Literary Liaisons

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Compelling Characters

New family values or just good characters

If you want your characters to have more depth than a Kardashian then you need to create compelling characters with pasts, wounds, longings, and an inner life that can be expressed in short and succinct narrative that is compelling to the reader. I think the most interesting characters in books I’ve read have had universal longings, wounds that are relatable, and real obstacles that once overcome, offer resolution and often lessons applicable to my own life.

If you want to look at today’s popular ‘reality’ tv shows – I’m not sure who’s reality – then compare the inane Kardashian clan to that of the narcissistic – fighting, botoxed, bejeweled Housewives, and then look at the Gene Simmons Show. Yep, I said Gene Simmons (KISS) the self professed king of narcissism and sin. BUT in his show the character arcs and obstacles are very present, often fun, often painful and emotional. In the Simmons ‘reality’ show there’s actually some reality, some deep poignant reality.  All four of the family members have grown (character arc) as a result of the show. They’ve all changed; Gene the most. What works for me about the Simmons show is that there actually is some truth. Gene may not be the most likable, admirable guy on tv, but he’s been truthful about who he is and what he needed to overcome.
The show has danced between the fantasy life they lead and the fires of hell that Gene arrogantly invited into their world. This is the story of a man who dared dance with the devil and then woke up just in the nick of time, before he lost it all, he realized only he could save himself (well, with a good woman, of course).  Now that’s a story! This story has wounded souls, hard inner-work, self discovery, healing and the re-awakening of a childish self-serving rock star given a second chance to be a grown up man, a husband and a father. Gene Simmons is a lot of things, some good, some not so much. But one thing’s for sure – he is an interesting character.
Creating characters can be fun, complex, overwhelming and is one of the most important things we as writers can do to create a compelling story world. Remember, an interesting place is only that, it’s not a story without characters.
Some people write every detail of their characters down in excruciating detail. I don’t. I have a one page synopsis on my characters, except my main protagonist. For him I have written a great deal. Little of that great deal will actually appear in the story. But I have to know it all, to know him. 
So whatever method you choose to get to know and then document your characters stories, do it. Go deep in creating them even if you never use the material in your current story. You may discover others. I did. I have a minor character whose story may be another book. But all that info about her that’s so fascinating to me doesn’t belong in my current story. It’s very important to learn that; If it doesn’t track with your theme, save it for another.

Take a walk as your character. What does he/she notice on that walk that you would not? What do they wear? Where would they shop? What would they order in a restaurant? I did this for a character that I needed to develop a deeper understanding of, and in the course I learned to love Chinese food, Chinatown, and how to shop for herbs and teas in hole in the wall Chinese markets. What a gift this character has given me. How can you get to know your characters? Go deep. I’d much rather have a conversation with, watch on tv or read about a flawed character like Gene Simmons than the picture perfect(ed) Kardashians any day. How do your characters rate on a scale of depth and interesting qualities? See this Writer’s Digest article on crafting compelling characters.

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One comment on “Compelling Characters

  1. Stephen Hayes
    November 3, 2011

    You've got me rethinking the main character in my novel.

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This entry was posted on November 3, 2011 by in Compelling Characters.
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