Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Compelling Characters

Well, ladies and gents, today is the first time that my blog gets involved in something that didn't come out of my mind. Last night I decided that it would be a great creativity exercise to take part in the Great Blogging Experiment. Basically, a lot of blogs signed up and are all writing about this topic. Please feel free to click on this link and check out some of the others too.  OK... let's get going, shall we?


We all have our favourite characters. One of mine (and the one I chose out of many for the purposes of this post) is the Great Detective himself. If any of you thought: "Poirot," I must ask... What the hell were you thinking? I'm talking about Sherlock Holmes. After all, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off the first time, there was a public outcry to bring him back. I don't think you can get more compelling than that. But more about Holmes later.

Before we can go into writing compelling characters, we must first ask: "What is a compelling character?" To my mind, a compelling character is one that grabs my attention and holds it for dear life. He/she/it makes me want to read an entire story - regardless of the length - to find out what happens to him/her/it. Sometimes (as Holmes did), characters keep our attention through several books and/or stories. Holmes managed it through 56 short stories and four novels. And that's just the canon. (Gave away my fan-girl status just now, didn't I?) Anyway. Although I think it insane to aspire to such a stretch of attention, it makes him an awesome example.

Now we ask: "What makes characters compelling?" This question can be more than a little tricky to answer. One person may believe a character to be compelling, but the next might not. I know that a lot of people don't like any of Sherlock Holmes books. They don't take a particular liking to Holmes either. After all... He's "better-than-thou", moody, cynical, a drug addict, not very appreciative of his best (perhaps only) friend in the world. Basically your all round generic magnificent bastard. Who could possibly like a character like that?

Oh I don't know, me and about five generations of Holmes fans? Face it, haters. He's sticking around... But what makes him so compelling?

Exactly those things I listed. Yes yes I know. There is this common idea that characters have to be likable to be compelling. No no dears. They have to be interesting. Holmes is all those things I listed above, but he's more complex than that. Still, he is very very loyal and is willing to admit when he is wrong - although it is rare enough. He is moody because he is easily bored and frustrated by the stupidity of those around him. He is, after all, a genius. But his genius extends beyond book knowledge. The list goes on and on and on. But I'm going to skip right to the end of my mental list to the most important attribute.

Holmes is, above all, Holmes. He doesn't care about what others think of him. If they don't like him, so what? He's not going to change who he is just to fit into the mould people would like to put him in.

And that brings me neatly to writing compelling characters. Create them, then let them grow on their own. Don't force them to conform to what you think they should be, for they are who they are. Yes, the character might not be nice, but by gum he is interesting.

Remember: interesting is good. All nice is boring. Interesting makes reader want to peel back the layers to get to know the character. They'll read as far as they can to do so.

But who wants to hear how wonderful and perfect anyone is anyway?

Imagine if Holmes was truly perfect. A detecting Genius that never did anything wrong. Ever. I shudder at the thought, because I would never have read beyond the first book...



So, ladies and gents. What do you think? Am I talking total nonsense? What do you think makes a compelling character? Who is your most favourite character of all time? What makes him/her/it so compelling to you?

29 comments:

Jen said...

I'm with you all the way Misha! A compelling character is someone that grabs your attention even after the book is complete. You are still thinking about them, about how the writer didn't necessarily wrap the story up in a little bow and you didn't care because the character was the main story, the main thing that put it all together.

Great job! Thanks for joining in the fun!

Laura Pauling said...

If Holmes were likeable, I'm pretty sure that the series would not have done as well! I like real and unlikeable characters!

Christina Lee said...

YES!!! Flaws mixed with likeability equals good--grabs your attention and doesn't let go!

arlee bird said...

First of all, this post did come out of your mind--it's your excellent creation-- you were just writing off a prompt.

Like you say a compelling character should have depth and complexity. As we read we should feel the character's doubt and fear that keeps us turning the pages to see what the character will do next. Surprise comes from depth.

Stereotype and characture certainly have a place but a character drawn in that manner does not have legs for the long run. Holmes could have never endured if he had been drawn in that manner.

Good points here!

Lee
Tossing It Out

Patti said...

If you didn't have someone to cheer for then I think it would be hard to read a book, that's probably why I don't read a lot of non-fiction.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting is good! (And I like Sherlock Holmes.) A character who is sharp and good at what he does is appealing to me. Obviously he's not perfect, though - if he was, those stories would be really, really short!

Elana Johnson said...

Aha! Holmes is Holmes, and that's why we read. He grabs on and doesn't let go. The best characters are themselves and they inspire us to love them.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Sherlock Holmes was a perfect way to illustrate compelling characters - I love it! Great post. :-)

Misha said...

Evening all.

Thanks so much for reading this and showing your support.

I'm really glad you all liked what I had to say.

Lots of love,
Mish :-)

Bish Denham said...

Excellent!

Michelle McLean said...

I just love those characters that you are still thinking about months after you've finished the book. Holmes is an excellent example!

Serena said...

yep interesting is good, human errors, flaws and poor judgments is what makes a character in a book a real live human that stomps around yor brain long after you finish the book.
Take a look at johnny depps character in From hell, a drug additd, great detective and is still able to be a good person trying to protect the woman he falls in love with and her friends
have a great weekend x

Kelly Dexter said...

I completely agree! Some of my favorite characters are the least likable. Great post.

Melissa said...

I agree.

I tend to love the villains the most. But that's just me.

Misha said...

Serena I always love characters with flaws - as long as the flaws aren't over used. Then the character just becomes two dimentional again. Do you find that too?

Kelly me too. Dr. Gregory House springs to mind as well as Lincoln Rhyme. Both full of nonsense. Both really caring about helping others. Both really good at doing it...

Melissa I LOVE villains! They always get the best one liners. That's why one of my protagonists is borderline villainous... But by far my favourite. Unfortunately the fiend knows it ;-)

Jessica Carmen Bell said...

Great post, Misha. There's nothing worse than a flat character!

Misha said...

I totally agree. Even the best plot can be derailed by a flat character.

And it's so disappointing if that happens...

stickynotestories said...

"Don't force them to conform to what you think they should be, for they are who they are."

AMEN!

Whenever I try to do this with my characters they stop talking to me. When I let them be who they are they show me the loveliest stories I cannot imagine on my own. A good character is someone you can't box up and put on a shelf (although we are all trying, aren't we?) :)

Misha said...

Haha me too, which is why I'm doing the character interviews.

I've been writing my MC's like I thought they should be, instead of how they are. Eventually they all just clammed up.

So I took my own advice and am spending today letting them talk to me one by one. (Read my newest post if you're curious about how that's going.)

Darrion aside, it's amazing what you learn if you shut up and listen to them...

As for boxing up and putting on a shelf, Darrion is challenging me to just try... ;-)

Thanks for dropping by :-)

Olivia J. Herrell said...

Great post, thanks, Misha!

~that rebel, Olivia

Quinn said...

I love your post! I'm still trying to make my way through all of them. I agree that what makes a character compelling is interest. They need to be interesting. Also, love your advice about not trying to make your character conform to what you think they need to be. Great!

Misha said...

Thanks Quinn!

You're much better than me. I gave up at around seventy...

lbdiamond said...

LOL, love the Holmes references!

I agree--characters have to be interesting. That generally includes them having flaws...if they were perfect, they wouldn't make any mistakes, they'd always make the right choices, and there'd be little room for tension and conflict. No tension and conflict means no story.

Great post!

Misha said...

I'm glad you agree with what I wrote and that you liked it.

Thankd for commenting

:-)

N. R. Williams said...

I like Sherlock too. Excellent post, I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Nicole Zoltack said...

I love Holmes (and House who was based on him). Very compelling character, what a great example!

Misha said...

That's no problem Nancy, thanks for dropping by. :-)

Nicole I love that you know that House is based on Holmes. Most people never make the connection - a fact that I find quite odd... I thought to use House, but decided that it was better to stick with the original. ;-) Thanks for the comment.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I agree nonconformists make the most interesting characters!

Misha said...

Oh yes... as well as people who pretend to conform but really don't or are slowly being driven mad by the mediocrity of it...

Muhahaha
:-)