How to Bring a Compelling Character to Life


Writing / Friday, September 18th, 2020

Before I got feedback from various readers on my manuscript, I had a feeling something wasn’t right with my main character. I worried she wasn’t someone people would care about, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I told my beta readers that was something I wanted their input on, and they did not disappoint. With their specific feedback, I was able to figure out what was missing. Not only did I fix my problem, but I used the same techniques to turn everyone in my novel into a more compelling character.

Make it Personal

At first glance, survival sounds like an excellent motivator. The situation is life or death, meaning the stakes are high for your character. But if survival is your character’s only reason for participating in the plot, you run the risk of your main character only reacting to the story rather than driving it. Why is that bad?

It’s boring. Something personal has to motivate the character to get on the other side of the trials they have to survive. Sure it’s dramatic if your character has to dodge oncoming traffic while crossing the street, but who cares if they make it unless there’s something important over there?

Even in survival-based fiction, like The Hunger Games, survival isn’t the only thing that’s at stake. Katniss wants to go home and be back with Gale, Prim, and her mother. There’s also the budding romance with Peeta. And beneath it all, Katniss doesn’t want to compromise who she is for the Capitol’s amusement. She could survive by taking an aggressive strategy and killing all the other tributes and winning the game, but she chooses her own path. She hides and hesitates, always gauging whether she has an option besides killing the person in front of her.

Add Realistic Flaws

Early in my writing days, I thought giving a character flaws meant making them inexperienced. Not necessarily naive, but certainly no expert in any field. Giving the main character expertise made me worry they were too much of a Chosen One. Inexperience can be a facet of a character’s background, but that’s not the same as a flaw. Neither is clumsiness, which seems to be increasingly mistaken for a personality trait.

Character flaws are the things that compel your character to make mistakes and get into trouble. They are based on choice. They are not injuries, disabilities, illnesses or conditions. Click To Tweet

They have a hot tempter, so they often argue with those around them. A past mistake makes them afraid of taking risks. The obsession with their personal goal blinds them to the collateral damage they cause.

Give Them A “Cool” Factor

Every writer is warned against making their main characters into a Mary Sue/Gary Stu/Casey Q. (Is there already a gender-neutral moniker for a flawless character? If not, Casey Q is my suggestion.) When giving your character flaws and limitations, they still need that “cool” factor, the thing that makes them attractive to a reader.

Physical attractiveness doesn’t play so well in the written medium as it does in more visual media. There are many other traits that make a character attractive to your audience. It could be a skill, like Drizzt Do’Urden‘s signature fighting style with two scimitars. It could also be an exceptionally charming personality complemented by exceptional dialogue.

Even if your character has a prickly or mean personality and generally acts unlikable, something about them has to be appealing. In Six of Crows, Kaz Brekker often comes across as cold, selfish, and cruel. But he’s a criminal mastermind and an absolute badass. I probably would never want to be friends with him, but I will happily tune in to any of his schemes because his badassary is a big part of what makes him a compelling character.

Make Them Protect A Secret

Giving characters a secret is something I’ve recently come around on. I actually asked author Vivian Conroy on Twitter some suggestions on introducing some misdirection and sowing distrust between characters, and she said she likes to ensure that everyone has a suspicious secret. I took her advice and gave a side character a secret. He suddenly became so much more three-dimensional, I had to give everyone a secret just to see what would happen.

Not every secret has to be central to the plot. In fact, making it appear relevant before revealing it’s something completely different is a great way to make your characters suspicious of each other and introduce a little mystery in your story (even if mystery isn’t your main genre). But making the secret something damning adds more drama and makes it feel like the characters have their own lives.

The general rule of a character’s secret: if it’s revealed, there are severe consequences. For an extra twist, consider a secret that protects someone else.

Embrace Vulnerability

This is another aspect you’ll find in other lists for compelling character traits. Again, in my early days, I equated vulnerability with flaws. “I must determine my character’s kryptonite, and then find a way for someone to use it against them!”

That’s not the kind of vulnerability you’re looking for. (Or maybe it is, but this one is good, too.)

An emotional vulnerability or insecurity offers an opportunity for your readers to empathize and connect with the character. If they’re keeping a romantic history with another character secret, the fear of what that revelation could do to a current relationship draws on an insecurity many people are familiar with. Or perhaps your character is driven so hard to succeed because it seems nothing they do is ever enough, and they’ll finally feel validated if they can just do that one thing.

What other techniques do you employ to create a compelling character?


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