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More on Constructing Compelling Characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

As has been suggested in previous posts, compelling characters are the lifeblood of any story.

Learning to craft fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad.

There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to plan characters through the use of the character profile.

Profiling Compelling Characters

A compelling character profile contains elements that work together to increase the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character.

In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Manny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.

Summary

A character profile is a way of fashioning compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.

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.