Yesterday, we talked about world building and how it is important to only include details that are pertinent to your characters. Today, we’re going to talk about building characters that are worthy enough to have worlds of words dedicated to them.
What makes a character compelling? There are lots of answers, so we’re going to cast a wide net and look at several examples of compelling characters in popular media.
Also, let’s start with a definition. A compelling character is one that the reader is interested in enough that they will follow them through an entire story. The reader does not necessarily need to like the character in order for the character to be compelling.
I’ve heard it said that a good character, one that a reader will be interested in reading, is one that is deeply motivated. Looking back through history, this is a quality shared by people like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Alexander Hamilton, and Amelia Earhart. These were all individuals of exceptional drive and motivation, and we get swept up in their story as they push to change the world.
Drive can transform a character into a compelling protagonist, but it’s not strictly necessary. I would not describe Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins as particularly driven. They are occasionally motivated to do more than they think they can, but drive is not what defines these characters or makes them compelling.
Characters like Sherlock Holmes and Greg House (which are really the same character) are compelling because of their overwhelming competence. Historical examples of competent people making their mark on history include Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein. Thomas Edison could also fall into this category, though these days, his talents in marketing and spin outshine his technical prowess.
Some of the people I just mentioned are not particularly likeable. Their proficiency in a field is enough to make us want to follow them, because seeing an expert doing something well can be fascinating. It tickles our own fantasies of being the best in a field.
I already mentioned Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins, and they’re sometimes referred to as “everyman” characters. They may rise up to the challenge to do heroic things, but they do not start as heroes, and they may spend most of the story being just regular folk.
Of the qualities I’ve mentioned so far, I think relatability is the most important, but it is not a silver bullet answer. There are characters I find compelling that I do not relate to.
Buffy Summers and I do not have much in common. I am a normal human male with some technical skill and a desire to be the best writer I can. Buffy is the chosen Slayer, a young woman struggling to have a normal life while also combatting vampires and demons spewing out of the hellmouth her home was built upon. I don’t really relate to Buffy or the problems she faces, but I could easily follow her through years of stories.
I look for ways in which I can relate to a character, but it’s not a deal breaker if we’re not the same. Sometimes, I enjoy the differences. Sometimes, it’s another quality of the character that keeps me coming back for more.
Some Combination of Factors
Superman is an iconic, invulnerable alien whose only weaknesses include rare green meteor rocks, magic, and his own intrinsic humanity. In my opinion, the best Superman stories are less about tricking him into proximity with Kryptonite and more about forcing him to make moral decisions where none of his strength and speed can actually help him.
Batman is an iconic billionaire ninja that dresses up as a nocturnal flying rodent in order to intimidate villains. Without any actual superpowers, Batman employs creativity, technology, and wit in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with godlike beings and win the day against deadly foes.
Commander Data of the Starship Enterprise is an android, built with superhuman strength and intellect, but lacking the ability to feel simple emotions. He serves with humans, observing them, supporting them, all while longing to be one of them. The best stories about Data are the ones that explore what it means to be human.
All of these characters are a mixture of some of the qualities I mentioned before. Batman and Data are both highly driven and highly competent. Superman and Data are both extremely strong while retaining personality traits that could be described as naïve or innocent. All three are orphans, from a certain point of view. For these characters, it is the combination of several factors that makes them compelling, giving them depth for the writer and reader to explore.
How Do We Create Compelling Characters?
There is no single approach or one right answer for creating a compelling character. For the three main characters of my three novels, I took different approaches.
Mel from The Repossessed Ghost started with a voice. I could hear him clearly, and I knew what he was like before I gave him his own story. He started as a character in a roleplaying game, and while he changed significantly between mediums, the core of who he is remained the same. He is something of an everyman, reluctant but with a heart of gold. He isn’t particularly competent, but he has qualities that make him endearing.
Arthur from Spin City developed over the course of decades. When I first wrote him, he started as a copy of me. Over time, I gave him different strengths and weaknesses. For a while, he was my take on Sherlock Holmes, hyper-competent and driven. For Spin City, he is a man struggling with alcoholism and depression. My hope is that he’s relatable and interesting, but in the end, he may not be any more compelling than I am.
Dee-ehn from Synthetic Dreams is an introvert that’s a bit neurotic. Dee-ehn is afraid of death and spiders, is deeply spiritual, following a religion called Purity, which dictates that its members avoid networking and engaging in other activities which may pollute their base code. All of the characters in Synthetic Dreams are non-human, artificial beings, but my hope is that they are all relatable because of the ways in which they are human. They experience emotions, including love and fear, and just like the rest of us, they grapple with the question: why am I here?
What makes a character compelling for one reader won’t necessarily work for the next. Some readers are drawn to the emotional struggles, and could care less if the character can bend steel bars with their bare hands. Some readers are in it for the spectacle, and want to experience the story through characters that can hold themselves in a fight.
It may be easier to describe how NOT to make a character. An uncompelling character is apathetic, neither weak nor strong, living an uncomplicated life with neither highs nor lows. An uncompelling character is inert, neither pushing the world around them nor being pushed in return. They do not have a strong moral code, and they are not compelled to reach beyond their current station in life. They are neither rich nor poor. They have no interesting opinions on condiments. Even a bland nobody that thinks ketchup is too spicy sets themselves apart in at least one area.