The Secret to Writing Compelling Characters
We’ve all read that book. You know, the one you stay up way passed your bedtime reading. One of my favorite books that keep me up at night is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It’s filled with wit and emotion, making Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy the perfect main characters to hold a story that’s (according to a popular one-star review on Amazon) a book about “a bunch of people going to each other’s houses.”
Why has this book stood the test of time? What keeps the reader turning the pages, even when nothing happens?
Not every book has to have an exciting, thrill-a-minute plot to be compelling. Characters can thrill your readers just as much as any old plot. When a reader connects with your character on an emotional and personal level, it doesn’t matter what they are doing. So, how do you craft a compelling character?
What Is Your Character’s Misbelief?
Your character should have a world view that drives their decisions, often leading them to make the wrong choice. Your character can only overcome their obstacle by changing this view of the world.
This misbelief is usually rooted in something in your character’s past that has led them to this, be it a traumatic event in their past, or they’ve seen someone else go through something and thought “that will never be me.” Whatever this even may be, it has caused them to fundamentally shift their way of thinking about life.
Take Elizabeth, for example: Elizabeth Bennet has a prejudice against Mr. Darcy in that she believes money makes people “arrogant.” This drives her to only see the bad in him while completely ignoring the good (Golden May).
What Does Your Character Want?
A character without a motivation is just a character doing random things, which is not a compelling story. Your character should be driven by a desire for something or a need. This, coupled with their misbelief about life, is what should drive your character to do what they do.
Let’s look at Elizabeth again. What does she want? To marry for love. But her misbelief about money corrupting people prevents her from seeing what a perfect match she and Mr. Darcy would be. It’s not until she overcomes her prejudice that she is able to finally admit to herself that she is, in fact, in love with Mr. Darcy and marrying him would give her exactly what she wants.
What’s At Stake?
A want is still not enough to carry your story forward. There has to be a reason your character wants THAT particular thing. What's at stake for your character if he/she/they don’t get what they want? This is your why.
Elizabeth wants to marry for love (her want) and not for riches or status because money makes people arrogant and selfish (her misbelief). If she can’t marry for love, she might have to settle for an unhappy marriage and in turn, an unhappy life (her stakes or why).
So, you can throw out that basic character sheet. Stop asking your character what their favorite color is or favorite flavor of ice cream or what shoes they wear. Get to the heart of who they are with what they want, why, what their misbelief is about the world and what drove them to that conclusion. If you have these in place, your readers are sure to be emotionally compelled by your character and keep reading until the last page.