STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: How to Create Intriguing Characters
A common divide among great writers is plot vs. character. Some authors are better at creating vivid, so-real-they’re-human figures, while others are better at taking us through winding, fascinating, perfectly-calculated plots.
Great character writers – John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Stephen King
Great plotters – Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Suzanne Collins
The debate of whether character or plot is more integral in crafting a compelling story has gone on since the beginning of time. That is not what this post is about. This post is about what separates cardboard cut-outs from fascinating personalities. Let us begin with two short examples. See if you can figure out the major difference before I point it out.
* * *
Brad put the seventy-pound dumbbells back on the rack. He sat down, let out a giant groan, then smeared the sweat from his forehead with his towel. He stared eye-to-eye with his own reflection, glaring so intense that any lesser man would have looked away. His stare didn’t waver until she caught his eye.
She was blond, blue eyed, and kept her blond hair in a pony tail. Her outfit was hot pink, as were her lips. She caught him staring, then let out a short chuckle.Brad returned his gaze to his own reflection. He didn’t smile from her laugh – he never smiled. He was there to workout. And if some new beef wanted to flirt, then so be it. For now it was time for another set.
Brad picked the seventy-pounders back up and got back to work.
Angela cut-short her chuckle. She’d caught the rough-and-tough guy staring at her and laughed. Maybe that was a mistake… just another, stupid mistake.
She shook her head, then walked behind him and over to the rack. She picked up the five pound weights and returned to her bench. He didn’t even notice her – didn’t even care. Was it her laugh?
She’d assumed he had been looking at her because she looked pretty good in her new, hot-pink get-up. Maybe he was staring because she looked stupid.
“Shut-up,” she mumbled to herself, then begin her triceps exercises.
Her friends suggested she wear this stupid thing, not her. This wasn’t her. Angela preferred sweat pants and a jacket when she went to the gym. This wasn’t her – God she felt stupid.
Angela quit halfway through her set. She moved to the front of her bench and stared at herself in the mirror. Who was she fooling? She wasn’t the flirty blond girl she felt pressured to be. She was the ice-cream-devouring, wannabe-mom who texted stupid sweet smiles to boys who didn’t even care about her.
Angela shook her head, then rushed over to return her weights. Her head was down when she bumped into somebody – oh great, it was the rough and tough guy who thought she looked stupid.
“Get out of my way,” she said back.
She hurried around him, put back her weights, then stormed out of the gym. Time for some Ben and Jerry’s.
* * *
Spot the difference? If not, that’s okay.
But I bet you found Angela much more intriguing than Brad. You might be willing to follow her around for a while, stick with her as she tries to build-up her self esteem. One major difference between Brad and Angela is that Brad is a cock, whereas Angela is a sweet girl who we’d like to see believe in herself a little more. Depreciating persons are more likable even in real life, and in works of fiction they are easier to empathize with. Keep this is mind when you draw up your protagonist.
Yet still, this is not the major separation between these two characters.Brad is a meat head. Short and simple. What we know of him so far is entirely predictable – I’m sure he works out, hits the bar scene, gets laid, does it again. He’s that dickhead who greets cashiers with a stern expression no matter how brightly they smile at him and ask, “How are you doing today?”
These qualities themselves are by no means boring qualities – in all likelihood, Brad’s life of lifting weights and finding ‘beef’ is probably quite interesting. So why don’t we care to follow him around for a full length novel? Let’s examine Angela, and why we’re intrigued by her, to find our answer.
What did you think of Angela before you got to know her? I’m sure if you’re a girl it was something along the lines of, “Oh, there’s that stupid ditsy blond girl who every guy likes even though she’s a stupid idiot.” Or, if you’re a guy, it was probably something like, “Oh, there’s that dumb girl who’ll play you the second you treat her nice.” Up until her own scene, Angela was cardboard – she appeared to be just as stereotypical as Brad, and we assumed she would think accordingly.
But she didn’t.
Much rather, Angela was uncomfortable wearing her ‘stupid pink outfit’. She didn’t like the way she laughed, she didn’t even like the way she looked. Angela was so convinced she was unattractive that she ran away from Brad before he had a chance to hit on her. Even more intriguing, she doesn’t really care about having a lot of eyes on her.
She wants one boyfriend, she wants to get married, she wants to have kids. But she doesn’t know how to go about doing any of those things, so she took up the suggestion from her friends to make herself more presentable. The funny part is, she is getting more attention from a guy – but her real issue isn’t presentation, it’s her self-esteem, which still hasn’t been resolved (And that’s probably what her inner conflict would be throughout a novel in which she is the protagonist).
One more spin before I tell you exactly what the major difference is between these two, if you haven’t figured it out already -Imagine Angela never wore that hot-pink outfit. Imagine she showed up in a pair of dirty sweatpants and a jacket. Imagine she sat down without ever smiling at Brad, and from Brad’s perspective she seemed depressed. The more we got to know her, the more we came to realize that this girl is the same self-loathing person we anticipated she’d be.
She wouldn’t have been as captivating, would she have been?
The number one way to create compelling characters is this – Give them contradictions. Show us elements of their personality that surprise us. Have them take actions that are out of the ordinary, that even you, their writer, didn’t expect them to take. Strange personality quirks create dynamic characters, and unexpected courses of action create memorable experiences.
Adding this depth to your protagonist will leave your readers with an intense desire to better understand them. Always remember, questions compel us to seek answers.
If you can get your readers to ask questions about your story on their own terms (such as, why doesn’t Angela believe in herself, and will she land the man of her dreams?), than you are going to give them a reason keep reading.
Hope this helps!
– Thomas M. Watt
– Script Analyst for Specscout.com
– Author of A New Kingdom