The following blog post is a result of the Great Blogging Challenge issued by Elana Johnson, Jennifer Daiker and Alex Cavanaugh, in which participants were requested to discuss the topic: Writing Compelling Characters. However, before we get to that, late in the game I found an opportunity to post a "gratitude post" facilitated by Jen at Denton Sanitorium. This one is important to me, so, I'm including a link to a post I published a few weeks back and hope you will also read: At Long Last.
Great Blogging Challenge
A few years ago, my then “tween” daughter started to watch “The Gilmore Girls,” a story about a single mom from a wealthy family raising her teenage daughter in rural CT. In those years, there wasn't much time for T.V., but when that show was on; I’d hear something intriguing, stop and sit down in front of the screen. Before long, I gave up any pretence otherwise and planned my time to include each weekly episode.
After several years, the show went off the air, fading out with youngish single-mother Lorelei and her then adult daughter Rory sitting in the coffee shop they frequented, eating a last breakfast together before Rory moved away. For weeks after, I wondered what happened next. How did Lorelei adjust to life without her daughter Rory? Did she and Luke, the diner owner, get back together? Was Rory successful in her quest to become a journalist? Did crazy Kirk get any less crazy? I lay in bed at night making up stories that continued the lives of the characters I’d come to love. Intelligent characters. Funny characters. Sincere characters. Characters I believed in. Characters that compelled me to watch the show.
Now, that, of course, was TV. But I could give you thousands of examples of characters in books that hooked me the same way—two that captivated me early in life include Scarlett from Gone with the Wind
; and Meggie from The Thornbirds
I read both of those books as a teenager and sat bereft after finishing. In spite of the fact that she was selfish and spoiled, I rooted for Scarlett, because the author made me understand that she was insecure, unaware of her faults and though no one but the reader knew it, deep down she hosted snippets of goodness. I was so vested in her as a character that over the years, when poor imitators wrote sequels to Gone with the Wind
, I rushed to purchase them, just to realize some resolution to what happened between Scarlett and Rhett. Those sequels were not well written, but I was transported by Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and therefore compelled to read them, because I had to know what happened next.
As for The Thorn Birds
and Meggie—ah dear Meggie. I ached for her in that household of taciturn men, and longed to pummel her mother for her lack of compassion for her only girl. And yet, though Fiona Cleary’s aloof demeanor has such a harsh impact on Meggie, McCullough imparted enough detail about the woman's early life that as much as I wanted to slap her, I felt sympathy for her. As for Ralph, the priest, well, he should have let Meggie move on, but instead demonstrated his humanity as he was drawn back to her time and time again. The right thing would have been to stay away. The real thing, the thing that most of us would have done too, meant coming back.
Through this believable writing, authors Margaret Mitchell and Colleen McCullough captivated me with their stories and ensured that I was emotionally attached to the players. More recently, via Harry Potter,
JK Rowling mesmerized my entire family. We’ve read all the books—together out loud, or one after another. During a notable summer when our daughter was at camp, her dad read one copy at home while she brought one to New Hampshire—I wasn’t allowed to see the secret notes she enclosed to him in her letters until he finished and I could take my turn.
Rowling fashioned her characters so legitimately, that we had to read. Harry, Ron and Hermine were charming, genuine, kind, imperfect—everything kids are in real life (well, except for the magic part). Sure they could perform spells, but similar to mere mortals children, they got in trouble. They were chastised for taming trolls; mistakenly took potions that transformed them into cats, and were always discovered somewhere in the castle they weren’t supposed to be.
As readers, we bought into their reality because its impact on them was plausible (Who has never experienced an after school detention after all?) and because they got into mischief as a result of admirable goals. Driven by loyalty to Professor Dumbledore, they acted out of passionate desire to defeat evil. Nothing about their circumstances is believable, yet we believe in the characters, because in their mission to defeat Voldemort, they are human and fallible like us.
Where, you might ask, is she going with all this? Well, here's the thing. I’m not practiced at writing fiction. It’s new for me—something with which I’ve challenged myself over the last several months. So what I have to tell you may go against all professional advice, or sound as naïve as a four-year-old. But given the above examples, I’d say if you want your characters to compel your readers, you must make sure they:
- are true to life
- instill emotion in the reader
- provoke sympathy or empathy
- come with imperfections
- act believability, even under unbelievable circumstances (i.e. Harry Potter)
- leave the reader wanting more
If you can do this, sign me up. I’ll read your book any day.
What do you think it takes to write compelling characters?