The Trick to Creating Compelling Characters (and How to Avoid Boring Ones)
I love a good character. Whether they are charming, or frightful, or down to earth, a good character succeeds at being an entry point into a story. But it’s not enough for a character to have a complete backstory or an exact physical description. All good characters need one core component to them–a core element that, in the hands of a talented writer, becomes the very basis of that character’s identity. They need a contradiction.
COMPELLING CHARACTERS ARE ABOUT CONTRADICTION
An internal contradiction is an internal conflict, and just like the conflict must be the core of a good story, so too a conflict must be the core of a good character. Think of any character you love, be it from a book, or movie, or TV show. Think about the first impression that character made on you, then think about the second impression they made. Odd are, those two impressions are in conflict with one another. The writer seeds these factors into your mind, and from there your subconscious goes to work trying to unravel the conflict. This creates engagement in the mind of the reader, and compels them to keep reading.
This one tiny conflict though is not enough to propel an entire story, though. That is where the plot must come in, the external conflict that places your character in suspense. It’s not enough for your character to have a dual nature about them–they have to exist in a plot where those two sides are put at odds with one another. The story becomes about which side will win, and that creates a character-driven story.
CHARACTER DRIVES THE BEST STORIES
One of my all-time favorite shows is Quantum Leap. For those of you too young to remember the show, the main character is a scientist (played by Scott Bakula) who becomes trapped in the past, and the only chance of him coming home depends on him correcting the mistakes of the person whose life he has temporarily “leapt” into. Each time Dr. Beckett “put right what once went wrong,” he would come that much closer to going home.
Some episodes were standard 80s/90s fluff, but the best episodes dealt with the occasional chance where Dr. Beckett had a chance to fix mistakes in his own past. Fixing his own past ran a huge risk for Dr. Beckett–he only had one chance per “leap” to set things right, and if he failed, he would be stuck forever in the past. Imagine then the conflict he felt when, on one leap, he had a chance to save the life of his brother who had died in the Vietnam War. The entire episode centered around the question of, “What choice will Dr. Beckett make?” Would he stick to the mission, allowing his brother to die, or would he intervene and risk being forever stuck in the past?
If you’re wondering what choice Dr. Beckett made, that’s precisely the point. You’re in suspense, because right now you don’t know which side of Dr. Beckett has won: was it his desire to save his brother (whom he loved deeply), or his desire to get home?
(Last I checked, that episode is available on Hulu, so if you absolutely need to know right now, check out episode 32 – “The Leap Home”. You do need a Hulu Plus account though, just FYI.)
The best stories are driven by their character’s inner conflict, leaving the audience on pins and needles, wanting to know what is going to happen next. It’s the key to character-driven suspense.
CHARACTERS ARE SECRETS + DESIRES
So where do these internal contradictions come from? What is the jumping off point for creating that internal conflict that will become the core of your character? The formula is simple:
Your character’s darkest secret + your characters greatest desire
Before you write even one sentence of your character’s journey, you need to figure out these two components. Once you have those figured out, you can stuff them into your character’s meat suit and turn them on. You will immediately see the two sides of your character conflicting with one another. Let’s come up with a few examples. See how quickly these characters spring to life in your mind’s eye:
- A young boy from a poor family who witnessed a gruesome mob murder…and wants nothing more than to go to Disney World.
- A meek, mousy woman, who is completely consumed with murderous rage for her successful (albeit slimy) celebrity lawyer of a sister…and who wants nothing more than to open her own bakery in Hollywood.
- A brilliant but unappreciated social media guru who begins to hear voices in his head, telling him he is an angel of the Lord…and who wants nothing more than to be filthy, stinking rich.
Now put an inciting incident in front of these characters, and watch their internal conflict go to work! Start by asking what if. What if that boy didn’t go to the police? What if that murderous woman, too meek to ever actually harm her sister, had an opportunity to blackmail her? What were the circumstances there? What will she do? What if that failed guru tries to capitalize on his condition, tries to sell it to the nation on late night television*? What kind of people might that attract to him?
Now, these ideas aren’t really more that just springboards into potential stories. Certainly none of them right now could carry a full-length novel, perhaps a short story, but nothing of great depth. We are, after all, putting the full weight of the story on just their individual shoulders. But, what happens when you add another character into your story, or two, or a dozen? Suddenly your story is swimming with secrets and unspoken desires, and when you have a room full of people all with something to hide, then you begin to have an interesting story.
Think on this formula deeply when you are designing your characters, and then…let it go. Let this idea move to the periphery of your mind when you write, and your characters will begin to act on the raw instructions you gave them, and in turn it will be their choices that drive your story.
*I actually really like this idea. I may keep it.
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