There are three core ingredients that take a work from average to exceptional: compelling characters, original concepts, excellent writing.
A recent twitter poll with 725 votes ranked what mattered most in a book: new and unique ideas; quality of writing; timing of sub/pub; other.
The poll is interesting and informative, although it lacks specific focus. Is it about the quality of the book overall, or about the success of the book when it’s on the market? These are different questions, and the answers can change, depending on which question is being asked.
(Graded on a scale, timing can have a much bigger impact when publishing than it’s likely to when a writer is submitting; a book about a terrorist attack might find its release date altered because of real world events, for example, although it wouldn’t impact a submission evaluation the same way because editors and agents know there would be months to years between acquiring the title and publication, so current events wouldn’t impact sales potential.)
In the coming weeks original concepts and excellent writing will be explored. Today, we begin our look at the key ingredients in an exceptional story with a look at compelling characters.
The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.— Norman Cousins
What Reveals Character
In order to understand what makes a character authentic or compelling, one must first know how to determine a person’s character. How does one truly come to understand a person’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs? The convictions within them that will guide their choices in life? Is it enough for a person to say they believe something? Does a verbal statement denote conviction?
It is not a person’s words but rather their actions that demonstrate their character. This is how you get to see what a person truly believes and what matters to them. For example, a person might talk about equality and how much they believe that everyone should be treated the same way. If that person then goes online and mocks several women for expressing fears about unwanted advances from men, or twists their words and accuses them of saying something they didn’t say, they have betrayed the fact that they do not respect women. They are condescending, at best. Possibly misogynistic.
TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.— Robert Mckee
Mckee takes things one step further to clarify how to identify real character. This is fair, because when people are facing extremely difficult situations their priorities may change.
The most honest words aren’t words at all. They’re actions.
It also explains why character is more important than plot. A plot is the circumstances a character faces that will force them to make choices and take actions that may alter their life or the lives of others. It is what will reveal their true character to the audience. Yes, the plot is important, but the very best plots strip away a character’s facade and put them in situations that force them to make impossible choices or take actions that will change their lives or the lives of others.
Any ‘best of’ list can turn into a source of endless debate and discussion. This isn’t a ‘best of’ list; it’s an exploration of how some memorable characters came into being and what it is that sets them apart from others. If you’re struggling to put your finger on what it is that takes a character from flat and predictable to dynamic and real then these are some good characters to spend more time with so that you can see what sets them apart.
Terror is Our Business: Dana Roberts’ Casebook of Horrors features Dana Roberts, who takes care of supernatural problems for people. Haunted house? She has you covered. She’s a responsible, pragmatic businesswoman, and very likeable.
And then her sidekick, Jana, enters the scene.
“I don’t believe in love at first sight. Lust at first sight, maybe, but love? Not so much. That strikes me as a crock, and because of that, I can’t believe I let my friend Erin convince me to go to an Eye Gazing Party with her, a kind of modern day hippie’s answer to Speed Dating.”
While Dana is a kind of by-the-book do-the-right-thing responsible-business-owner type, Jana is a little more creative and reactive.
“I injured my back once during a sex act with a gymnast. He proved agile, but had all the personality of a pommel horse.”
Jana is the slice of cheese on your apple pie, the bit of chocolate syrup drizzle on your banana split. She brings the spice and if you like horror this is a fantastic collection to get, because the stories are great and you will have a chance to get to know Dana well before you’re introduced to Jana, and you could do well to compare the similarities and differences between them to understand what makes each distinct and real.
Fargo is a TV series that features different characters each year. The first season introduced us to a season-long arc, following several different crimes and how the actions of some individuals changed their lives.
Molly Solverson is a local cop who is poised to be chief one day … until the current chief is killed and another cop with more seniority and a lot less common sense is promoted above her.
There are so many things about Molly’s character that make her great. She isn’t a flashy girl; she’s practical. Her mother died when she was young, but she isn’t bitter. She has a sense of humor but isn’t always cracking jokes and making light of things. She has a really sharp mind and she uses it. She’s passionate enough to fight for what she believes in, but at the same time typically respects chain of command and the law and does what’s right. Easily one of the most watchable characters in recent years on television, and one of the most memorable from a show that produced a lot of very memorable characters.
When asked what he does for a living, Omar Little says, “I rip and run.”
He’s in a courtroom, offering testimony in a murder trial. The prosecutor seeks clarification.
“I robs drug dealers.”
Omar is gay and he’s a criminal, but when a member of a local drug crew murders his boyfriend, Omar helps the police.
“I ain’t ever put my gun on no citizen.” – Omar
“A man must have a code.” – Bunk
“No doubt.” – Omar
Omar has a fierce reputation but he also has a soft spot for children and he respects the rules. Sunday is taking grandma to church and Omar looks after his family and his friends. He remains one of the most popular characters from The Wire and still scores high on best character lists. Part of the reason for his staying power is that he defies stereotypes and expectations and is a character who is both good and bad, a complex criminal you can’t help but root for.
In 2018 Rebecca Roanhorse brought us Trail of Lightning and Maggie Hoskie. Maggie is an Indigenous woman who has survived the Big Water and lives in Dinétah. Since water swallowed most of the earth all that’s left is the Navajo land, along with some of Colorado and a few other proximate states.
The world has gotten smaller and stranger. Some individuals have clan powers, and Maggie is one of them. Hers enable her to be an expert killer, and her abilities are in demand because this strange new world has monsters. Literal monsters.
It would be wrong to say Maggie is fearless. It would also be wrong to say that she doesn’t have weaknesses. It is precisely because of her ability to fight her fears and do what’s right and necessary, and her willingness to fight against her weaknesses, that she is so compelling. She wrestles with demons inside and out, in a manner of speaking, and even when things get tough you know Maggie isn’t a quitter. She feels things deeply, too, although people don’t always realize it because she isn’t chatty and has a hard time expressing her emotions. The new world is a tough one, and it requires a certain fortitude for survival, and Maggie is a product of circumstances and the new demands for survival in her era. She carries both conviction about her actions and regrets, she’s a gifted killer who is fighting to not take lives unnecessarily. Maggie is anything but cookie cutter and she is ever so much fun to watch in action. As long as you can stay far enough away to avoid the blood splatter.
Tanis is a recurring character on the Canadian comedy Letterkenny. One of the things that sets her apart right away is that she is Native. There’s something of an ‘us versus them’ mentality between the residents of Letterkenny and the Rez. Tanis is a natural leader. She is commanding and fearless. She isn’t afraid to use brute force to get what she wants, but she also knows how to use her charms. One of the things that sets her apart from other beautiful female characters is that there’s never a sense that fear of a chipped nail or mussed up hair would keep her from getting into a brawl if she felt it was called for.
Tanis is also loyal to her people and concerned about their needs. She advocates for them. Whatever love interests arise over the course of the series, one never has the sense that Tanis will put romance ahead of her community. She won’t soften her edges or change who she is to suit a man. For all of those reasons, and so many more, she is one of the best female characters to come along in a long time.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that an older female character can’t be incredibly compelling. Ruth was a woman who stayed in what appeared to be a loveless and abusive marriage. In some respects she was a product of her time and also a victim of circumstance, because she was married to a minister. However, in spite of those choices she’d made years before, it’s clear that her decisions were never simple and she felt the weight of her sacrifices.
In Castle Rock she is struggling to separate the present from the past and battles with her fears and confusion.
A gay black man in the south with a white best friend at a time when folks still stuck behind racial lines and being gay wasn’t widely accepted. Leonard is anything but simple. He’s a man of principle, a man who fought for his country in Vietnam, a man who is loyal to his friends and family. He feels things deeply, and he’s also the type to take dramatic actions to right a wrong or clean up a problem that the police won’t.
Leonard is a character that has to be experienced. He is a character in the Hap & Leonard books by Joe R. Lansdale, and also a character in the TV series Hap and Leonard. On TV his sharp tongue and decisiveness earn him a reputation.
After spending years in prison on death row, Daniel Holden’s conviction is overturned. He returns to his family and the town where he grew up. The same place where the murder he was convicted of had occurred.
Daniel wasn’t exonerated, which means he could face another trial. Everyone in the family is coping in different ways. He has a new stepfather, a new half brother, a stepbrother who is suspicious of him, and a sister who is loyal and convinced of his innocence.
His mother loves him … isn’t that enough?
After so long in isolation, Daniel has a hard time adjusting to the world around him. He doesn’t act the way people expect, and that only adds to the gossip from local townspeople. He has to try to find his way forward in the world while being known for all the wrong reasons and living with the possibility of another trial looming.
Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen ….
One of the things that sets Deadwood apart is the depth of strong characters. The ellipses represent the fact that the list could easily go on. Trixie is a formidable character, and her arc is incredible, but she is hardly alone.
The characters of Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen are worthy of note because they are a study in contrasts. In a lesser show, the premise would be Bullock’s determination to take Swearengen down; after all, Bullock is the sheriff and Swearengen runs a bar and brothel and isn’t shy about taking a life or an opportunity to earn some extra.
In Deadwood, however, they are often on the same side. Someone once said that Bullock is a bad man trying really hard to be a good man, and Swearengen is a good man trying really hard to be a bad man. For proof of that, look no further than the story of the reverend in season 1.
This show isn’t politically correct … it is set in its time, and that bears consideration for some viewers. But over the course of its run it garnered a devout fanbase who were eager to return to Deadwood for this year’s movie special, 13 years after the final episode had aired.
There are plenty of other characters that are worthy of discussion and exploration. Mike, from Breaking Bad. Issa from Insecure. You have your own lists; ask yourself what it is about specific characters that makes you want to spend time with them. What sets them apart.
Fandomania, NPR and IMDB all have lists of their best character picks. Brian Lindenmuth wrote up his Best Characters of 2018 instead of writing about the best shows. There are a lot of places you can go to view the most popular characters of all time for different mediums, and it can help to identify characters you see repeated on multiple lists, because this means that they stood out to a large number of people.
Identify compelling characters. Study them. Ask what sets them apart from other characters that share the same occupation, sexual orientation, life situation, race, gender. The better you understand what makes characters compelling and memorable, the easier it will be to consider those things as you shape your own characters, so that you can truly breathe life into them and make them authentic.
Two Important Considerations
Stereotypes are simplistic beliefs about a group of people. There are gender stereotypes, sexual orientation stereotypes, and racial stereotypes. Characters who are nothing more than stereotypes will not feel real or credible to readers, or be interesting, because they aren’t original or authentic.
This doesn’t mean that every character should defy every potential stereotype that would apply to them. Some girls like playing with dolls, some women love dressing up and going shopping. The question is, are you using a stereotypical checklist to mold a character? What is it about the character that separates them from any other person from their gender or racial group?
When evaluating the stand-out characters discussed here, what sets them apart is the fact that they couldn’t check off every box on a stereotype list if one existed. There are things about each one that distinguish them from people of their gender, race, and sexual orientation. Human beings are complex creatures, replete with their own contradictions. The best characters portray that complexity, and yes, may even have some facets of their character that contradict others. The more you understand about a character’s motivations, as well as the key people and events that have shaped them, the more real your character will feel.
Children learn through play, and adults can also learn from their play. One of the things children do is assume identities. They want to have adventures like their favorite characters from TV shows, movies and books. Whether they want to save the world like Superman or shoot down TIE Fighters like Han Solo or be a Jedi like Luke Skywalker, when children assume the identity of characters in their play they are showing you who they are impressed by. Who they think is important.
Who acts in a way they find respectable or interesting.
From a young age people begin to identify characters that they connect with or are inspired by. As people age, their evaluation of characters typically becomes more complex. Characters who are clearly good or bad appeal to children, particularly those who haven’t yet acquired the logical thinking that Piaget referred to in his Theory of Conservation. They haven’t reached the point where they can fully grasp that people can be both good and bad. They do not understand the concept of shades of gray. They see the world in black and white, and often their evaluation of others is based on how they are treated, rather than morals, values, political views, etc.
Simple characters typically only appeal to individuals of their targeted age group. Consider the Teletubbies. These are not characters likely to appeal to adults, but they were very popular with toddlers. This is because the characters were designed based on a toddler’s development; they used strong solid colors that are easy for children to identify, they use simple language that matches the sounds that toddlers are capable of making. Speech therapists know that children learn to master different sounds at different ages, and most of the names of the Teletubbies are simple and use sounds that children learn in the earliest language development stages. ‘R’, which is one of the harder sounds for children to master, is notably absent. Laa Laa and Po are extremely simple, while Dipsy introduces a blend. Tinky-Winky also has blends, but emphasizes sounds that toddlers find easier (‘w’ sounds and long ‘e’ sounds) as well as rhyming words, which also appeal to children.
Those who are writing for children should carefully consider their language and their themes to ensure that they are appropriate and relatable for children.
Those who are writing for young adults and adults will also want to carefully consider language and themes, and build more complex characters that match the stage of development of their intended audience. Books about college students are not Young Adult; the YA audience reads works that center on the experiences of those 12 to 18 years of age. Once characters are of adult age, the works move into New Adult (NA) or adult (A) categories.
One of the things that writers must be careful of is creating characters who are far wiser or more observant than their years; children who use very specific phrasing that is more fitting for a person much older than they are, or who are so much more aware of everything going on and seem to understand people and motives in a way that even adults don’t. Make sure characters are age appropriate or they will not resonate with readers. Don’t inject adult wisdom or language into a pre-teen character; it will almost never resonate as authentic.