennet, the main character of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', is compelling to many readers because of her bold spirit clashing with what was the expected "ladylike" behavior of her society and time period.

Rebellious and Contrary Characters Are Compelling

This is by no means a requirement, but characters who in some way clash with the values of their society are more compelling than ones who conform and have no trouble meeting society's expectations for them. Take Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; she is a girl who chases fancy and follows her curiosity in a world that tells her to stay put, sit still, and listen to stuffy lectures all day.

Most dystopian heroes and heroines are in some way rebellious or incongruent with what their social order expects or demands, such as Bernard Marx in the classic Brave New World. And historical novels are full of heroes and heroines whose values clash in some way with the values of their time period or whose actions and behavior are frowned upon by their society.

For example, Hester in The Scarlet Letter is severely and harshly judged by her community for having a baby out of wedlock. It makes her compelling then to watch her persevere in the face of this overwhelming and cruel social ostracism.

Why are rebellious characters compelling?

It's probably because society is difficult to tangle with. In pre-modern historical times, life was harsher, survival was harder, and community was often the gatekeeper of who lived and died. Humans are social animals, and we all desire the acceptance of our communities. Many people also desire fame, accomplishment, and acclaim within their society. So judgment, ostracism, harsh criticism, and being shut out of society is a heartbreaking obstacle for any protagonist.

In a historical setting or medieval fantasy setting where society's values are different from the reader's, it also serves to make the reader feel emotionally connected to the main character's struggle if that main character has values shared by a modern audience.

For example, let's go back to Hester in The Scarlet Letter. She is emotionally compelling for the audience and sympathetic because society has changed since that time period. We no longer treat having a baby out of wedlock as a crime or judge women who do so with so much scorn and moral condemnation.

It would be harder to sympathize with the protagonist of the story if Hawthorne had centered it around someone whose actions did not in any way clash with the values of that society and time period. That's not even really much of a story because story is generated by conflict. But it would also make it a harder book to get interested in because the values of 17th century Puritan America are not modern. So it would be difficult for the average reader to share their concerns, get inside their head, and care about their feelings. But Hester is sympathetic and relatable because she represents the clash between the modern way of thinking about morality and that of the distant past.

Other times, you can show a flaw in the society your story is set in by having a character who starts out as a conformist but who is pushed into becoming some sort of rebel. For example, Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars films starts out as an ordinary teenager on a remote desert planet that's not very affected directly either by Imperial rule or by the rebellion against the Empire. But Luke is pushed into joining the side of the rebellion when he meets with Obi-Wan Kenobi and learns about his sensitivity to the Force.

When hearing the distress call from Princess Leia, Luke can no longer stay neutral or go back to the way his life was before, and so he becomes a rebel, even without starting out with a particularly rebellious personality. Thus the plot can sometimes be enough to compel an ordinary person to become a rebel. Either way, you have a rebellious main character, which makes them compelling as an underdog fighting their entire social order.

Although a problematic film, "Gone With the Wind" inspires many through the determination, passion, and drive that pushes the main character, Scarlett O'Hara, forward through the hardships of war.

Although a problematic film, "Gone With the Wind" inspires many through the determination, passion, and drive that pushes the main character, Scarlett O'Hara, forward through the hardships of war.

Passion, Drive, and Courage

Good protagonists are almost always passionate and determined, driven by inner forces. A sense of need and passionate desire drives them to keep going when the going gets tough. For example, Shrek in the first Shrek film is strongly motivated by his desire to rid his swamp of the fairy tale creatures that have been dumped there. His strong desire for simple peace and privacy makes the audience sympathize with and root for him.

When writing a character, it's critically important to ask yourself, what does he or she want? What do they desire so desperately that they will overcome any hardship or obstacle to get it? Why do they desire that? Why is their desire so strong and pure?

A character without a clear sense of "want" is boring. An example I can think of is Tarzan in Disney's Tarzan movie. Tarzan seems more like he's along for the ride than like an active seeker of something. In the beginning, as a child, all he seems to want is acceptance by the animals, which he gets when he makes some friends. Then he becomes curious about humans, and then he wishes to join the humans. But he never has a strong desire for anything, other than maybe social acceptance. And since he already is accepted among animals, he lacks a reason to be motivated to become a human and to be accepted as human.

Other than the audience assuming that because he is biologically human, he will be happier living as one. And even though he eventually gets revenge on the leopard who killed his parents, he never seemed to hunt for said leopard earlier in the film and never spoke of wanting that revenge before he gets his chance to kill it. In fact, he was a baby when the death of his parents took place, so he doesn't really have a reason to recognize the animal at all. Therefore, when he fights it, the audience might not feel as much emotional investment as the filmmakers probably wanted us to feel.

Disney princesses, at least the "classic" ones, are often criticized for their passivity and lack of agency in their narratives. Probably the worst is Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, who definitely spends her life being acted upon by external forces rather than acting with agency herself. First, she is acted upon by a curse, and then she is carted away to be raised by fairies, and then she happens to meet a prince and, even though he's the first male she's ever met, he instantly becomes her "true love" capable of saving her from the curse. But she does nothing to either get herself into or out of her predicament and so is often thought of as a boring character.

This can be tied directly to the sexist values reflected both by older Disney and by the fairy tale source material they were drawing from. In old fairy tales, women and girls are treated like precious objects to be fought for and won by men.

Contrast this with the very passionate main character Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender. All throughout the series, Aang is devoted to mastery of the four elemental bending arts and mastering the "avatar state." Therefore, he always seeks out teachers and knowledge. He trains with passion, dedication, and focus. He's human, and he doesn't always get it right, but he always remains motivated by his core desire of mastery of all four elements and his other spiritual powers.

This focus and devotion make him a compelling character we can root for because strong desire is infectious. We end up wanting Aang to master his avatar powers every bit as much as Aang himself does.

Another good example is Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away, driven by her persistent desire to find and rescue her parents, who were turned into pigs.

So write down somewhere for yourself what your main character wants. This desire has to be an inner fire that will keep them going when the going gets tough.

Often, the narrative will cause your characters to give up what they initially wanted for the greater good, which is need. Making this sacrifice shows that the character has grown or matured through the events of the story.

Often, the narrative will cause your characters to give up what they initially wanted for the greater good, which is need. Making this sacrifice shows that the character has grown or matured through the events of the story.

Need and Want vs. Need

Some heroes and heroines, like Luke Skywalker, don't need to change. They are "teaching heroes" as in moral examples other people can look up to and follow. They're not broken, flawed, or lacking something morally.

By contrast, there are other characters who need to change. If they don't, bad things tend to happen, which could even result in a tragic ending. If this happens, the character's flaw is known as a tragic flaw. However, it is possible that in their quest for something they desire (their want), they might end up overcoming their flaws and achieving the thing they need.

Want is external, usually. The want is the goal or external purpose of their quest. Destroying an evil ring. Saving the princess. Ridding oneself of a curse. Finding true love. Retaking a throne that is the protagonist's birthright. These are examples of wants. Needs are more internal, and the main character often starts off unaware of them, reaching that awareness in an epiphany at a turning point later in the story.

Examples include:

  • Need to respect one's daughter is free to make her own choices.
  • The need to be willing to leave their comfort zone.
  • The need to check their greed and ambition for the good of society as a whole.
  • The need to put others before themselves.
  • The need to be willing to make big sacrifices.
  • The need to stop being selfish and self-centered.
  • The need to get involved and pick a side.
  • The need to learn to assert herself and take the lead.
  • The need to know when and how to end conflict before the destruction gets out of hand.
  • Need to delegate.
  • Conversely, the need to be less lazy.
  • Need to mature.
  • Need to not let one's emotions rule them too much.

Basically, the need of a character is a lesson they ought to learn, that the story is there to teach them. Sometimes, the character even has to give up their want in order to receive what they need. For example, in the animated film Anastasia, Dimitri the con man learns that love is more important than money. Therefore, he gives up the monetary reward that had been his driving desire throughout the film. This signifies him changing his values and becoming a better person because love has changed him.

Does your main character need to learn a lesson, or do they need to change themselves in some way?

It's possible to even create compelling characters that never change, even if they're far from perfect. Sometimes a flawed or even evil protagonist can still be fun if they have other compelling characteristics, such as vulnerability, passionate desire, or being a social outcast.

For example, Dexter in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, its sequels, and the television series based on the books, is a murderer. But he's a compelling protagonist because of his passionate motive to kill "those who deserve it" out of his sense of justice.

He's not a hero anyone should morally emulate, but he's got an understandable and compelling motivation that makes the audience root for him. He might eventually "need" to learn to change his ways, but that would actually make the story boring and not a story at all anymore. Villains and anti-heroes are often characters who need to change but don't, and the audience experiences the consequences of their inability or refusal to change with them, which are often heartbreaking.

A descent into madness where the main character starts out good and gradually becomes evil can also be compelling. We see circumstances of the outside world corrupt someone's initially pure or good motives.

For example, Light Yagami in the anime Death Note is, similar to Dexter, someone who kills people out of their own twisted sense of justice. But Light Yagami starts out understandable and with good intentions; the events of the story push him to act more paranoid, less rational, and to become more willing to sacrifice innocent lives to achieve his dream for a better world. In this case, there is still a "need" for the main character; the tragedy lies in how this need slips farther and farther away from them. We learn the lesson the main character ought to learn, but they don't until it's too late and tragedy comes for them.

So does your character have to have a need in that sense? Not necessarily, but needing to learn something that they can only learn by experiencing the story is a good way to make your plot more compelling.

More on Want vs. Need

© 2021 Naomi Starlight


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 03, 2021:

A compelling character in a story, whether in book form or movie, is essential. You have laid out many possibilities to make a character compelling in your article.

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