Writing Compelling Characters

Harry Potter and Hermione Granger

Compelling means to evoke interest, attention or admiration and that’s exactly what you want your characters to do when writing a story, whether it be a novel or a picture book. You want your character to be interesting to the reader, no one wants to read about a boring character. You want your character to grab the reader’s attention, you don’t want your reader’s attention to wander to what they are going to be cooking for dinner tomorrow night because your character has failed to grab their attention. So how can you write a compelling character?

Bring Your Character to Life

Your characters should come across as real people, fully developed with hopes, desires and flaws. A flat 2D character is not going to keep your readers glued to the page and they certainly won’t care what is going to happen to that cardboard cutout character. Some ways you can create a more realistic character:

1. Write up a character bio, including their flaws and strengths.

2. Do character interviews, ask in-depth questions that will show personality.

3. Do a character collage, cut out pictures from magazines that represent your character.

You can do all this before you start writing to have a good picture of your character in your head before you start, or do it before editing if you prefer. You don’t have to include every detail from your character bio in your story, but having it there will help form the character in your mind.

Bridget Jones

Get Inside Your Character’s Head

This applies even if you’re writing in third person. As you write, imagine yourself in your character’s position.

What would you do if you were your character?

How would your character react to certain situations?

How does your character experience the world around him/her?

This is connected to making your character realistic, but it involves delving even deeper into your character’s psyche. You want your reader to not only see your character as a real person, but to be able to connect with your character on a personal level. You want your reader to experience the same emotions as your character. By stepping into your character’s shoes as you write, the character comes across as more personal and there is a better chance your reader will find themselves inside your character’s head too.

Give Your Character a Goal

Give your character something they want to achieve and show why they want it so badly. Give them obstacles along the way to achieving the goal, make it hard for them and allow them to fail at first (there’s nothing less compelling than a character who achieves things too easily or without consequence). Your character’s goal may change along the way, and that’s OK as long as it makes sense.

Ellie Linton (Tomorrow When The War Began)

For more ideas on how to write a compelling character check out Elana Johnson’s post ‘How to Write Compelling Characters‘ where you can find links to a variety of blogs blogging on this topic.

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21 thoughts on “Writing Compelling Characters”

  1. Great post!

    Something worth mentioning might be thinking about character consistency. Often without the deeper thinking that goes into creating a character, their personalities can seem ‘jumpy’ – eg one moment they’re fighting back, the next they are cowering in a corner.

    With a some planning and brainstorming (as suggested in this post!), your characters can have distinct personalities that are believable, and I think the believability of them is the key.

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  2. Definitely, it’s all about believability. That’s why taking the time to do character profiles and character interviews can really help the writer get to know the character before writing. The better you know the character, the less chance of inconsistencies and the better the chance of creating a realistic and believable character.

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  3. Since I’m anti personality sheets and such, the best thing for me to do is just toss them into a situation and write. Most of that doesn’t end up in my novel, but I know how my characters act when they’re bored, keyed up, angry, with other people, alone, etc. I write it all.

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  4. Talei – Yes, I get that ‘voice’ speaking to me too. Hearing my character speaking to me helps put me in my character’s mindset.

    Elana – I haven’t heard of that approach before, but it sounds like a great exercise. To throw your character in different situations to get their reactions… I might have to try that one.

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  5. I don’t fill out character sheets but I do answer some questions in my head. I do like taking any writing prompt and writing it about my main characters. That’s fun and it gives you some very interesting perspectives, plus you’re writing.
    I could never do a character collage because I don’t buy magazines. It sounds like a fun idea though.

    Great interesting tips!

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  6. Laura – Thank-you, and yes getting into a character’s head is essential.

    Beth – Yes, and not just a goal, but obstacles in the way to that goal.

    Melissa – Thanks. So true, if you can’t get into a character’s head, how will the reader be able to.

    Jessica – Thank-you! Actually a tip I heard once was to think about what your character’s decision would be in everyday situations, for example, if you were at a restaurant for dinner, what would your character pick from the menu.

    Allison – Character collages are lots of fun and really make you think about your character’s likes and dislikes, their physical appearance and their personality.

    Hannah – I like the writing prompt idea, I think I’ll try that one for my next novel. If you don’t buy magazines maybe you could try another idea. If you buy newspapers look for words in the headlines that remind you of your character and make a collage of those words (plus newspapers have pictures too). Or what about junk mail from your letterbox?

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  7. N.R. – I’m trying to get to as many people as I can too. There are so many great takes on this topic.

    Rach & Nicole – Yes, goals are so important, they show the the true essence of your character.

    Elizabeth – I usually try to write when I know I won’t get interrupted (or at least have very few interruptions) so I can fully submerge myself in the character.

    Lisa – They are a lot of fun! Thanks.

    Sandra – So true, that’s when you have to start thinking about things like ‘show, don’t tell’ and weaving details into the story. And also realising that you don’t have to cram every detail from your character bio into the story.

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  8. I’ve done a character collage before, loads of fun. never thought of Elana’s idea before though, great stuff.

    You guys are probably talking more MG/YA than PBs though?

    I have to say throughout the day I imagine how Giraffe and Elephant would react to things I do. Like when I ran in the house while H was on the drive to pick up something from the kitchen. My shoes were wet, I slipped and got a really bad (but small luckily) bruise on my leg. Would have looked hilarious to those two monkeys at the zoo. I’m surprised I don’t put them to bed at night too 😉

    err not sure why my letters are so large on here hmm…

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  9. Catherine – Mostly it would be more applicable to novel-length stories or chapter books, but some of it can still be applied to PBs. Your character still needs to be compelling in a PB, you want the child reading it to be able to relate to the character and you want the character to be realistic (even if it’s a talking animal or toy).

    I know I don’t go as in-depth with planning my PB characters as I do with my novel characters (for instance, I don’t generally write up a full bio for them), but I do try to get into the character’s head and think as they would think (which means putting myself in the mind of a young child).

    And your letters look normal to me 🙂

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