Thursday, January 9, 2014

Writer's Corner: Compelling Characters

It's been a while since I've had a Writer's Corner post. kinda too bad, because I had some cool insights about characters a few months ago. Be sure to tell me what you think in the comments.

So, the last writerly post was about active versus reactive characters. As I was thinking about active characters and their common threads, I landed on a thought - the very best active characters have a superpower.

I don't mean flying, not necessarily. Just something that that character can do very well. Their gift. What this means, essentially, is that you're enabling your character to contribute.

If your character can contribute, it's so much easier to make them an active part of the storyline. Because if used correctly, that gift can be a pivotal point in shifting your plot from act to act.

That talent also gives the reader to hang on to. It's a way to set that character aside as being different from everyone else traipsing across the page.

Obviously, in fantasy and magical realism, this can be more pronounced. But it doesn't have to be. And it doesn't have to be anything particularly meaningful. Your character can be extraordinary with numbers, excellent at chess and, ergo, strategy.

In my books, Jayne is a terrific features writer. She's the best, and everyone knows it. In Simply Sara, Sara is a whiz with fabric. In A Table By the Window, Juliette is handy in the kitchen.

There are thousands of examples throughout literature, film, and TV - think of Anne Shirley and her imagination, Bilbo Baggins' knack for theft, Elizabeth Bennet's wit, or Tyrion Lannister's cunning.

The second piece to compelling characters is that it helps if they're damaged in some way. To quote the recently viral Chantielle MacFarlane, "If you have no baggage, you have no story."

That baggage, that story - you need that. It pulls a character's motives into deeper relief. Damage gives a character back story, a mystery. It creates uncertainty within a scene.

So take the super skills, and give them to someone with issues. Keep them in balance - Don Draper when he's off his game is unpleasant and boring. Without his talent, he's not worth our time as a character.

Conversely, a character with a superpower and too little baggage reads flat and single-dimensional.  But mix damage with talent?

That, my friends, is a character I want to hang out with for hours.

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Which fictional characters have stayed with you? What do you think are their strengths? How do you think their lives have shaped them?


  1. Sherlock Holmes. The Doctor. Harry Potter. More subtly: Molly Gibson vs Fanny Price.

  2. Of course, it doesn't necessarily have to be pronounced, that damage/baggage. It can be character flaws, or a personality that lends itself to getting into trouble. You see that a lot in children's books, if there's no dark undertone - the protagonist will struggle with confidence, or overconfidence, or selfishness, or mischievousness, or what-have-you, even if they've had a happy childhood. We all have vices, baggage or no.

    Conversely, having a talent and a problem don't necessarily make a 3D character. To take an example from an old career series, the Cherry Ames books, Cherry is a talented nurse and accidental detective; her issue is the tendency to behave impulsively, to a fault. Winning formula, entertaining enough books, but a flat character in the end.


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