1. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    What makes the most compelling character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Andrae Smith, Aug 4, 2014.

    Hi guys, as you can see, I'm thinking about characterization. I want to know what you think makes a truly compelling character.

    Thinking about characters that I've seen, I've noticed that some had really tragic or emotionally-triggering back-stories that fueled them and help to shape them while others had simpler back-stories but a stronger goal/motivation. Those were the original choices, but I want to open up the discussion.

    So what are your thoughts? Is an emotional back-story essential to a compelling character, or is it better to have a stronger "current" motivation? What else makes a character compelling? How about the relationships they form: do they help you feel like part of the story?

    All thoughts are welcome!
     
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  2. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    I really only have two guideline for a compelling character. One is to be consistent with the characteristics that you have given to your character, and two is to make personality changes slow and gradual in most cases. A character does not need a sob background story, weaknesses, or to be relatable at all, and motivation is something that everyone already has, even if they do not think about it.

    The rest is left to the context of the story.
     
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  3. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are some questions that seem impossible to answer. These are often the best, though. (Ha, my personal BULL)

    I would say that on a certain level similar questions could be posed: What makes a person compelling? Why do others gravitate towards this person? What makes me become drawn to anyone?

    I guess, at least in real life interactions we are simply forced to be with some people from birth (family, early friends) and through consistent good experiences, we simply come to enjoy certains' company. Others, we see characteristics that we find "good" or whatever, and we are then drawn to them. However, this doesn't entirely address your question, because we choose (depending on your viewpoints on "choice") to read a book and then interact with a character. So, since we aren't ingrained to enjoy/dislike that character (because we do not know them) we need more incentive.

    So, I would guess that a combination of the obvious vague categories would need to be fulfilled: depth of personality, behavior that supports the reader's, and conflict. As I wrote those three, though, I realized that they are, well, kinda garbage. I mean, when we began to love a character, it seems that we simply feel the attraction. Later, after the attraction develops, we justify it with our fancy reasoning.

    I guess I just wasted words then. Maybe it's a very personal question for each individual that we can't even comprehend an answer for when introspecting over our own selves. Gosh, I don't even know why I said anything.

    This is a sincerely difficult and layered question with and even more complex answer than I am capable of summoning.
     
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  4. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    The most reliable way a character can be compelling is to desire something that is just out of reach: anything from a physical object to a better life to a relationship with a specific person to a vision for changing the world.

    I guess a "tragic backstory" is just one of many ways to explain a character's current desires and to give them an emotional aspect so that the character is not just a player in the game called "the plot".

    The many other ways to inject emotion into a character's desires include love for friends (the character desires what is best for them), philosophy (the character has come to a specific conclusion about what is right and wrong, and wants to do what is right), physical needs (the character needs food, shelter, etc.), and many, many others.

    As an exercise, try locating a character's desires on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is not even necessary to agree with the theory that each layer is a prerequisite for the layer above it; it is simply a tool that can help to clear away the brain fog when trying to pinpoint what makes a character compelling.
     
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  5. Sheriff Woody
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    Sheriff Woody Active Member

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    As already stated, make your character want something and want it BADLY.
     
  6. TheBaconThief
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    TheBaconThief Member

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    Definitely a complicated answer that changes from person to person. In some cases, the answer is that you root for the character eventually triumph due to the hardships they face, their personality is similar to yours, or they are someone that you admire due to their strong personality. Whatever it may be, it is always going to be different for each person.

    For me, it's a combination of their personality and how they interact with other people or situation in the story. Those two areas define a character in how memorable and interesting they become and think how compelling they are.
     
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  7. molliemoogle
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    molliemoogle Member

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    I think these are all good answers. Hell, I probably would have said something along the lines of what TheBaconThief has said-- personality and interaction with situations/characters.

    I think it also has something to do with character relatability: how much does the reader relate to the character? Does he see a bit of himself in said character, or something that he would like to see? Maybe the character validates an opinion or a philosophy of the reader.

    Take everyone's favourite king to hate, Joffrey Baratheon, from GRRM's series. He's compelling (to me) because he's someone I wouldn't want to be; he validates my opinion that people like him (cruel, arrogant, sadistic, and cowardly) deserve their comuppence. No matter what his motivations are, we the readers WANT him to epically fail and we keep reading to see if he does. We're interested in him because of his personality and the way we feel about him and his personality.

    Take, on the other hand, a much beloved character, like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. She's witty, outgoing, opinionated, and loyal. She's someone who I can relate to. She has a strange, very embarrassing family (which I have), an ability to see through people (which I would like to have), and a reasonably calm head- once she's let her emotions out (which I also have). No matter what her motivations are, we want her to win Mr Darcy's heart and we keep reading to see if she does.

    Both characters are compelling for different reasons.

    Having a backstory is always good, because it shapes who they are, what they do, and why they do it, but I don't believe that a backstory creates a compelling character. It's what they do with their backstory and how it drives them forward. Nilfiry is right on the money by saying that the character needs to be consistent and accepting of a gradual change in motivations. A character that's all over the place isn't nearly as compelling as a character with consistency.
     
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  8. ToDandy
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    ToDandy Contributing Member

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    A compelling character, at least to me, is an active character. I want to see a character working towards something and not just being reactionary.

    Passive characters are boring because they are having no real impact on the story, or are just bearing witness to far more interesting things that are happening.

    1. Give the characters a call to action
    2. Give the characters something to work for
    3. Keep that thing out of their grasp.

    That will make the character interesting.
     
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  9. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I agree. A character must be consistent throughout the story or they become difficult to identify or relate to. I guess it becomes somewhat hard to understand them. Variances in behavior should come from gradual, noticeable changes. I think you make a good point about motivation being "second-nature."

    Well hey, you tried. :agreed: I think you made a few good points. For instance, I never would have thought to ask what makes a person compelling or any of those questions. This could be useful in considering how readers will react to my MC as a person. Will they find him crude and obnoxious? Will they find him funny and charming? I was reading The Secret Garden for a little while (didn't finish yet) and the main character, a little girl, is such a brat that it turned me off to the story for a minute. :rolleyes:

    Similarly, these types of questions will help me consider how other characters will react to my MC. Not everyone needs to like hi. Not all interactions need to go as smoothly as talking to his mother--heck, she might not have to like him, which is a great point of sub-conflict if he's trying to earn her approval.

    I'll admit, your three examples are kind of generic, but not bad. Good starting points for one to expand on. It is certainly a question that varies between people, but that's why I asked. Variety is the spice of life. ;)

    Yes, this is them most reliable way and also one of the most obvious since desire is a motivation.

    Yeah, I figured a tragic backstory would probably fit into this as the explanation for the motivation. Tragedy isn't necessary, but is a strong backstory important then. By this I mean should there something that makes the character an interesting person before the events of the story, or is it that his or her reactions to the present situation will make them more interesting, given an interesting conflict? Does that make sense?

    These are good, I like these.

    What is Maslow's hierarchy? I've never heard of it? I guess Google would be my friend in this case. I'll look it up. Thanks for the lead.


    I like that you mention how they interact with other people. I guess it makes them more human and more important to their world if they have people around them that matter to them and to whom they matter. This, in turn, makes them seem more valuable to us because we see how and where they fit in.

    I like everything you've said here, so much so, I can't really respond with much. :agreed: I think your juxtaposition of Joffrey Baratheon and Elizabeth Bennett is spot on and very valuable to consider. The former is compelling, at least to you, because he validates a personal view/belief, while the latter is compelling because she is likable and relatable. This goes a long way toward understanding how readers might react to my MC. And it suggests that I should test him out in different scenarios to see if I can feel out more of his character... Mo' character, Mo' betta. :write:

    Hey there, @ToDandy , thanks for the great answer. It's one that I overlooked, having seen it before, but you give a great reminder. Characters should be actively pursuing their goals. If all they do is react to situations thrown at them, they don't really show who they are. Although I think it would be cool to see a character make the transformation from passive to active. That could make them all the more compelling if something like that is addressed in the story (not that it's a new idea... far from it). *jots that down* :write: Maybe it's be better to have a secondary character going through this change as something of a foil to a character who might be a little too active and needs to learn passivity? :unsure:
     
  10. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    Compelling characters are not accidental...it can be a combination of their past, present, and maybe their future (or potential) that makes them interesting. We've all met interesting and boring people. Sometimes the lives of our characters can be the same. Making an interesting character is an art, but giving them convincing reasons for their actions and thoughts is important.
     
  11. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like a character with a past issue that's looming it's head in the present - it makes me feel as the though the characters are real people. Like when you meet someone in real life, they come with a lot of baggage. Also, I'm on the fence about the motivation and action - it's good for certain books for the character to be a busy body bustling and proactive - but then sometimes lack of motivation can be just as compelling.
     
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  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm always drawn to a character who keeps himself (or herself) buttoned-up. Characters who are quiet, but when they do speak, it matters. These are characters who may not react when others bully them. They may suffer in silence. These are characters who may love intensely, but don't let their feelings show. These folks are often hiding something, or struggling to come to terms with a trauma from their past, which makes them easy to sympathise with. The catharsis when this character finally does explode, breaks down, breaks open or breaks free is usually memorable. Plus there is always the tension created because as a reader you KNOW this is going to happen, eventually. It's one of those unspoken promises a writer makes to a reader. A repressed character is going to emerge, sooner or later—and what they do will surprise you.
     
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  13. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    This reminds me of Macon in The Accidental Tourist. Oddly enough though, he never really broke free. He stayed quite muffled throughout the whole book. His breaking free moment was so subtle but.... it was real.
    I think that's what I love about Anne Tyler's character's they're the best - so quirky but so real.
     
  14. vonzex
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    vonzex New Member

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    A compelling character is at first, relatable, and then surprising.

    Serious question: Why did I place commas around relatable? I assume it's so it doesn't bleed into first and become "first relatable", but I work as an editor, so it is kind of my job to know. This is a case of the clarifying comma, right?
     
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  15. Mike Hill
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    Mike Hill Natural born citizen of republic of Finland.

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    I have said this many times in here and in regular life. Why he does what he does? Authors don't have to tell the life story of the character, but I always love hear stories of peoples lives and then myself wonder why they do what they do.
    Something rare like enemy of the protagonist who is really a good person is also very interesting.
     
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  16. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I like your points... relatable and surprising... :write:

    And to answer your question, your commas a re misplaced. They should be around "at first" like this: "A compelling character is, at first, relatable and then surprising." This is because because "at first" is the interjected parenthetical. It isn't necessary but it adds to the meaning. Does that make sense.
     
  17. vonzex
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    vonzex New Member

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    Thank you so much for this! You have no idea how much these things bug the hell out of me, especially when I can't find a clear answer any where, or I'm simply looking at the problem in the wrong way.

    Also, regarding what I just wrote: That wasn't a case of a comma splice, right? As in "especially when I can't find..." is a subordinate clause. I rarely trust my own judgement and constantly have to double check.
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2014
  18. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Hmmmm... That is more specific than I expected but I really appreciate this answer. It gives me an idea of the variety of characters I can utilize! :agreed:

    Hey, no prob, Bob. 'S what I do. ;) I totally understand; commas (and punctuation in general) can be tricky. Even in my last sentence, it is arguable that I've misused that semicolon. I may as well have used a period. I find, though, that the semi adds a little more, making it just a little more explicit that the two sentences are strongly related.

    Regarding you next sentence, it isn't a comma splice because that is two or more independent clauses improperly joined by a comma (e.g. they should have a " ; ", a " . ", or a ", and/but/or/while/as/etc."). In your case, you have one "optional" comma:
    You don't need the second one because, even though it is followed by the conjunction "or," it is a sort of exception. The comma can be omitted because it is just the one conjuction and you don't lose any clarity. It isn't uncommon or technically wrong to use it though.
     
  19. vonzex
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    vonzex New Member

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    Ah, yes, I thought so. I know you probably could have omitted my comma before especially, because you can do that with subordinate clauses at the end of a sentence (although this feels like the middle), but the or comma I used is questionable. It is perfectly common practice to use a comma after any coordinating conjunction; however, in that case, it is kind of on the fringe.

    I had: Independent clause + subordinate clause + independent clause. It almost feels like a massive error to have this subordinate clause in the middle joining two unrelated independent clauses.
    Usually, it would look like this: The weather was wild, growling and baring its teeth, as nature had always intended.

    Probably not the best example, but if you omit the non-essential dependent phrase in the middle, it still reads as one sentence. I don't know... my sentence still feels like the subordinate clause joining the two acts as a giant comma splice.
     
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  20. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Actually, I believe you did need the comma before "especially." Let's look at the sentence one more time.

    You said:
    Here, the italicized part is a modifying phrase. It is nonessential, but added on for clarification or, well, modification of the first. That comma affects pacing and clarity. The second comma isn't necessary, though, because the second and third segments are both connected by the same word, "when." You could have rewritten the sentence as:
    If this is confusing you, it's because I'm not doing a good job at explaining myself. Your comma is not wrong, to my knowledge; it's just not uncommon to omit it in American English. Thinking about it again, I might have included it myself because the subject "I'm" does make it an independent/complete modifying clause. It's really a judgement call.

    As for your clausal break down:
    This, I believe is incorrect. You had independent clause + level 1 modifying clause + level 1 or 2 modifying clause. Both of the last two segments can act as modifiers to the first depending on how you write it.

    Example time:
    1. You have no idea how much these things bug the hell out of me, especially when I can't find a clear answer any where, or I'm simply looking at the problem in the wrong way."

    2. You have no idea how much these things bug the hell out of me, especially when I can't find a clear answer any where, or I'm simply looking at the problem in the wrong way."

    3. You have no idea how much these things bug the hell out of me, especially when I'm looking at the problem in the wrong way, or I can't find a clear answer anywhere."
    (Note: this could also be written as, "You have no idea how much these things bug the hell out of me, especially when I'm looking at the problem in the wrong way or can't find a clear answer anywhere.")

    As you can see, there are many ways to rewrite it. It's all very technical. At the end of the day, I'd say your comma is correct, perhaps more correct than my initial analysis, but perhaps not entirely necessary...
     
  21. Sheriff Woody
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    Sheriff Woody Active Member

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    Apart from actively pursuing a goal - which I would argue is unquestionably the most important part of creating any character in a story - I would like to add that the main character's goal should be symbiotically tied with their emotional flaw.

    To elaborate...

    Your hero should have a physical (plot) problem and an emotional problem ("flaw", for lack of a better word). A good story is one in which the hero is forced to confront their emotional problem in order to solve the physical problem. In The Wizard of Oz, a farm girl who doesn't appreciate her home or her family is whisked away to a strange land far from her home and without her family. Stuff like that.

    Always ask: What is the protagonist's emotional problem, and what is the plot problem that forces him/her to deal with the emotional problem?

    Working in this way creates depth, because your conflict is now working on two levels - a dynamic that instantly makes both your plot and your character more interesting.
     
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  22. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I have no idea. I just write people with a bit of their own characteristics and it seems to work well, although I have no idea what factors make it so.
     
  23. vonzex
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    vonzex New Member

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    Once again, thank you. I can tell I'm going to be bugging the hell out of you with this stuff :D

    This was my reasoning for that comma.

    I would agree, but I chose to include it because of your previous reason. My concern was mostly the "especially" comma because "If the subordinate clause follows the main clause, no comma is usually needed". However, I think I chose to put it in anyway because I didn't want to restrict my annoyance to specific cases where I couldn't find the answers.

    My annoyance is general, but the annoyance is intensified when I cannot find the answer. Ultimately, I think there's extremely subtle difference that we're getting pedantic about, but the commas do appear to be correct so far. You know a lot about clauses :)

    I definitely agree that your example "especially when I'm looking at the problem in the wrong way or can't find a clear answer anywhere" didn't need a comma. One last question: Had this quote just contained an exclamation mark at its end, would I have omitted it?

    E.g., your example "x, y and z!" didn't need a comma. Should I omit the quote's closing punctuation?
     
  24. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I think you're absolutely right. Another way of putting it would be internal and external conflict; although, they are a little less specific than what you've got. For practical purposes, they are close enough. ;)

    Well Aren't you the talented banana in the bunch. :dry:
    Nah, I'm kidding. I think that is one, less technical, way of doing it. This approach seems best for one with an intuitive understanding of people.

    NP, I'm happy to help. I'm no expert--yet--but making my way, I hope. I have to get better at explaining these things. My future depends on it (quite literally).

    I'm not exactly sure what you're asking at the end, though. Did you mean, had my original quote been written as...
    Would you omit the exclamation mark in your sentence:
    ?

    If I got that right then, the answer is no. You would include the "!" because it is a part of the quote. So if I said,
    you would write,
    Make sense? :)
     
  25. vonzex
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    vonzex New Member

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    Thanks again, Andrea. That's exactly what I meant, and I agree. It's good to have a second opinion.
     
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