Simplifying Compelling Characters

Compelling CharactersCRAFTING compelling characters for your screenplays and novels is a basic requirement for any successful story. A plot without compelling characters to drive it will seem trite and unconvincing.

There is no shortage of advice on how to set about creating successful characters for your stories – from writing lengthy and detailed backstories, their moral, political, social, and ideological viewpoints, to details about their personal tastes. What food do they like? What’s their favorite colour? Do they have all their teeth? And so on, seemingly, ad infinitum.

Truthfully, I have always found such an approach daunting and demotivating.

Certainly, the writer needs to know how a character will react to certain challenges presented by the plot. And, yes, character reaction needs to be rooted in who the character truly is. But do we really need to have prior knowledge of his dental health, unless that impacts the plot directly?

My personal experience has been that delving too long and too deep into the background of the characters may actually block the writing of a story. I get diverted and eventually lost in the details. Indeed, certain details, which initially seem like beacons of inspiration, often create a confusing kaleidoscope of colors that derail progress.

Writing compelling characters need not be that complicated

The point is that for some writers, the act of writing embodies an organic, perhaps even spontaneous fusion of many serendipitous elements – textures, senses, feelings, values, facts, intuitions, plot points. Pre-planning for them is an almost impossible task because many are often discovered on the fly.

My approach to theory, therefore, has been to learn as much about the different aspects of the craft as possible, identify, in broad strokes, the overall direction of the plot and the chief motivation of my characters, then get down to writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that in order to get to the heart of a character we need to know what that character wants – and not wants in some mild, would-like-to-have sort of way, but wants in a compelling, urgent, obsessive way.

Is it love? Then our character must desire it more than anything else in the world.

Is it wealth? She must be willing to push herself to breaking point to acquire it.

Is it revenge? He must be willing to risk death to get it.

In my latest story, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos is trapped by an all engulfing sense of loss resulting from the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. His unyielding desire to try to rewrite the past, through cutting-edge physics, drives his every thought and action.

Not only does this sort of obsessive desire increase the intensity of a character, but it gives the story direction. After all, the character’s wants are what drive the tale forward.

Just think of Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder, or Cinderella’s compulsion to go to the ball, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy.

You get the picture.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks: what must I know about a character before I begin writing her story?

I need to know what she desires and how far she is willing to go to achieve it. I can then begin to generate the plot by placing obstacles in the path of that desire.

Summary

Know your character’s compelling desires before you begin writing her story.

4 thoughts on “Simplifying Compelling Characters

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Great post very insightful. I am sure it’s true that every tom dick and marry has their own recipe for success when it comes to writing. It comes down to one thing. Once you know who your character is – you must ask questions.

    Director Peter Jackson explains that myths and stories are aimed at the every day man. These charters are us, they act to the situations the way we would. When writing my own work I like to look at a system such as star shines and their meanings because it is a universal ‘periodic table of trades and flaws’

    In short : Only by asking questions that we want answered to we make our charters believable.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      I hear you, Gerhard. My point here is that we need some structural direction, but not so much that it stilts our spontaneous creativity.

      Reply
  2. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Indeed I have, Stephen. I think most writers will tell you the same. I take that as a sign that you have given birth to your characters successfully and they have now begun to act under their own will, as it were.

    Reply
  3. Stephen Marcus Finn

    Always good to read, Stavros – thanks. Have you found that sometimes you might have aspects of a character in mind, but then as you write, s/he takes over and leads you where you haven’t expected?

    Reply

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