Compel The Audience To Love Your Characters
Tips for creating compelling characters.
Let’s get something out the way, first
I held off this topic for a very long time because frankly, it is the hardest thing to write about.
Not because creating characters is hard, but because the majority of people who click on these kind of articles are usually looking for holes to punch in theories; rather than help for crafting an important part of their story.
I am no different. The minute someone opens their figurative mouth about how to tell a story, I immediately jump in peer review mode instead of student mode.
That said, I welcome you to poke holes in what I am about to say, or piggy back on it, or whatever you choose to do.
I don’t think I have the secret elixir or the theory that will revolutionize writing as we know it.
What I do think is that when it comes to writing, or creating art in general, you have to find what works for you. So in that light, all I’m hoping is to get you to think about crafting characters in a different way.
If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t…well I’m sure you’ll go on living.
Deify and Demonize
Humans are predisposed to idol worship and symbolism. As such, those whom have our attention are either consciously or subconsciously deified or demonized in our minds. So it follows that the people or things we pay attention to must be worthy of that attention; They must be capable of extraordinary feats, and or possess rare attributes. When you place a character in the story you are telling your audience to pay attention to them, and your audience will always mentally respond “why should I?”. You can apply a negative or positive modifier to this idea, but it’s arbitrary for our purposes.
What’s important to note is that who we devote attention to is constantly being compared to what we are capable of and what society views as favorable.
As such, the key to compelling characters comes down to answering two questions:
- What is this character capable of that no one else is?
- Why does society view this character as they do?
Before I talk about how to answer those questions, I think it’s prudent to exemplify what I’m saying; as I’m sure many readers are already poking holes in this theory.
Faster than a speeding bullet.
People will almost always tell you that the most compelling characters are the deepest ones. I’m here to tell you, that’s a crock of shit.
What exactly is a deep character anyhow?
Perhaps what makes a character deep is a long backstory that takes place before the story begins. Or maybe depth is defined by internal conflict that haunts the character all throughout their journey. Then again, maybe characters with several “layers” are what’s considered to be deep.
All possibly true, but none of that has jack shit to do with making a character compelling.
Don’t believe me?
Ask your writer friend (we all have at least one) about their deepest character. Listen to them as they regale you with hours of back story they thought up; of every facet of the character’s internal conflict; or how their character puts on a different face depending on whom they’re around.
If you were able to stay awake and interested during the 2hrs minimum it took them to explain all that to you, I can almost guarantee you aren’t any more compelled to read, watch, or listen to anything to do with their character.
Yet, Superman, one of the most one dimensional characters of all time, is also arguably the most compelling. While I’m sure some would love to debate the flatness of the last son of Krypton, I only bring him up to discuss exactly why he is compelling.
In the 50’s, Superman’s serial had an introduction that has served as the bedrock for what makes him so damn interesting:
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”
“Yes, it’s Superman — strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman — defender of law and order. champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”
Here, we get the answers to the questions I outlined above. Superman, is capable of feats “beyond those of mortal men” and yet he is viewed by society as a “mild-mannered reporter” because he hides his identity. We can see the two ideas of deification at work. Superman has extraordinary abilities and yet he has the rare attribute of being more humble than he is powerful; a direct correlation the characterization of Jesus Christ.
In the sixty-plus years since that familiar refrain was played over radio air waves, writers have used the properties of our idolization of Superman to tell stories that challenge these ideas. Is Superman fast enough? Is Superman Strong enough? Is Superman virtuous enough.
The answers to those questions don’t really matter so much as audiences are always compelled to find out what they are.
While it’s true over the years writers have carved more depth into, Superman, what has compelled audiences to care about the character has much to do with the answers to the two questions I provided:
What is this character capable of that no one else is?
Why does society view this character as they do?
Answers in the form of a question
So if it all boils down to two questions why do so many get it wrong?
Well, because most people connote the questions incorrectly.
Let’s start with the first question, in regards to capability. It’s easy to say “my character can throw fireballs in a world where no one else can.” But that doesn’t adequately address the issue of “feats no one is capable of”.
Sticking with Superman, (because if you can make your flattest character compelling so should you be able to make your deepest) this character can not only do what no one else can, he can do what a lot of people wish they could. The power of flight, super strength, being impervious to man’s deadliest inventions, these are all things the average person would want for themselves in some way, shape or form.
You can think about it as wish fulfillment, but I think it serves best to think about the innate human fears that are tied to these abilities. No need to fear heights if you can fly. No need to fear bullies if you have super strength. No need to fear nuclear war if you are invincible.
When you view things in this light, the realm of capability becomes broad. You no longer have to think of characters in terms of super human feats but rather people who act on common fears or are impervious to them.
For example, a single mother who raises good children in abject poverty, Or jilted lovers who find a way to trust despite being hurt so badly in the past.
“Extraordinary feats” are simply things we wish we could do if not for the practical fears that keep up us back.
The second question is a bit trickier. When thinking of how the society in a story views a character a lot of writers sometimes fail to make the connection to the real world we all live in.
Most people have an idea of what the average person should be. Not too pretty, not too ugly. Not too mean, not too nice. This idea is shaped by people we know personally, interpersonally and impersonally i.e. your best friend, acquaintances and famous people. Through observation and experience we craft an idea of what is “normal”. This idea is reinforced by society, culture and sub-culture. So when anyone acts outside of what is perceived to be normal, not only do they bring attention to themselves (remember, humans deify or demonize whom they pay attention to) but they also compel an response from society.
Just think of the kids in school who stuck out the most; whether it was through outfits and hair cuts, or physical and or mental acuity. Think of how they were treated, both positvely and or negatively for doing so. On both macro and micro levels, generally speaking, humans have a hard time ignoring people who separate themselves from the pack.
In your story, “society” is a representation of this phenomena. The people around your characters as well as among themselves, respond to actions and demeanor based on what is deemed to be normal.
Maybe your story takes place in a dystopian world where all hope is lost. A compelling character in this kind of society may be one that never gives up hope despite how hopeless the world has become. In response to this “rare attribute” society has either a negative or positive response.
Furthermore, characters can serve to reinforce societal conventions. These characters aren’t necessarily compelling, but they serve as a backdrop for others to stand out from.
So, In order to answer the questions, What is this character capable of that no one else is? and Why does society view this character as they do? you have to think about fear and social conventions.
You craft the answers to the questions by thinking about the things we all wish we could do but can’t, due to fear; and by thinking of how a character stands in contradiction to their society as an observation of our own.
It’s not necessary or always possible to do both but it is imperative that you answer at least one of these questions if you wish your character to be compelling.
Putting It All Together
Indifference is death.
The biggest mistake a writer can make is thinking of their characters and their story as independent. I’ve spoken to so many people that have ideas about a character but haven’t given much thought to the story. Let me make it clear:
No character can exist without a story. No story can exist without characters.
Both story and character must grow together. The things that make characters compelling are found in the makeup of the story, the very point of it all. Conversely, characters make stories enjoyable from beginning to end, they are our avatars in imaginary worlds that we can only visit through the suspension of disbelief.
The most uninteresting characters are the ones that have been transposed into a story or had a story built around them. These characters, no matter how deep, no matter how layered, no matter how internal their conflict is, will always illicit indifference from audiences rather than the kinds bonds that endure beyond the final page. The last thing you want as a writer is for audiences to feel indifferent to your characters.
Audiences are always asking themselves why they should care about your characters, because humans need constant justification for whom and what they pay attention to.
By defining your characters by what they are capable of that no one else is and or exemplifying why society views them differently from everyone else, you supply audiences with the reasons they need to validate their time spent.
But these reasons must be relatable, they must be vested in social conventions and aspirations.
Most importantly these reasons have to be tied to what you, the writer, truly believe. Characters must be approached as your strongest arguments to support all the things you are for or against.
Everything else is just decorations on a cake.
You can bake the most gorgeous cake in the world but if it tastes like crap that’s all it will ever be.
Pretty looking crap.