When we read, we may love well-plotted books, but what we are connecting with is the people involved in those plots. In other words, the characters. In this post, David Griffin Brown offers five ways to make your characters more compelling.
Fiction editors encounter manuscripts at all stages of development. A typical issue we see in early drafts is where one narrative element is given more attention than another.
For example, with works of historical fiction, it’s common for writers to showcase their research at the expense of plot and character. On the other hand, with a character piece, the plot often drags in the second act. And in high-paced, sharply plotted thrillers, characterization can lag behind plot development.
That being said, most manuscripts will benefit from close attention to character conflict, motivation, and relationships. But first and foremost, it’s important to let your characters act, react, and interact.
Drop hints and clues about personality and underlying emotion, put your characters on a stage, and let your intuitive readers get to know them.
Emotions in exposition
Let’s start with the basics. It’s a maxim that all writers have heard, but many have yet to master:
Show, don’t tell.
Imagine your best friend Jack, with a straight face, tells you: I’m really sad right now. Now imagine Jack doesn’t say anything, but instead bursts into tears the moment he sees you. The second scenario is bound to evoke a stronger emotional reaction.
What if it’s someone else updating you on whatever Jack is going through? The emotional distance in this case is even greater. Of course you still feel for Jack, you are still concerned for his wellbeing, but your personal emotional involvement will be greater when you observe Jack’s sadness through his actions, expression, and body language.
This is a simplification, but the concept is critical to effective characterization. When a narrator states how a character feels, the emotional impact is minimized. Even more, emotions in exposition prevent readers from getting to know the character on their own terms.
You could tell me all about your best friend Jack, but until I meet him myself, I won’t be able to grasp the essence of his energy and personality.
Where fiction meets real life
We come to love and despise people in our lives because we have spent time observing them, interacting with them, and then coming to conclusions about who they are and what motivates them.
The same is true in fiction. When a narrator states who a character is, what they want, and what they think about a particular issue, readers are not able to observe and come to their own conclusions. This means a lost opportunity for readers to bond with the character.
Consider the difference between a scene with a young man up all night studying for an exam versus a statement in exposition that he is very studious and hardworking. The statement can be taken as narrative truth, but it doesn’t get you any closer to the character.
However, when you observe the late-night cramming session, you can imagine yourself in that seat, pouring over those notes. This connects you to the character’s experience.
Always aim to show your characters’ emotions and personality through their actions, interactions, and choices. Let your intuitive readers observe, gather clues, and make their own judgments. Your story’s immersion and sentimental appeal will be all the stronger for it.
The passive protagonist
When someone is passive in life, making no decisions and allowing the years to flow past them, it’s safe to assume that they will have fewer challenging, enriching, or exciting experiences.
Think of the 50-year-old guy at the party who still tells stories from his college days because nothing much else has happened in his life aside from working, commuting, watching television, and an occasional trip to an all-inclusive resort. It’s unlikely that this guy’s memoir will hit a bestseller list.
The same is obviously true in fiction. However, many manuscripts still feature passive protagonists. This is when the story flows around the main character—she is pushed along by forces out of her control, by domineering parents, by external threats.
It’s not enough for bad things to happen to good characters. For true reader immersion, the protagonist needs to drive the plot through the decisions she makes and the risks she takes. External threats and domineering parents are great sources of conflict, but it’s what a protagonist does in response to these forces that shows the reader who she really is and what she desires.
When a passive protagonist is swept along by the story, plot momentum becomes forced, artificial, and prone to coincidence. This is a sure-fire way to snag your reader, erode immersion, and limit your protagonist’s appeal.
At the end of every chapter or section, ask yourself: has the plot moved forward as a result of my protagonist’s actions and choices?
A lack of clear and compelling character motivation is another problem that editors often encounter. The protagonist might be active, making choices and taking risks, but it’s not clear what is driving her forward (other than an adventure that’s been plopped in her lap). Or, the protagonist’s motivation isn’t compelling enough to justify the choices she makes.
Clarity of motivation helps your reader connect with the protagonist on a deeper level. Her personality will have more depth, and when the next crisis arises, the reader will be able to anticipate how she feels and what actions she will next take.
When the protagonist does something unexpected, it should add to her complexity by providing new insights into her character. However, when motivation isn’t clear, an unexpected turn can snag with readers, causing them to question who the protagonist is and what she is really after.
Also, when considering your protagonist’s motivation, remember that what she wants is not necessarily what she needs. In fact, this is often the basis for a protagonist’s arc—what she learns about herself and how she changes as she realizes that her underlying need is in opposition to her desire.
This is all a bit theoretical, so consider some examples:
- A detective who is on the case because it’s his job, versus a detective who seeks out the most difficult cases that he knows others will never solve.
- An adopted girl who constantly gets into trouble at home and school, versus a girl who constantly gets into trouble even though her greatest hope is to do right by her adoptive parents and make them proud.
- A young wizard on a quest decreed by prophecy, versus a young wizard determined to right an injustice that led to his parents’ death.
- An evil queen who will execute anyone who opposes her, versus an evil queen who will do anything to guarantee her family’s legacy.
Motivation is also important for secondary characters. This may not always be obvious to readers, but it’s something the writer should know. A motivation can be as simple as succeed at business, not get fired, find a partner, end a relationship, or remedy a family conflict. Knowing this detail about each character will add significant depth to your story’s relationships and conflicts.
Establishing & building relationships
Stories are ultimately about characters resolving conflicts. For many narratives, the bulk of the conflict will be bound up in the plot. In other books, the conflict will be largely personal or interpersonal, and the plot will provide the time and space for the conflict to exist or to reveal itself. Either way, conflict is critical for bringing characters together and forming relationships.
Consider the standard romance cycle. First, the lovers-to-be instantly dislike each other. Second, they are forced together by external circumstances. Third, they become closer through working together. Fourth, unmet expectations create a new conflict. Fifth, they come back together in a crisis, forgive each other, and thereby cement their relationship.
Now forget that I called that a romance cycle. This is better called a relationship cycle because it can also be used to create bonds between friends, siblings, business partners, and even enemies. I’m not suggesting you follow that cycle as a formula, but it’s important to recognize how conflict and resolution are at the heart of every relationship.
When you put this process in front of your readers, and when you let your readers see the give and take, you build immersion and character appeal.
Just remember that character conflict comes in many forms, and it doesn’t have to be earthshattering. In fact, a story will quickly become overblown if everyone is constantly freaking out at each other. Small moments of awkwardness can add tremendous depth to a scene.
Also, don’t discount negotiation as a potent tool for relationship building. In this case, the true conflict is external—a problem to solve—and the character conflict is borne through consultation, consideration, and compromise.
A great novel is a work of balance. When all aspects of a story are in harmony, readers can become fully immersed. If even one element remains unpolished, readers will notice, and in noticing, they will be pulled out of the story.
Characterization is an integral part of this balancing act. The storyteller’s ultimate goal is to craft lifelike characters who grip our attention as they struggle, make choices, and take risks.
How much time do you spend on characterization when writing your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
David Griffin Brown is a senior editor at The Darling Axe. He is an award-winning short fiction writer, and his debut novel The Sparrow War is represented by the Donaghy Literary Group. He holds a BA in anthropology and an MFA in creative writing. As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice.
Ingmar Albizu says
Conflict, motivation, immersion… Yes, conflict drives the plot. Characters drive the narrative. The more interesting the characters, the more the reader engages with the story.
Great article, David. Lots of great advice on creating memorable characters.
Do you propose creating the characters first and then the plot, or creating the plot first, then the characters?
I prefer the plot first since I write genre fiction. What are your thoughts?
David Brown says
Hi Ingmar 🙂
It depends on what you’re writing. Like you, I tend to work out the plot first, as well as the setting, since both will have a large impact on who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing. However, I have worked with many clients who are very character focused, and so the opposite is true: the essence, temperament, and backstory of the protagonist determines how the story will take shape.
CS Kjar says
An excellent article! It reminds me to do my homework with my story. Developing the characters’ motivations are often overlooked., and the conflict isn’t always clear. Including those things really push the story onto a higher plane of writing. Thanks for the advice.