Monday, January 7, 2013

Creating Compelling Characters, by Natalie Charles

What makes a character interesting?

I've been thinking about this recently because I've been reading a romantic suspense novel that includes scenes from the point of view of the villain. In these moments, we gain an insight into the horrible, nasty things the bad guy is thinking and plotting for the hero and heroine. Far from being repulsed, I devour these pages. My heart races and I bite my fingernails, and I'm disappointed when the point of view shifts again. I don't find myself nearly as excited to read about this particular hero and heroine. I've been trying to figure out why, and I think the answer is that the hero and heroine in this book are just too damn average. Not just average in a "normal people placed in extraordinary circumstances" kind of way, but average in a "they think predictable thoughts and say predictable things" kind of way. They're too nice. They get along too well. As a reader, it's boring me to tears.

I want to read about people who may seem normal by all appearances at the beginning of the book, but who have the current of something extraordinary running below the surface. I want them to sound like people I might know, but I want them to think and act a little differently, because it's the glimpse into the extraordinary that holds my interest as a reader. I'm not the kind of reader who enjoys a Mary Sue. Give me injured, flawed and slightly prickly any day. Give me dialogue with palpable tension and characters who say and do things that get them into trouble.

Since I can't quote from other books, please forgive me for giving you a taste of my own prickly heroine, Libby Andrews, from my April release, The Seven-Day Target, as an example. This is from Chapter One, where Nick and Libby are meeting again after three years apart, and Libby decides to return her engagement ring.

"Libby?" Nick was still watching her. "What do you think?"
"I think I have to be in court to argue a pretrial motion." She placed the jewelry box between them and tried to ignore the look in Nick's eyes: anger dusted with hurt. "I'm cleaning out old things. This belongs to you."
He sat back in his seat as if the sight of the case repulsed him. "I told you a long time ago that I don't want it."
"And neither do I." She shrugged on her trench coat and reached for her bag.
"But you kept it. You kept it all these years." He said it with a quick snap, his words betraying a depth of raw hurt.
Libby halted. "I meant to return it."
"Ah, sure. When the time was right and the gesture was calculated to hurt the most."
She swallowed. "I'm due in court. Thanks for the tea."

"You paid for it."
"Then thanks for nothing." She slung her bag over her shoulder and headed out of the café where the air was clearer and the rain had almost stopped.
… She didn't bother to turn around as she stalked to her car and turned the key in the ignition. But as she pulled away, she saw Nick watching her from the sidewalk, his hands tucked into his jacket pockets. A tightness gathered in her chest at the thought that she'd succeeded, that he'd turn around and drive right back to Pittsburgh. Decide she wasn't worth the effort.
There was that ache in her heart again.

I love this scene because the characters are not getting along. They are not being polite or even flirtatious. Nick has come to warn Libby that her life is in danger, and she responds by being rude and hurtful. These characters came to life for me at this moment, when I saw the layers of pain they would need to heal to reach their happy ever after. The ugliness is what made them human to me as an author, and it's that same ugliness that I look for as a reader, too.

So what do you think makes characters compelling? Is it in their willingness to be less than perfect, or is it something else?


  1. I have realized I gravitate toward strong personalities - in life, in what I read, and in what I write. I think when characters have strong opinions, strong beliefs, and strong behavior, the story really jumps from the page, and the character traits heighten every exchange and the overall conflict. Great topic, Natalie!

    1. Yes! That's a good way to put it. Strong personalities are vivid enough to hold our interest, and they seem equipped to produce conflict naturally so the tension never feels forced. Thanks for sharing, Olivia. :-)

  2. Great minds think alike. I was planning to write a similar post for later this month. :-)

    For me compelling characters have to be in a position that makes me want to care about them. My favorite is when they have to do something they'd otherwise not do in order to help/save someone else. That internal angst is great. How could you not cheer them on?

    But they also have to be someone I could imagine falling in love w/ or being good friends with. They can't be so flawed that they appear w/o hope. It's tough line to walk when writing these characters, but when it all comes together, it makes for a riveting read.

    BTW, I've read some suspense books w/ the villians POV and I have to admit, they are my favorites. When you have all three POV's going, it makes for a riveting read. :-)

    1. I hope you still write that post, Jennifer! There is so much to be said on this topic, and I think it's one that many writers and readers would approach differently.

      Good point about the selfless character! Katniss in 'The Hunger Games' is one example that jumps to mind. The 'likeability' factor is also a great point. It's a very delicate balance.

      I'm so glad I'm not the only one who kind of loves villains. When it's done well, it's mesmerizing. :-)