Writing Compelling Characters

Tonight I am taking part in the Great Blogging Experiment about writing compelling characters. At first I wondered what I could possibly add to the discussion — we all know that compelling characters need to be believable and come alive, and have a host of other attributes. But what makes a character believable or come alive? For fun, I pulled books off my shelves and started picking parts of them that include a compelling character.  For each example, I will write a reason why I think these are compelling characters. 
And before I go further, I will say one of the attributes that brings characters to life or makes them believable for me is authenticity. That is, characters need to convey a sense of “self”— they need to know who they are.
In the following passage, I like the simplicity of the language with which the character is being described. I like that the narrator’s identity is emerging along with the character he is describing. And I also like the surprise element —that the narrator is obviously meeting his grandmother for the first time.
A tall woman with wrinkled brown skin and black hair, stood looking down at me; I knew she must be my grandmother. She had been crying, I could see, but when I opened my eyes she smiled, peered at me anxiously, and sat down on the foot of my bed.  ~ Willa Cather, My Ántonia.
One of the reasons I love literature is because I get to learn new things through the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and storytelling.  I most especially love when those new ideas are philosophical in nature, as in the following passage. What a simple, yet elegant way to describe love, in all its forms.  This is my favorite passage in the book. The correlation between love and understanding is such an obvious one that I wonder now why it had never before occurred to me.
And when they would be talking and Granma would say, “Do ye kin me Wales?” and he would answer, “I kin ye,” it meant, “I understand ye.” To them love and understanding was the same thing, Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand… ~ Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree.
Sometimes characters come alive because the writer allows us to “observe” them closely through their reactions to their surroundings and circumstances, as in the following passage. The writer conveys that the character has poise, even in the face of her base circumstances.
She sat perfectly erect, barely moving, holding her head high, chin slightly down, breathing, in small measured breaths because the acrid smell of female urine, intensified by the sun which beat down relentlessly in the open patio of the Recojidas was not one you could ever get accustomed to. ~ Amy Ephron, White Rose
I wish I knew what makes the grandmother so compelling in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Flannery O’Connor’s writing defies being analyzed — at least I’ve never been able to. How does she keep me so riveted?
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window… had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collar and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once she was a lady. ~ Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Another “hook” for me is when I experience the reaction to a character through the protagonist in the story.  Once I have come to identify with the heroine, I cannot help but experience the same feelings toward the character as she does.  The following scene is very vivid, partly because “Rachel” provides sensory details that allow me to experience this scene with her.
Father sits in a chair at the head of the table, and I sit at the end of the bench, the length of the table between us….
I’m afraid. He never raises his voice or hits me; I don’t know what to expect. In his hand he holds the first book of Isaiah. He opens the book and reads, his voice hard, harder than I’ve ever heard it…. ~ Pearl Abraham, The Romance Reader.
There is no better way to get to know a character quickly as through a crisis, right from the start. In this opening scene, I had to read on to find out why?! By the time I was done reading through this scene, I was right there with the protagonist and rooting for her — in this case memoir. By the way, for me memoir lends its own form of authenticity. In my mind, novels have to work harder at getting me to “believe” the story, because I know that someone made it up. If this scene had happened in a novel, I could have relaxed more, knowing that the character did not actually go through the crisis.
Mother spooned the poisoned corn and beans into her mouth, ravenously, eyes closed, hands shaking. We, her seven children, sat around the table watching for signs of death, our eyes leaving her only long enough to glance at the clock to see how far the hands had moved. ~ Barbara Robinette Moss, Change Me into Zeuss’s Daughter.
Another way that characters can be established as “real” or believable is when they are placed in context — in family, in a time frame, or in history.  In the following passage, the rich details of the wagon ride and the character mulling over what it means to go off and do his part in the Civil War, we get to know he is young, studious, and unassuming. And when he hopes that he will travel back up that same road again, so do I hope he will.
Norman Pelham was barely seventeen, but he was well built in his homemade fine-stitched suit of clothes. His silent manner and extra height deflected any question of age. His father drove him in the wagon and neither spoke during the hour trip to the depot in Randolph. The summer dust rose up through the trace chains and settled on the braided bogs of the team’s tails. Norman was a serious youth who doubted that the secession of the near half the stated in the union would be quickly resolved. Still, his death seemed remote and unlikely. He planned to do his part as well as he could, but no hero’s blood pumped through his veins. He had no desire for glory beyond traveling back up that same road one day. ~ Jeffrey Lent, In the Fall.
So, here is a sampling of ways that characters come alive or get me to believe in them. I am sure there are countless ways to hook the reader — as numerous as there are characters.
I look forward to reading what others wrote in this Great Blogging Experiment
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11 thoughts on “Writing Compelling Characters”

  1. Interesting approach — sharing examples of compelling characters and why you found them that way.

    I also find the note about fiction vs. memoir very interesting — but how true, in a novel, the author needs to work doubly hard to make the character compelling because we start off knowing it’s not real.

    Also, I’m very interested in reading your memoir when it’s published — sounds fascinating :)

  2. I agree you must have an authentic connection with the characters. :) (Saloma…I’m really excited about finding your blog. I just put you on my blog roll….I usually read someone for a while before they get promoted from my dashboard to my blog roll. I look forward to reading your blog.)

  3. Thank you all for your comments. Karen, I love when you “visit.”

    Welcome Faith, Sharon, and Tricia. I look forward to checking out your respective blogs/websites.

    Faith, thank you for your comments about my memoir. The publication date is January 11. The whole process is so exciting.

  4. This would be an ideal college paper for a writing class. I love the way you cited examples. I’d say you didn’t have those memorized and you had to do some research. Kudos for blog effort!
    The characters you used here are great examples as real everyday peoples made compelling by the artistry of the author. I’ll read about these types of characters more readily than I will dragonslayers, vampire hunters, or international spies who never fail their missions.
    Look forward to reading some future blog posts.

    Tossing It Out

  5. Lee, thank you for appreciating the time and effort that went into the post. It was probably overkill, but I enjoy doing that kind of research. I had to peruse several of my favorite books (how sad :) to find the right passage, so the post took several hours. Thank you for noticing!

    I enjoyed your post as well.


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