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How to Make Ordinary Characters Compelling

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig, Writing Fiction Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Always keep firmly in mind that people read any novel, no matter the genre, to find out what is going to happen to a fascinating set of characters. And no, throwing something like magic into an otherwise dull-as-dirt character won’t make her fascinating. She needs to be a fascinating person on her own. So how do you do that?

—by Steven Harper

Adding dimension

First, remember that fascinating doesn’t necessarily mean unusual. Regular people can end up on the fascinating end of the scale. Cinderella and Aladdin start out as perfectly ordinary people, but their stories have lasted for generations. Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals relies on Glenda, a relentlessly ordinary baker. The people who buy the country home in Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale are a perfectly ordinary blended family. Charlie Asher of Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job is dreadfully ordinary. It’s part of the point of his character.

To craft fascinating characters, you have to know them inside and out, and know them so deeply that you know what motivates them—what causes them to act. Here’s how to do just that.

[Learn how to turn any idea into a great story.]

Step 1: Know Your Character’s History.
You need to develop your protagonist fully and completely. On one level, this means she should have a totally documented life, from birth to present. As the author, you should know nearly everything about her before you even begin: where she was born, where she went to school, the first time she fell in love, and more. I say nearly because more ideas and possibilities will crop up as you write the story. Old lovers, photographs from long-ago vacations and other detritus from the past can show up at any time to create conflict—or help the character in a moment of crisis.

Step 2: Go Beyond the Basic Facts.
While those kinds of background details are important, remember that they’re merely facts. You also need to develop the character’s attitudes. Consider this: Two kids survive Mrs. Futz’s awful third-grade class. One shrugs the whole thing off, and the other comes away hating school for the rest of his life. Which attitude would your main character have?

Glenda from Unseen Academicals leads an ordinary life doing an ordinary job. A homely, slightly overweight young woman, she runs the night kitchen at a university, reads piles of romance novels when no one’s looking, and still has a teddy bear named Mr. Wobble. Except for the teddy, there’s nothing extraordinary, or even interesting, about her. Pratchett makes her interesting through her attitudes. Glenda is eminently practical. She runs the night kitchen with an iron fist because she knows in her heart there is one right way to make pies, and that’s how it shall be done.

Step 3: Endear Your Characters to the Reader.
Glenda’s practicality extends to keeping a close eye on her assistant, Juliet, who is beautiful and therefore not quite trustworthy, in Glenda’s estimation. Glenda also sees to it that the elderly people in her neighborhood are checked on, fed and aired out from time to time because someone has to do it, and if she doesn’t, who will? All this endears her to the reader and makes her interesting to read about long before a hungry goblin shows up in her kitchen and things get a little strange. No matter what you’re writing or who your characters are, use this strategy to help readers connect with them.

Step 4: Dig Even Deeper to Uncover Motivations.
Your own characters need to have the same sort of depth as Glenda. This extends beyond work and hobbies. How does your main character see the world? What does she expect when something good happens? When something bad happens? How does she react to a challenge? To a loss? How does she fit into her neighborhood or other community? Knowing all this and more will allow you to write a three-dimensional character who will draw readers in.

[Did you know there are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you a badass? Read about them here.]

Planning Ahead

Take some time right now to look at the worksheet on the next page. Fill it out. You don’t need to know everything on it, but you should be aware of most of it.

It might not seem like it now, but chances are good that every bit of this brainstorming and research will make it into the book. Your character may never mention that her parents divorced messily when she was 8 and that her mother dated a string of men thereafter, leaving her with a subconscious uncertainty about relationships. But you will know, and this knowledge will tell you exactly what to do when Victor Vampire sweeps into Norma Normal’s life, all handsome and delicious—and completely transient, from her perspective. Norma herself may not be aware why she keeps breaking it off with Victor even when it’s clear she loves him, but you, the author, have worked it all out. Her reactions will come across as more consistent, and therefore much more realistic.

The most fully developed, deeply motivated characters are always the most compelling, no matter how ordinary they might be. So flesh them out now, and your readers will thank you later.

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11 Responses to How to Make Ordinary Characters Compelling

  1. tadabug2000 says:

    For anyone looking at this, I found a worksheet on a site long ago. This might help… Sorry, I couldn’t find the site but I was able to find where I copied it in my documents. :)

    The Basics
    Assumed Name:
    Full Name:
    Nickname:
    Race:
    Gender:
    Age:
    Birthday:
    Place of Birth:
    Physical Appearance
    Height:
    Weight:
    Body Type:
    Skin:
    Eyes:
    Hair:
    Scars:
    Tattoos:
    Racial Distinctions:
    Any Other Physical Distinctions:
    Family Relationships
    Mother:
    Relationship with Mother:
    Father:
    Relationship with Father:
    Siblings:
    Relationship with siblings:
    Other Relatives:
    Relationships with other relatives:
    Good Almost family members:
    Reason for closeness:
    Social Relationships
    Sexual Orientation:
    Romantically Involved:
    Marital Status:
    Spouse:
    Children:
    Friends:
    Allies:
    Enemies:
    Personal Characteristics
    Physical Strengths:
    Physical Weaknesses:
    Mental Strengths:
    Mental Weaknesses:
    Skills
    Fighting:
    Magic:
    Technology:
    Stealth:
    Secrecy:
    Manipulation:
    Thievery:
    Piloting:
    Persuasiveness:
    History:
    Childhood:
    Teenage Years:
    Adulthood:
    More Details
    Life
    How would you describe your life overall?
    What is your most memorable moment?
    What has been the most important event in your life?
    What do you consider your greatest achievement?
    What is your number one regret?
    When were you the most afraid?
    What is your greatest fear? Why?
    What is the most honorable or “good” thing you’ve ever done?
    What is the most “evil” thing you have ever done?
    Have you ever been in love? If so, describe what happened.
    Do you have a notorious or celebrated ancestor/relative? Does that affect you?
    Do you have any secrets? If so, what are they?
    Personality
    What three words would you use to best describe your personality?
    What three words would others probably use to describe you?
    Why are you risking your life to adventure?
    Do you tend to argue with people or avoid conflict?
    Are you a listener or a talker?
    How long does it take for you to trust others?
    Do you hold grudges?
    Do you tend to take on leadership roles in social situations?
    Do you like interacting with large groups of people?
    Are you generally introverted or extroverted?
    Personal Emotions
    What makes you sad? Happy? Mad? Why?
    Do you have any biases or prejudices?
    What do you think of love?
    Do you believe in self-sacrifice for the greater good?
    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
    Personal Relationships
    Who is the most important person in your life and why?
    Who is the person you respect the most? Despise the most? Why?
    Goals
    What are your goals?
    What goal do you most want to accomplish in your lifetime?
    Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
    If you could choose, how would you want to die?
    What is the one thing you would like to be remembered for after your death?

    It may not be perfect, but it is something. Also, here is a list of character traits. :)

    Affectionate
    Aggressive
    Ambitious
    Anxious
    Artistic
    Argumentative
    Arrogant
    Assertive
    Bad-tempered
    Boring
    Bossy
    Careless
    Caring
    Catty
    Cautious
    Charismatic
    Charming
    Clever
    Conceited
    Conscientious
    Considerate
    Courageous
    Coy
    Creative
    Curious
    Deceitful
    Dependable
    Devious
    Docile
    Dogmatic
    Domineering
    Egotistical
    Enthusiastic
    Excitable
    Extroverted
    Faithful
    Fickle
    Fussy
    Good-natured
    Gregarious
    Grumpy
    Happy-go-lucky
    Impulsive
    Inconsiderate
    Industrious
    Intelligent
    Introverted
    Inventive
    Irritating
    Joyful
    Kind
    Loud-mouthed
    Loyal
    Manic
    Manipulative
    Moody
    Nervous
    Old-fashioned
    Opinionated
    Passive
    Perfectionist
    Persuasive
    Picky
    Playful
    Pleasant
    Polite
    Pragmatic
    Quick-tempered
    Reliable
    Reserved
    Rude
    Scatter-brained
    Serious
    Shy
    Sincere
    Sly
    Sociable
    Sympathetic
    Secretive
    Thoughtful
    Thoughtless
    Trustworthy
    Vengeful
    Volatile
    Witty

  2. writelarawrite says:

    I have worksheets! I have them! Over here! :)
    (yes, they are free for personal and educational use)
    http://writelarawrite.wordpress.com/fiction/characters/

  3. stevenharper says:

    I wrote the book WRITING THE PARANORMAL NOVEL, the book this material comes from. The worksheet appears there, though the editors of the site apparently missed posting it. I’ve been trying to post it here in the comments, but the site won’t let me. Perhaps because it’s too long? I’m not sure.

  4. mwebster says:

    Yes. Where is this worksheet of which you speak? I have been looking for a good worksheet to use for character development. If WD doesn’t actually have one, does anyone know of a good worksheet I can find online elsewhere?

  5. DowntownMimi says:

    Cruel and unusual – you forgot the worksheet. ;)

  6. vigrant says:

    Worksheet! Worksheet! Worksheet!

  7. lovetowrite97 says:

    Good article. When reading books or watching movies or TV shows, I most enjoy analyzing the characters who make up the story. Crafting my own, though, and making them compelling, has always been a challenge. This article provided some very helpful tips that I never knew, and I’ll most likely apply them in my writing.

  8. Jackie says:

    Great article with lots of great ideas. In developing my cast of characters in my brainstorming process, I’d uncovered a lot of new information simply from figuring out how they all found their way to my main setting where they make somewhat of an unconventional living. I’m sure I’ll go back to this to keep myself on the right track throughout the process.
    And co-sign to the comments above. Where is this worksheet? :-P

  9. Sally Jadlow says:

    I wondered the same thing.

  10. betty g says:

    I can’t find the worksheet either….

  11. Chelsea says:

    Where’s the next page with the worksheet?

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