Hey, everyone! Today. I thought it would be interesting to delve into what makes a character that can grab a reader’s attention. Of course, a book needs a compelling plot, but a plot must be character driven. So, what are the aspects to a compelling character?
In life, we all have a history that begins from the moment we are born. This means, if you are thirty years old, you have thirty years of history. The same thing should be true for compelling characters. Does this mean a writer has to set down and spend days or weeks crafting a backstory? Or detailing each character from the moment they are born until the beginning of their story? No, that is called writing a book. The author does, however, need to be aware of the major events in each of their main character’s lives. We all have events in our lives which shaped us, they should too. Their history will inform everything else about them both for the good and the bad.
“But, how do I write a backstory for a character I don’t know?” you ask. While it can be tricky, this is how I’ve found it the easiest to do. Start your book. Write the first scene or two; by this point all the major players in the story should have at least made an appearance generally. If they have not, then write a scene with them in it and then find where that scene goes in the book later. Writing a segment with them will give you a sense of the way each character looks, moves, speaks, and if they have any ticks or quirks. Then, ask yourself why. Let’s say one character hugged their waist each time someone asked them a question. Why? Are they hiding something? Or, did they get grilled often by an overbearing parent as a child, so they always feel the need, even subconsciously, to protect themselves. The ticks, quirks, and oddities about any character good or bad will inform their backstory.
No one is perfect and as things happen to us in our lives, our armor gets dinged and tarnished. Characters need to be the same way. It would not make sense to have a character that does not have any walls built up if they have just gotten out of an abusive relationship, would it? Or to have a character who was not, perhaps, a bit obsessive about looking after others and being strong if they had had to be a parent to their own parent as a teenager. The character’s backstory will inform the way they behave in all areas, including if they are distrusting, a slob, a liar, whatever their strengths/flaws may be. The important thing is that you know where their weakness is because if you want them to be real, they cannot be perfect.
Let us say, in another instance, you have a character with a drinking problem. That is not something that just happens. No one wakes up and decides to drink themselves into a stupor. There must be a pain, an injury of spirit, in that character. Maybe they learned it by watching a parent they love stumble home from a bar. Maybe the parent took them to the bar with them. You will write more convincingly, and your words will have more weight if you know all aspects of your character’s history. You must know the cause and effect of each flaw, but remember, it is not realistic for your character to understand and see their own shortcomings right away. All of this is especially true for villains. No one is born “bad.” I went into great detail writing the backstory for my villain in my series Step Into Darkness, because I wanted him to be so twisted. I had to understand why, or his weaknesses and bad points would fall flat.
We all have our strong points too. Some people are athletic, others are good with numbers, or words, not to say these cannot all be strengths for some. These things too will be informed by a character’s history. You cannot write a character who woke up one day with the ability to win gold in the Olympics. This is a strength built up over their history. Know their past and you will see where their strengths should lie. If they grew up reading a lot, they should have a wide vocabulary. If they grew up seeing others be hurt (and have not turned to the route of villain), then they’ll stand up for those weaker than themselves. Keep in mind, even your villains should have their decent points. In my series Step Into Darkness my villain is physically strong, intelligent, likable with other characters, and he refuses to lie to my leading lady. He lies to basically everyone else, but he is honest with her.
A word of caution, just as it is possible to make a character completely unlikable by giving them too many weaknesses, it is also possible to make them unbelievable by making them too strong. We have all read characters and thought, can’t they do anything wrong? Find a balance. If they are strong physically, make them weak or awkward in another way. Maybe you have got a guy who grew up doing manual labor on a farm. He’s strong, knows how to repair anything with an engine, but his parents farm was old school, so he struggles with computers. “But, Justina,” you say, “this section is supposed to be on strengths, not weaknesses!” You are correct, but there must be balance, especially in a main character. Side characters have a bit more leeway to be one dimensional.
Every child has a dream, or several, as they grow, and so do characters. Now, you do not necessarily need to know each of the careers your characters wanted from the ages of 5-18, but you do need to know what they want now. Do you have a man who dreams of being a dad? What about a woman who dreams of being the first one in her family to become an astronaut? Are man A and woman B in love and want a future together? Knowing your character’s goals will inform much about your story.
With each scene, your characters should have goals too, and there should be something stopping them from making it happen. For instance, let us say you write a scene where your character want’s something as simple as a cold soda on a hot day. You need to put as many things between your character and that soda as you can, and make sure one or two obstacles are something to move the story along. Make the phone ring and they learn something they needed to know, make a neighbor come by to tell them the body of their missing friend was found, anything. Do not make it easy but make it doable. Think quicksand around their ankles. It will not kill them or take them down, but the ten feet to the fridge will be a heck of a fight.
Once you have your backstory written, you will know where your characters began, but as you write they will have to change. New experiences will come along, a new love, a new danger, and it will alter them just as new experiences alter us. At the beginning of one of my books, a certain character was closed off, struggling from day to day, trying to keep her head down so the people she loved wouldn’t die, by the end of her story, she’s strong enough to talk about the things that happened to her and admit what she could have done better along with recognizing that what happened wasn’t her fault. That is character growth. In another story, a woman who experienced a terrible relationship found it in her to love again. That is character growth.
Now, in some books and for some characters, just as people do, they can take their experiences and go the opposite direction. Think a character who begins the book confident, is bullied, and chooses to take what happened in a negative direction thinking the world owes them something. This would be character damage. This is something that should be done carefully but can still be a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal, especially if writing a cautionary tale. This character could be paired with another who chose a more positive path such as becoming a mentor as an adult to other teens, to highlight the choices we all have in life.
Whatever characters you write whether villain or hero, get to know them and give them layers. Just like us, they must have dimension. Give them layers and you will write worlds that will keep readers coming back.