Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Three Tips for Creating Compelling Characters

I don’t know about you, but characters often make or break a story for me.  As a writer, I try to remember what makes some characters and their stories more compelling for me than others.  Here are a few tips I try to keep in mind as I write based on the characters that I love to read about again and again.

1)   Give your characters a few quirks.

Quirks are those things that we all have – whether we acknowledge them – that make us unique. It might be a penchant for constantly getting into trouble ala Anne of Green Gables, the girl who made lots of mistakes but tried to only make the same ones once. Or it might be a foilable like fighting the need to control EVERYTHING in our lives. 

2)   Put those characters into a situation that will force them to do the one thing they promised to never do.

In A Wedding Transpires on Mackinac Island, the heroine Alanna Stone has promised never to return
to her home on Mackinac Island. Yet the opening pages of the book find her on her way there. She doesn’t want to go…at all…but for family…something that matters so much to her…at least on the outside…now she’s returning. Yet as the book progresses, she’s confronted with the reality that something she said mattered to her really didn’t.  Haven’t we all been there. All vowed that something mattered deeply, but the reality of our lives said differently. And it’s in the confronting those things that our characters (and we) are changed. We can relate to that journey…and if the journey is properly crafted, the reader will follow the character through all levels of difficulty to see if she will succeed.

3)   Give each character virtue and vice.

So often we think the villain should wear an entirely black hat and the hero an all white hat. Yet that isn’t reality. Even the most hardened criminal has a grandmother he would drop anything to serve. Or the hero has a blind spot to an area that is less than heroic in his life.  While I’d like to think I lead a blameless life, I know that isn’t truth. Most readers are the same. Give us a balance of virtue and vice. Let us watch each character struggle with the realities of who they really are in contrast to who they want to be. Somewhere in there you will create a character that we want to watch grow and thrive.

I can think of books that weren’t necessarily works of art or compelling, but I read them because I came to care deeply for the characters. That’s what I want to create for my readers. How about you? What makes a character compelling or unique? Someone you want to read about?

Cara C. Putman lives in Indiana with her husband and four children. She’s an attorney, teacher at her church, and contract lecturer or adjunct faculty at a local community college and Big Ten University. She has loved reading and writing from a young age and now realizes it was all training for writing books. An honors graduate of the University of Nebraska and George Mason University School of Law, Cara loves bringing history and romance to life.  You can learn more about Cara and her books on her website, Facebook, twitter, and pinterest.


  1. Good reminders, Cara. I like you're profile photo

  2. I enjoyed that.

    Some comments. Your first point reminded me of a book I just finished. The female lead throughout the book would use a cliche, but always got it wrong (and one of the two men she worked with would correct her), like "the dog chased him up the creek."

    As far as the human perspective, I'd like to make an observation I read in Ken Ackerman's "Dark Horse: the Surprise Nomination and Political Assassination of James Garfield." Yes, this is history, but it is written like a story, and I still think this makes a good example. The main antagonist was New York Senator Roscoe Conklin who was arrogant and controlling and not very likable. But Ackerman pointed out this was the time the first African-American Senator served (Republican), and Conklin was one of the few who cultivated a friendship with him.