We writers often section ourselves off into camps. Plot-first writers go in one camp, and character-first writers in the other. But the truth is that, whether you start with the plot or characters, you must create compelling characters to organically move the story along and interest readers in the plot.
Why? Because I’ve done something very terrible, and if you’re honest, you probably have, too. I’ve read a book, like, say, The Awakening, where I was glad a certain main character (*cough* Edna *cough*) was dead. The writer didn’t convince me to care for her.
Edna didn’t do anything. She just let things happen to her. She was reactionary, not taking an active role in her life (the plot). She just sort of sat there . . . and complained . . . a lot.
So whether or not actions speak louder than words, your characters need to get moving. They’re only compelling if they’re necessary to the story. How do you make them necessary? I’m glad you asked such a convenient question! Well, dear readers, you make your characters’ core personality and beliefs a part of the plot and the plot a part of them. Here’s how.
Wants and Needs
Wants are your character’s goals and ambitions. These wants must be powerful enough to move the story forward and make the protagonist ignore the thousand obstacles in his way.
Needs are different. These are things that your character learns, or teaches others, along their journey to reach their goal. Without wants, your characters will give up without thought, or at best, be reactionary. Without needs, there’s no theme to your story.
But it’s okay if your characters are reactionary at first. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie and her siblings initially only react to their circumstances. C.S. Lewis even says that they’re running away from the housekeeper and her tour party, and it’s as if the house is prodding them into Narnia.
But they don’t stay passive. Once inside Narnia, Lucy takes charge and leads her siblings to Mr. Tumnus’ abode, which the White Witch ransacked. As a result, she becomes set on rescuing her friend, and she rouses her siblings into joining her cause (except Edmund).
Good thing, too—who would want to read about the Pevensie siblings simply going back to our side of the wardrobe and waiting until the tour group leaves?
Besides understanding what your character wants, you should know what they need. This is where Lewis’ theme of sacrifice comes into his story. For Lucy’s sake, the faun gets turned to stone by the White Witch, and Aslan (the King) dies for Edmund (the traitor) on the Stone Table.
Aslan and Mr. Tumnus’ sacrifices teach Lucy that love makes sacrifices (even for the undeserving).
She also learns that Aslan (the Jesus figure of the story) is dependable. The whole series hinges on Aslan’s wisdom and strength rather than men’s own feeble forces. The battle would’ve been lost had not Aslan come running in with a great big roar and defeated the White Witch.
In the end, Lucy learned what she needed to because she had a strong enough “want” to make her do something uncomfortable that she would’ve otherwise avoided.
The wants and needs of your characters start them on a journey that reveals their strengths, weaknesses, and deep-seated beliefs (which can be lies). This brings us to the next point.
Truths and Lies
These are the strongly-held beliefs that your characters base their actions on. But as the title suggests, these beliefs can be right or wrong.
In Anne of Green Gables, Anne believes a truth that others do not, which is that you’re happier when you see the wonder in ordinary life.
But most people, like her adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert, tell her to be more sensible. Yet, in the end, she wins them over with her enthusiastic joy. Her imaginative play and wonder at Green Gables’ beauty lead her neighbors and new family to look at their plain day-to-day lives with renewed energy. And in this way, Anne wins over almost all those who once thought her crazy.
Anne’s kindness and success make Rachel Lynn a little more open to new perspectives, like making her reevaluate her low opinion on orphans like Anne. And Anne’s open love for Marilla makes her find joy in her life again and become less uptight, to the point that she tells her brother Matthew that God knew they needed Anne. Marilla even tolerates Anne getting an impractical, over-the-top puff sleeves dress.
And if you want to create a good, Godlike character, then have him share the truth. The action will flow out of people rejecting what’s best for them or changing according to this truth.
Unfortunately, Anne overdoes her sense of wonder at times, letting it stray into histrionics. Why? Because she believes the lie that romanticized emotions are the only kind that matter.
But then she gets the slap of truth. Several times. Like when she scares herself by thinking the woods are haunted, and her thoughts drive her into a silly faint. But that’s mild compared to what happens between her and Gilbert. Initially, she denies her feeling for him, saying she only wants to be friends. After all, he’s not tall and brooding and capable of evil. He doesn’t fit her (odd) romantic ideal.
Of course, practical Marilla Cuthbert tells her she’s being foolish, but Anne doesn’t recant anything. It’s not until poor Gilbert nearly dies of fever that Anne realizes she can’t lose him—she loves him!
Eventually, Anne grows into an imaginative and sensical person. And when you’re writing characters, you must know the truth they believe and how they’ll try to influence others to see it, and/or the lie they believe and how they’ll be awakened to the truth. Unless you’re creating a tragic hero like Caesar in Julius Caesar to prove the vices of denial. Then kudos to you, you wonderful jaded mess of a person.
Ghosts of the Past
No, we’re not talking about A Christmas Carol. We’re talking about your character’s horrid past. *dun, dun, dun* But really, these are the tragedies, or even successes, that haunt him into action. Often, these ghosts are the reason he clings to this lie or holds this truth dearly.
In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet has a literal ghost (his dead dad) that moves him to vengeance. It takes him time to kill his uncle because he’s not sure about the moral implications of murdering a murderer, but then he decides that his uncle had it coming and that justice is best served without, uh, a justice system.
In Macbeth, Macbeth has a literal ghost, too. But that’s not the main thing that haunts him. What haunts him are three creepy witches. Like Hamlet, he makes the mistake of listening to unholy powers about what’s best for him. Not your best plans, guys.
But for Macbeth, the witches represent more than just evil in general. They bring out his ambition for power and his subsequent fear of losing it. That’s the reason he kills the good king, Duncan, and that’s the reason he sends some sketchy guys to go murder his best friend Banquo and Banquo’s son.
In Hamlet and Macbeth, readers knew the ghosts of these characters from the start. However, sometimes the fun is finding out the backstory that has created all this chaos.
You can also give villains ghosts to show that everyone has the potential to become a monster. Lord of the Ring’s Gollum wasn’t always gross and monstrous. In fact, he was once a hobbit like Frodo, until the ring’s promise of power allured him and he gave into temptation, the same temptation Frodo himself almost gave into.
Of course, ghosts can be more neutral, but they often make your characters stray into recklessness.
Obstacles and Setbacks
Is your character persistent, or not? To whom does he go for help? How does he overcome obstacles? If you can answer these questions, you’ll get much closer to defining who your character is.
Think of Odysseus who shows his love of home and determination by never giving up on his Ithaca.
When Odysseus encounters obstacles, he makes the tough calls and resolves his problems on his own (and occasionally, the gods pitch in). This shows his assertiveness, leadership, and stout independence.
In the journey, readers also learn that he’s unlike most Greek heroes because he solves his problems with cleverness and planning in addition to strength. In the Iliad, he suggests the Trojan Horse that helps the Greeks sneak past Troy’s defenses. In the Odyssey, it’s his idea to trick a stupid cyclops and escape by hiding under sheep. And when he finally finds his way back home to Ithaca, it’s his plan that allows him to reclaim his rule from the usurpers with only a handful of help (his son and loyal servants).
The way your characters react to obstacles shows their strengths (and if they fail, their weaknesses).
For instance, though Odysseus eventually comes home, he has huge weaknesses like egotism and lust which get in his way. For instance, when he defeats the cyclops, he brags about it and reveals his name. This gives even the cyclops a way to get revenge. All he needs to do is complain to his father Poseidon, king of the sea, that Odysseus stabbed his eye.
And of course, since Odysseus is sailing to home, his pride costs him. Poseidon is angry and makes Odysseus’ journey difficult to avenge his malevolent son.
Odysseus also fell into Circe’s seduction. He and the goddess messed around for a long while. What’s worse, it’s easy to stay forever and ever in that island, and it’s only a clear love of home that finally snaps him out of his stupor.
So far, we’ve covered how setbacks interact with the protagonist’s goal (in Odysseus’ case: home), but there should be setbacks to your character’s need, too. Unfortunately, Odysseus isn’t really into humbling himself enough to learn, though readers can certainly benefit by refraining from his foibles.
Still, for setbacks to your character’s need, we’ll have to look somewhere else. Like Josephine “Jo” March from Little Women. She, like you, is a writer. But I do hope your temper is better than hers.
Of course, we sympathize. If Amy March had been our sister, and burned our book, we’d throw a fit. But Jo refused to forgive her. And when Amy fell on thin ice while attempting to skate after Jo, Jo almost didn’t rescue her. Later, Jo greatly regretted having been so angry as to put Amy’s life in danger.
Of course, Jo didn’t immediately become a saint after this. She struggled when her rude Aunt Carroll was around. And eventually, when her aunt’s condescension and spite became too much for Jo, she exploded, giving her rich aunt the equivalent of a verbal slap. This didn’t end well. Aunt Carroll soon decided that Jo, who had been set to accompany her around Europe, was too unladylike to be her guest.
This event made Jo immediately regret her words and curse her temper. These faults are obstacles to Jo’s moral growth (everyone has someone who tries their virtue), and it takes her a while to overcome them.
Creating obstacles to moral growth is, perhaps, the most powerful way to make your characters compelling. And it’s a balancing act. If they never feel tempted to do evil, they’ll seem inhuman and unrelatable. But, if they continue to give into temptation, or give in too easily, they’ll annoy us, especially if they never change. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll call them an idiot the whole time.
For as C.S. Lewis says, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”[i]
Do you want a character to be morally compelling? Then make him battle the evil in himself and come out on top. Make him choose good when it’s not safe. Don’t make him some sniveling coward! Make him bravely climb that mountain or defeat that giant, even if his knees are shaking as he lifts his sword.
Dark and Light
A foil (an opposing character) makes your protagonist stand out, for better or for worse. And this can grow organically out of your story because people constantly compare themselves among each other. Clashing ideologies show readers what your character believes enough to fight for, and to die for.
I don’t mean you need to make it like Narnia, where Aslan is goodness personified (after all, he’s the Christ figure of the story) and the White Witch (the she-devil). These characters don’t need to be black and white, but they do need to stand for something.
Pride and Prejudice’s characters exemplify this principle. Elizabeth Bennet thinks marriage is about love, but most everyone else disagrees with her. Mrs. Bennet thinks marriage is about financial security for her family and flimsy romance. Lady Catherine and the Bingley sisters think it’s about money and social status. Mr. Collins thinks it’s about a selfish sort of happiness and fulfilling one’ duty.
Even our beloved Charlotte Lucas married that awful Mr. Collins, and she did it only because she wanted to not be a financial burden to her family and be financially secure. She even tells Elizabeth bluntly that not everyone can afford to marry for love.
These opposing views make the story interesting, helping characters reevaluate or confirm their beliefs.
Like in the account of Abraham’s faith test, when God asked him to sacrifice his son, he had a choice. Either he sacrificed his son because he believed in God, or he sacrificed his belief in God for the love of his son. In the end, he didn’t need to sacrifice Isaac, but he did prove he loved God more than his own son. This technique is great for showing your character’s priorities.
What does he love? What happens when he’s forced to choose between these two loves?
In Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers had a choice. They could either choose the love (or infatuation) which they had for each other and risk their families’ wrath (apparently rich families couldn’t let things go back then), or they could stay safe by adhering to the dumb confines of their family pride.
Well, they chose love (if you can call it that), and they made each other wonderfully happy until they realized they couldn’t be together if their families had any say in the matter. So, they chose suicide.
Okay, that wasn’t so smart, but it got their families to see how silly (and lethal) their conflict was. And they finally shook hands and years of enmity disappeared. But most important, you finally see where Romeo and Juliet’s priorities lie.
If they hadn’t dramatically died, the story would’ve survived. The idea isn’t so much that these crazy lovers died, but that they weren’t willing to be with anyone else. If Juliet had married Paris, then readers wouldn’t know if she was in love with Romeo or simply attracted to his charm. The choice to choose one love (Romeo) to the exclusion of her family and the suitor they chose for her made the story interesting.
If your characters aren’t compelling, maybe they don’t belong in the story. Even if they’re likeable, it’s better to save them for a story where they’re necessary to the plot.
Or maybe they don’t shine because you don’t know them yet. Pick up your character and walk him through this list and question him. Interrogate him if you must. But figure out what drives him, because when you do, you won’t have to struggle to lead your story. Your characters will drive it themselves.
Pamela Collazos is a Professional Writing Student seeking to grow as a writer and to help others do the same.
(The opinions expressed in this post are the writer’s, not necessarily the same as those of Bryan Davis.)
Categories: Guest Post