Writing Compelling Characters

Note: the following post is in honour of Elana Johnson’s Great Blogging Experiment

How do you write compelling characters when you’re a complete newbie? My answer: study characters from other works. I am going to use examples from two of my favourite series, Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl.

The best characters are the ones who show the following traits: 

They are not afraid to take risks

Towards the end of Order of the Phoenix, Harry takes one foolhardy decision after another to do whatever it takes to rescue Sirius. Every step is fraught with uncertainty and risks, but he plunges in anyway. This is part of the axiom that says a character should not be passive but a person who takes hold of things and makes decisions and acts on them.

They have a higher IQ or EQ than the average person

I absolutely love the bit in the Half-Blood Prince where Harry realizes that Draco has replaced his father as a Death-Eater. This is not completely an intelligence thing, but also instinct and intuition and educated guessing. That was a brilliant piece of deduction on his part, and his conviction was amazing given that the every-brainy Hermione pooh-poohed his theory. 

They can summon up the sympathy quotient

Harry misses his parents. He’s not moping about them all the time, but he clearly wishes they stuck around to help him face Lord Voldemort. Similarly for Artemis. In the first scene of the first book, he’s all tough as he sets out to acquire The Book, but later when he reaches home we see how his heart sinks when he meets his mother, who believes his father is alive despite reports that he has died. 

They have a flaw

Or maybe multiple flaws, actually. Artemis is the perfect example of this, as he is an anti-hero rather than the traditional heroic hero. His intelligence far exceeds that of the average 12-year-old, but so does his greed. 

How do we conjure up such fantastic characters in our imagination?

Once you come up with even a basic character, to bring them to life, you can:

  • Brew a cup of the steaming and sit down to interview your character about their life and views. Just keeping throwing questions out and writing down what the voice in your head says.
  • Fill out bios for them.  Here’s one, and one for sci-fi.
  • Ask random questions of your characters. Hear what they have to say. Check out this list of 365 questions to ask your characters.

That’s all I have. What other tips can you think of for creating compelling characters?


39 thoughts on “Writing Compelling Characters

  1. Good points. Sympathy or empathy is always are great way to get us onside of the character. Flaws make them more believable. I’ll have to check out the 365 questions, I haven’t formally interviewed my characters, usually the questions are in my head. 😉

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    1. Thanks, Talei. The 365 questions checklist is handy for when you forget a lot of the main things that make a character well-rounded. When I think of a character and her story, I almost always want to dive in and start writing, but having this sheet provides me a good starting point to build things up.

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  2. Oh, I like the example of Artemis Fowl. He is smart, likeable, etc, but he is greedy. And it leads to a lot of problems. And we shake our heads and wonder why he does that, but it’s so HIM. Great post!

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  3. I really love how you compared a lot of these aspects/rules to harry potter ( I am a crazy in love fan!). Also, Artemis has now sparked my interest. I haven’t read any of the Artemis Fowl but because of this, I’m definitely going to.

    So thanks for introducing me to another series….though I’m not quite sure how I missed this one.

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    1. I’m crazy about Harry too! I’m not entirely sure but I think Artemis Fowl is more popular in the UK and Europe than in the US. I highly recommend the series, though. They’re maddeningly funny, full of technology and really fast-paced.

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    1. Yes, its very important for the protagonist to gain the sympathy of the reader. If not, it would be very tough for the reader to support them through till the end.

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  4. Just love this post, Gargi. Not afraid to take risks is my personal favourite. And also characters who can summon sympathy from the readers.

    I heard about the Great Blogging Experiment too late. So I could not participate. But I am enjoying reading everyone’s posts.

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    1. Hey Rachna, I too wish you had participated. You have such useful writing posts almost every day I’m sure you would have contributed some valuable tips.

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    1. Thank you for hosting the blogfest! This was my first experience of its kind, and I’m so happy to have participated and got a good response.

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    1. Do try out Artemis Fowl some time. I think you will enjoy it. It’s a lot more technology-filled than HP, and Artemis is anything but angelic!

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  5. Very thorough and well thought out post. Thanks for sharing, Gargi. May I add one more item to your comprehensive checklist? a character in fiction also needs his/her quirks, peculairities of character and behaviour which make him acceptably human and flesh him out further as an individual.

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    1. Thanks, Monideepa! You’re absolutely right. Quirks are very important for fictitious characters, even if we don’t have too many of them ourselves (or so we think!)

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