Writing Compelling Characters

   Posted by: Faith   in Rye Thoughts

Today’s post is brought to you as part of Elana Johnson’s ‘The Great Blogging Experiment’ – over 150 people are participating by talking about compelling characters on their blogs, the idea being that each post will be unique, just like the person who wrote it. So, here we go!

(And don’t worry – I’ll continue with my self-editing tips series next week!)

What Makes a Compelling Character?

As simple as I can put it, this is what makes a compelling character for me:

  • Flaws

And there you have it.

Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but here’s what it boils down to when I think about compelling characters, particularly the main characters of books I’ve recently enjoyed – they’re human, through and through (even if they’re not technically a member of the human species… er… you know?).

If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you know that in many of my book reviews, I bring up the issue of flawed vs. perfect main characters. And sometimes I get really irked.

In a certain series by a certain author (which I read earlier this year; you can find the reviews around here somewhere, but I’d rather not name names as what I’m saying isn’t all that flattering), I had difficulty relating to the main character (ie. I hated her) because she was so disgustingly perfect. We’re talking unnaturally sweet & innocent (though I’m sure she’d make a nice friend) to the point where, if I was friends with her, I knew she’d be a doormat in seconds.

It’s not exactly a good thing when a main character is so perfect that you find yourself wanting to bully her just to see how she’d react. There was nothing real about her.

Let’s look at another (good) example:

Alexia Tarabotti from the Parasol Protectorate Series by Gail Carriger (and if you haven’t read this series… do it!!! Also, I hope to post a little overview / review of the series tomorrow, come back if you’re interested!) is an example of perhaps one of the most compelling characters I’ve come across lately.

What are some of Alexia’s most compelling features?

  • she has no soul (ah… we start out with what might be considered a rather LARGE flaw)
  • she’s extremely stubborn
  • she has no imagination
  • she has a slight penchant for violence
  • she doesn’t exactly conform to the social mores of the time

And these are characteristics we learn from the back of the book and the first several pages. Sounds interesting, right?

My friends, creating compelling characters is only as difficult as the humanity we’re willing to give them. If the reader can’t relate to your main character, she’s going to put down the book in frustration and walk away. No one wants to read about the perfect person who never has any problems and for whom life’s a shiny double rainbow.

But as you create, don’t just throw in things like “she has bad acne” or “he’s reclusive” for no reason. Flaws need meaning and logic behind them.

Consider the world around you: People don’t have issues just for the sake of having issues (okay, maybe some people do, but hopefully they’re the exceptions).

Things like:

  • Upbringing
  • Birth Order
  • Past Relationships
  • Self-Image (usually tied in with the above)
  • Past Experiences
  • Environment
  • Belief System

…shape all of us. Use these, mine these, and find those areas that make you go “hmm” and which present clear areas in which to find those issues, flaws, and little character quirks that make each of us – every single human – different and unique. Real. Imperfect. Flawed. Fascinating.

How do you create compelling characters?

Make them real. And then use those flaws in a way that propels the story forward, because each person will react to others and situations in accordance with who they are as a unique individual.

That’s how.


This entry was posted on Friday, September 24th, 2010 at 12:50 pm and is filed under Rye Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

43 comments so far


wonderful post! Gotta have those flaws…perfect is BORING :) And I hadn’t heard of that series – definitely going in my TBR pile! :)

September 24th, 2010 at 1:30 pm

The double rainbow guy is as flawed as they come. I like the list of reasons for flaws.

September 24th, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Solid Advice… great post!

September 24th, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Michelle: Thanks! And the series is *definitely* worth it… it’s kinda steampunk-lite, and the whole cast of characters is just fantastic.

Chris: Yes, you’re right… he’s definitely flawed (ie. high), LOL. But the ridiculous puppies and rainbows view of the world is (hopefully) the point… haha. Thanks for visiting!

Jeremy: Thank you!

September 24th, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Most definitely flaws. It makes us feel a little bit closer to the character if they’re ‘real’ and flawlessness…well leave that to the cover pages of fashion mags.

September 24th, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I love your breakdown of how to create compelling characters. It’s true you need a biography for them in your mind. You don’t have to write it all out but it’s there!

Great job!!

September 24th, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Well, I’m here because of the blogfest…but you had me at “Literary Coldcuts on Toasty Buns”!
(of course after Lady Gaga’s meat dress…it gives new meaning. If you ever have to accept a big literary award, I hope you consider a meat dress…or not.)
Yes, Flaws, quirks, unique ways of looking at life, voice…all important to a relatable main character we want to spend time with.

Well done.
I’m your newest follower.

Have a great weekend,

September 24th, 2010 at 3:00 pm

This is a really great post! We all have flaws, so our characters should too. And, I flaunt my flaws…like my lack of bowling talent, so why wouldn’t a character?

September 24th, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Talei: Exactly! Who wants to read about perfect people? We just start to feel false guilt about ourselves, and that’s not healthy.

Hannah: Thanks! Every aspect of our lives shapes our actions & personalities, and so should it be for our characters — and you’re right, it doesn’t need to all be on the page, but if we have it solid in our minds, the character will be consistent in the story!

Lola: Oh thank you! And thanks for visiting! Some stories are just so good you want to eat them… plus, a steady dose of literary coldcuts is good for the fiber intake. Ahem.

September 24th, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Jennee: Ooh, that’s a good point — sometimes we use flaws to our *advantage* (like… getting sympathy during a bowling game?), so not including flaws is like eliminating potential *positive* plot points aside from the conflict they could cause. That’s a great way to look at it!

September 24th, 2010 at 3:52 pm

You’re forgetting Alexa’s biggest flaw, she’s half-Italian! ;) Can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

Great post!


September 24th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Tere: Good point! Haha… I can’t believe I didn’t remember that, I think that’s right on the back cover copy, too. Thanks for visiting!

September 24th, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Hi, I enjoyed your examples. Soulless sounds great. I’m part of the experiment too and have befriended you though you don’t have face book.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

September 24th, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I love the Parasol Protectorate Series, especially when you combine Alexia and her own very flawed (but funny) husband.

I’m new to your blog (I found you through the blogging experiment) and love the layout!

September 24th, 2010 at 4:26 pm

N.R.: Hi! Thanks for stopping by! Soulless is fantastic, as well as the following 2 books in the series. There are 2 more planned, which I’m very excited about. On another note, thanks for friending me! I do have Facebook and Twitter, but I haven’t yet integrated them into the blog (oops… I’m a bit techno-handicapped in that way, gotta get the hubby one that)!

Sandra: Oh, aren’t all the characters just great?! Miss Hisselpenny makes me giggle, and I’m finding Mme. Lefoux to be MOST intriguing…! Thanks for stopping by — this blog experiment is really quite fun!

September 24th, 2010 at 4:48 pm

So true. A flawless character isn’t much fun to read about.

September 24th, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I knew there was a reason I wanted to read Soulless.
Great post and excellent example of flawed characters.

September 24th, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Yes!! Flaws is probably the biggest piece of a compelling character. Excellent post! :-)

September 24th, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I agree, flaws are so important. Perfect people are boring to read about.

September 24th, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Really nice post! Your list of issues was outstanding!

September 24th, 2010 at 6:26 pm

“Flaws need meaning and logic behind them.”
Excellent point! Great post :)


September 24th, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I love this point:

My friends, creating compelling characters is only as difficult as the humanity we’re willing to give them.

Very nice post!

September 24th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Real and flawed. I’m working my way through the posts and am starting to see a pattern here…that’s good though.

Will have to check out Souless. Sounds good!

September 24th, 2010 at 9:29 pm

I agree they need to be flawed. I hope they have the ability to improve too. Nothing more irritating than a character that never learns to over come the obstacles nature or nurture has landed them with. ; )

September 24th, 2010 at 9:30 pm

It’s so true. Simple things like what religion the MC was raised in can do a whole lot for a character’s persona. Great.

September 24th, 2010 at 10:28 pm

You just talked me into the Parasol series, which I’ve been considering for some time. Yes, those are some formidable flaws, and I’m feeling compelled to check them out.
Super post.

September 24th, 2010 at 11:36 pm

So, first of all your blog title made me incredibly hungry. Shame on you, I have — lbs. to lose. Second, this is a great description of the process of creating character. My favorite line of yours was, “creating compelling characters is only as difficult as the humanity we’re willing to give them.” Well said!! Thanks!

September 24th, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Flaws are the most important aspect of a character! This is a great post, I loved how you laid it all out.

Also, dude! I need to read the series you mentioned. Sounds great.

September 25th, 2010 at 1:21 am

Hi Faith!

Wow. Great post! Readers do need to relate to our MCs else we’ve lost them completely. I want to cry with them and hope for them and fear for them. I love you you broke it down!

Come and visit me!

September 25th, 2010 at 1:35 am

Very true – make them real. I totally agree! :)

September 25th, 2010 at 8:52 am

I’m sorry I’m late I had to take a break so I could eat, sleep, and write, but now I’m making my hop around the blog!

This was such a great post. Yours was so different from all that I’ve seen. Give your characters problems and issues that people can relate to.

Great post! Thank you so much for participating! Elana, Alex and I are amazed with all the entries!

September 25th, 2010 at 11:42 am

That was one of my points too! The character being flawed and it driving the plot. And by reading everyone’s hopefully we’ll all be writing teriffic characters!

September 25th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

ah, Faith, basically everyone said the same – flaws make a great character. I think I’m the only one who doesn’t relate to that.
I love perfect characters and flawless heroes (I mean flawless in a moral and ethical way) because they make me wanna become better myself, they are great role models and inspiration.
I’m not sure why people hate perfection, beauty and pure souls so much these days.

I’ve talked about this with one of my dear friends, Alex O Cavanaugh, and he told me that maybe a compromise could be heroes who aren’t perfect but are striving to become such.

September 25th, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Dezmond, when I say ‘give a character flaws’, I don’t tend to mean giving them things like a desire to kick puppies or a drug problem… though I have seen that in books and it often works, because the character/hero strives to overcome that through a desire to be a better person. I can relate to wanting to be a better person! I think that’s what your friend Alex was trying to get across (and what I try to write for my own characters): heroes who aren’t perfect, but who aspire to become better, to overcome their flaws, and thus become better people in the end.

But I understand what you mean. The problem for me is when a character is so perfect that they become condescending to the reader, rather than a role model that one can look up to. For example, the “too-perfect” character I mentioned in my post actually made me feel bad about myself, rather than aspiring to be more like her.

On the other hand, take a character like Luke Skywalker. He’s strong, capable, a ‘pure soul’ right from the beginning… and we all like him! His flaw, however, is anger (and I might argue it’s righteous anger). Even though he wants revenge, the anger becomes a stumbling block — a fatal flaw — that stops him from accomplishing his goals as quickly as he might have otherwise done so. We watch him struggle to overcome this flaw, to fight to become better, and ultimately become a better human being in the end… his anger transforms and he is able to forgive.

That, to me, is the flawed character at its best.

September 25th, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Good post. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog, too. It has been really interesting to see what everyone has to say. Lots of good stuff. Have a great weekend!

September 25th, 2010 at 8:16 pm

oh, I didn’t mean kicking puppies either, God forbid :) I know, that by flaws you meant some kind of weakness, a vice, a weak point ….
I also understand the thing about some people feeling bad while watching someone who is too perfect. I don’t feel it myself, but I understand it. This is why the best among actors or singers aren’t usually the most popular ones because most people are threaten or intimidated by them personally. Again, I understand that as a psychologist. Rihanna will be more popular than Leona Lewis because she has obvious flaws, and Leona doesn’t. Sandra Bulllock will be more popular than Cate Blanchett because she is normal and flawed while Cate is an epitome of perfection and ethereal talent. That’s how the world works.
But again, I’d still strive towards total perfection in my work, books, songs …

So, I think we both agree on the flaws we have in mind, you described it well in Skywalker :)

What I generally have problem with (not in your case, off course but generally) is when people are afraid of perfection because it intimidates them. When they do not believe in people who are too calm, too nice, too moral, too wise, too clean, too perfect.

September 25th, 2010 at 8:27 pm

It’s funny, I always consider past relationships, self doubt (etc) when thinking about helping my friends through problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that when developing/helping characters! Thanks for your unique spin on this.

September 25th, 2010 at 11:50 pm

“My friends, creating compelling characters is only as difficult as the humanity we’re willing to give them.”

Fantastic! Great post!

September 26th, 2010 at 12:48 am

I have to agree- it is the flaws that make our characters compelling.

September 26th, 2010 at 4:39 am

Off to search for some more perfect flaws! (Pun intended.) Adding to my TBR list, most likely to my own troubled postal carrier’s dismay.

September 26th, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Good post, Faith! Flaws make the characters a little bit more relateable, but also it makes them entertaining to read about. Without some sort of conflict (which can include their flaw) how is there a story?

But be careful on giving the character too many flaws, as that can turn away a reader just as much, I feel. If not done right (just as if the character was “perfect”) it can be a stumbling block to the readers because then you feel just depressed about their life.

I never really *try* to give my characters flaws; it just happens when I start writing. One of my sci-fi short stories I submitted to a contest, there’s a brother who is trying to basically find a cure for his sister. His flaw is that he’s so focused on getting his sister healed that he’ll do anything for that cause (which includes murder and using his ex-girlfriend).

September 27th, 2010 at 2:54 am

Shiny double rainbow – LOL!

And yes, I agree about the necessity of having flawed characters.

September 29th, 2010 at 3:33 am

Great post! I’ve inadvertently based my characters in my WIP on at least 4 of the “issues” list, so I hope that means I’m on the right track!

September 30th, 2010 at 1:22 am

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