The Great Blogging Experiment: Writing Compelling Characters

Elana Johnson, goddess of all things internety/literary, has organized what shall from here on out be referred to as The Great Blogging Experiment. Today's (inaugural) topic? Writing compelling characters.

I have to say that character does not make or break a book to me. Some of my favorite books have had rather Mary-Sue-like characters, which I recognize and choose to accept anyway because the rest of the book is just that good. That being said, I've been struggling a lot in my current WIP with character.

I wrote about this recently, where I bemoaned the fact that my main character's main motivation at the beginning of the story is a man, her romantic interest. It's not necessarily that this makes her uninteresting and not compelling, but rather that I'm afraid of writing a weak main character - especially one who's a girl.

But today we're talking about compelling characters, not weak ones. And what I think makes a compelling character, or what I try to avoid when trying to write a compelling character, or what happens when compelling characters choose today to kick the bucket...

I think a lot of what makes a compelling character is realism. To me, a well-developed character, which a strong and believable history (known to the author, at least) goes a long way toward making a character compelling. If I believe in a character, if I understand their thought processes and the origins of their motivation, then I'm more likely to find him/her compelling.

And this is what I'm struggling with right now. One of the most interesting characters in my WIP when I started was a strong secondary character, the brother to the lead. But then I started writing him, and instead of being sad and soulful, he was suddenly snarky and kind of a jerk. Which isn't a problem, but at the least means I don't know him as well as I thought I did. And then what this means is that instead of being interesting and compelling (because of a great back story which, of course, I should have memorized), he's just a jerk. Without a back story. Which is not compelling.

Long story short, your main character can easily be made into a compelling person people will want to read about. The magic ingredient: back story. A believable background that provides your character's motivation, which turns him from a jerk you'd like to defenestrate into a jerk with a tragic past who you can't help but root for.

And all that means that you should spend time - a lot of time - with your characters. Get to know them. Have afternoon tea! Or trade snarky insults while you wait for the bus. Trust me, that's what I'm doing. Although it'll probably take a looong time to turn my formerly soulful secondary character into someone people have sympathy for. But it'll be worth it. Because in the long run, he is pretty awesome. You just have to get to know him first...