“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” Ernest Hemingway
What makes a Compelling Character in Fiction?
The more time we spend with people, the more we come to know them. The same can be said about characters in fiction. To keep readers engaged, we need characters we want to follow, invest time in and care about. In other words, we need a compelling character.
Is the swashbuckling swindler touting one-liners a compelling character? Or the princess whose beauty is legendary throughout the land? No, these are stock characters—cardboard cutouts that are so overdone they’ve gone past the point of being cliché. In literature, we call these flat characters. Some one-dimensional characters may be memorable, such as Doctor Watson, Princess Peach, or most characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. But being memorable is not the same as being compelling.
Compelling characters resemble real people: those with flaws, growth, contradictions and failures. This goes for both protagonists and antagonists. Real people are not perfect; the failures we go through in life provide us with growth, and it is often our flaws that lead to our failures. As a writer, you need to develop your characters to have all these dimensions so they aren’t flat. To do this, you need to answer certain questions.
John: The Magistrate
What does John like? What does John dislike? Is it pirates? Did pirates kill his parents? What happens when he’s wrongfully imprisoned and is forced to work with a pirate to escape? How does he grow? Does his perception of pirates change? Are they made worse or better? Does he fail to trust, leading to a botched escape? Or is it his newfound trust that leads him to a life of corruption in his field of law? Questions like these will help you create a three-dimensional character.
After we flesh out our character, we need to give them a goal. What do they want? Is there opposition? Is it another character? Is it the environment? Something needs to stand in the way of said goal, and it needs to be one part their own flaws and one part plot or character. This is important in keeping within the category of a character-driven narrative.
Let’s return to John the Magistrate: John’s goal is to escape prison and take revenge on those who put him there. The opposition is the jail itself. So, in this scenario, we have a character vs. environment narrative. John’s internal shift occurs while he is trying to escape, and in the end, he achieves his goal and escapes while also discovering a newfound trust for pirates despite being a man of the law. This contradictory element is what makes John not only interesting but believable. And through the lens of this escape—achieving his goal—we witness John’s character arc.
The character arc is the internal journey your character takes to meet their goal. Think of it as the thing the readers cheer for, such as Frodo’s desire to take the ring to Mordor or Rocky Balboa’s drive to be the champion. When you combine a flaw with a failure and growth, you get a character arc. These are essential in character-driven narratives. The arc is the journey that moves your character from one state of being to another—the internal journey.
There’s no singular method to create compelling characters, but there are some key principles: a three-dimensional character with a character arc and a goal. Without these three elements, we run the risk of developing flat characters.