Creating Compelling Characters, Part 1

story planning writing craft

Post written by Andrew Wall. To read more, visit Part 2.

The Importance of Complex Characters

Character creation is something more than a few authors struggle with, especially when it comes to creating a compelling protagonist. I cannot tell you the number of times I have read a book where I just couldn’t understand what the main character’s motivations were or couldn’t connect with them emotionally because there was never a presentation of them as anything other than a two-dimensional servant of the plot. As a reader, this is extremely dissatisfying and makes me want to throw books across the room.

Gauging the level of depth a character needs can be difficult and the temptation many writers have is to run with a character they intuitively know but haven’t fleshed out yet. The problem with this approach is that as writers we don’t really know who our characters are because we haven’t taken the time to truly get to know them. This: 

  • sets us up for the potential trap of having our protagonists do something that doesn’t make sense for them to do in order to move our plot forward; 
  • strips us of our ability to give a window into their inner life, rendering them flat and inaccessible to our readers; or
  • sets us up for the story “running away with us,” which means that suddenly the story veers away from any outline or plan we had made for it. This generally means we didn’t know our characters well enough before creating our outline.

When it comes right down to it, characters need to be complex. In many ways they are required to be as complicated as “real people.” So how do we create characters who are complex enough to take on a life of their own? I’m glad you asked! In this two-part blog post I will introduce my philosophy of character creation, introduce the three major components of character creation, and detail the “how-to” of fleshing out a protagonist’s external and internal worlds.

My Philosophy of Character Creation

As I mentioned above, complexity is one of the primary things that helps characters feel “real” to our readers. When it comes to character creation, we need to treat our characters as people we are in the process of getting to know. This is why my philosophy of character creation is that instead of arbitrarily deciding random facts about characters, we should adopt an attitude of curiosity and empathy about them.

Getting to Know Your Characters vs. Prescribing Them

Okay, I know that “getting to know your characters” might sound a little strange at first, but hear me out! If we spend all of our time in character creation just filling out a profile form for them with things that sound good or cool at the time, we aren’t really creating a compelling character; instead, we are creating a bare bones Facebook profile for our characters. As most of us know, while you can learn some things about people by doing a cursory glance at their Facebook page, most of the time it is just a jumble of facts instead of a meaningful or compelling sense of who they are. 

What are we missing when we look at someone’s Facebook profile? Most of the time we are missing:

  • context for their comments
  • why they feel the way they do or the motivations for them to say what they say
  • the stories that have woven together to make them who they are
  • how they have internalized or rejected those stories

It might seem strange to think about our protagonists as people outside of our control to a certain extent, but if we don’t treat them like people they won’t manifest that way. We need to seek their confidence, be curious about who they are and what they haven’t told us, and learn about them from...well...them. If we can’t truly empathize with them, see their world from their perspective, how can we expect our readers to? We can ask our characters questions, like “Why do you hate chocolate?” and then be gifted a scene from their childhood where they gorged themselves on chocolate to the point of being sick. Or maybe we are given a flashback of them eating a chocolate bar when they received horrific news… and they haven’t been able to eat chocolate since.

The point is, we need to take the time to dig deep and really get to know the complex layers of our characters. We might be able to list facts off about them, but until we can answer the why of those facts, we really don’t know them do we?

Three Major Components

While our books are ours as the authors, the stories in them are supposed to be our protagonists’ stories, since it is through their eyes that our readers experience the story world, get swept up in the flow of the plot, and stumble upon the driving point of the story. Protagonists who are not complex just can’t carry stories in a compelling way.

In order to pull off writing complex characters, writers need to pay attention to what I call the three major components of character creation: 

  1. The protagonist’s external world (their environment, what they have learned, and their relationships)
  2. Their internal world (how they have internalized their interactions with their external world)
  3. Their character arc (how they change over the course of the story) 

In this post I will only focus on the external and internal worlds of the protagonist. Character arcs will be addressed in a future post, so stay tuned! 

My Assumptions

Before we move forward, I want to make it clear that I will be operating under a couple of assumptions:

  1. That you have constructed a fully-functional world already (all people and characters are products of their environments to some extent)
  2. That you have a general story idea in mind and, therefore, a basic protagonist idea (without a story, there isn’t a protagonist and vice-versa)

If neither of these things are true, you will still benefit from the content of this article, but you should also check out my world-building consultation services.

External World: Understanding Your Protagonist’s Environment

All right, let’s get right down to it. A protagonist’s external world is their context, including, but not limited to: 

  • their life experiences
  • the culture(s) in which they grew up
  • the location(s) where they have spent significant time

All of these external forces and factors have a determinative effect upon a protagonist. 

Now, we could spend time trying to break down the “nature vs. nurture” debate, but from a psychological standpoint I think it is pretty clear that our environments have a significant impact on our development. It is this reality that we are going to bring into our character creation process.

If we wanted to, we could really get into the weeds here in terms of the sheer amount of detail we could flesh out for each of our characters. We really can spend a ton of time thoroughly thinking through every element in our world that influences our characters and their personalities. However, I’ve narrowed our focus down to the following three categories: 

  1. a protagonist’s relationship to power,
  2. the formative stories they have been exposed to, and 
  3. the formative relationships in their life. 

I consider these three categories to be the most formative in terms of character development, but there are, of course, many more dynamics that could be seriously considered in a character’s formation.

Their Relationship to Power

To start, let’s talk about a protagonist’s relationship to power. By “power” I don’t necessarily mean magic or strength. Power is a large category representative of many different things—influence, ability, and wealth, to name a few. I tend to think of power as representing several different sliding scales between various extremes. 

Power as Influence

We could talk about influence in terms of whether a protagonist is part of a very influential group or an outsider or anything in-between. Ultimately the question of influence has to do with the question of hierarchy. For example, our protagonist could be a human in a realm where humans wield the most authority and influence over the events of the world. Or, instead, maybe he is a member of a class that has absolutely no influence because they are utilized as slaves by a group higher up the hierarchy. So where in the assumed hierarchy of your world does your protagonist fall?

Depending on how a writer chooses to answer this question, a protagonist may have certain formative experiences that someone elsewhere in the hierarchy wouldn’t. It’s important to think about what those formative experiences might have been and what skills they may have given the character you are developing. You will also want to consider other things about them as well, such as the level of trauma they have experienced, how much they trust others, and what their aspirations are. 

Power as Ability

The same sort of process is true when considering the scale of power related to ability. Is the protagonist a natural talent? Are they nothing special? Or are they considered “handicapped” in some way by their society? 

Abilities can be: 

  1. physical ability, 
  2. intellectual aptitude, or
  3. magical or technological ability. 

Is the protagonist a luddite in a super technological world? This will have immense ramifications for their personality and how they perceive the world. Are they someone of exceptional magical ability in a world that reveres those who can use magic because of its rarity and looks to them for guidance? Are they just a plain ol’ average citizen with nothing particularly special about them? 

How you choose to define your character’s power in relation to their abilities affects how confident or not they are, how stubborn they could be, or how absolutely clueless they are.

Power as Wealth

Wealth might be the easiest aspect to talk about because of the opportunities—in terms of education and resources—a character possessing wealth can have access to as opposed to the opportunities a character without any or much wealth does. 

While this may be an easy decision for you, it will necessitate a very careful determination of how your protagonist’s relationship to wealth has affected them. You might consider questions like:

  • Are they spoiled? 
  • What do they take for granted? 
  • What do they consider “the good life"? 
  • What are their ambitions? 
  • What do they believe themselves deserving of? 
  • What are their daily habits?

A character’s relationship to power and the dynamics of power as manifested in various ways leaves an unmistakable imprint on our characters. If it doesn’t, we have missed one of the most fundamental aspects of character creation and our characters will lose a large amount of believability and internal consistency. 

The Stories that Influence Them

The formative stories a protagonist has been exposed to also make a huge impact on them. What do I mean by “formative story”? A formative story is a story told by the dominant (i.e., most powerful) aspects of society to explain why things are the way they are. 

Formative stories can be: 

  • propaganda from a ruling class, 
  • religious myths, or 
  • official recorded history (which is written down by the winners, after all). 

These stories shape a character’s assumptions about what is true, about why things are the way they are, and about their place within the world. 

Stories are powerful things. Author Scott Turow said, “Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?” 

A narrative example about this would be a protagonist who believes that the structure of the society in which they live is god-given and most beneficial for people. This structure is engendered by the historical and religious stories of the culture, shaping how the character interacts with various members of the society. They might avoid certain parts of town because of a people group that lives there or have particular daily rituals and rhythms because “that’s just what civilized people do.” You might be picking up on how ripe these stories are for subversion and how critical they are to an unfolding character arc. Keep that in mind!

Their Relationships with Others

Knowing a protagonist’s relationship to power and the formative stories in their lives helps determine a lot of what their general relationships look like for most of their life. That being said, there are particular relationships that are especially influential in a person’s life: 

  1. their families, 
  2. their close friends, and
  3. any mentor figures or folks they idolize. 

These relationships shape how individuals think, how they act, and how they respond to the various pressures of life. 

Relationships with family can shape anything from what a particular character finds attractive to what sorts of interpersonal situations give them anxiety. These are those deep subconscious tendencies manifested in a character. If your protagonist has had a relationship of rejection with their mother, when they witness an intimate moment between a mother and child they might tear up a bit (because they want that type of closeness) or possibly turn away in disgust (because they want to protect themselves from the pain they carry related to their own maternal relationship).

Relationships with friends represent what a protagonist considers normal. Typically, even if we find our friends a bit strange at times, we choose people we share a lot in common with to be our friends. We seek out affirmation and likeness in those we surround ourselves with as an instinct. If a protagonist is a part of a thieves’ guild but considers their best friend to be the town's apprentice florist, they may imagine that they have more in common with the florist than with their guild members. (And it’s your job to know why!)

As for mentors and idols, these relationships (whether close or from afar) can represent either what a protagonist aspires to become or, at the very least, what fate is pushing them to become if nothing in their lives is interrupted.

Relationships contain a lot of symbolic weight within them that is crucial to unpack for the process of character creation. 

Consider Other External Forces

There are, of course, other categories and lenses that can be used for this exercise other than the three listed above. Here are a couple of possibilities:

  • If tribe or clan is an important part of your character’s life, the values and actions of the clan and against the clan should be weighed. The same is true with any other form of hierarchical organization in your world. 
  • If there is a non-dominant religious sect that your character is a part of, their stories will form the protagonist against the norms of larger culture instead of reinforcing them, possibly causing conflict within the character or between the character and their larger context. 

We could probably keep listing out various permutations, but I think you are getting the idea. On to the internal world in part 2!

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