Compelling Characters: a theory

I have a theory!

(That was supposed to be read in an over-the-top “eureka!” voice. If you didn’t read it in that voice, I suggest you go back and read it again for the full affect. I’ll wait. *waits*)

Okay anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes me care about a character lately. I mentioned this before, but I read (“read” in air quotes.) the Cruel Prince by Holly Black recently, and the thing that ultimately killed it for me was the main character.

But WHY!!!???? I kept asking myself. And I still don’t know. I didn’t connect with her. Just didn’t. So this got me thinking about what made me connect with other characters, which yielded… a theory!

It’s not perfect. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But we’re forging onward ANYWAY because I want to know what you all think!

I used to think that a compelling character is someone the reader can see themselves in. But that’s relatable, not compelling. While a relatable character is usually compelling too, those are two different things. You see, people find unlikeable protagonists and antagonists compelling all the time, but there aren’t that many people who can look at a revenge-obsessed villain seeking the power to level a city and say “that’s #relatable content right there.” In a compelling character, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to see themselves, but they do need to see humanity. Even if the character is a two century old high elf, you can still make them human.

Human isn’t a race, really. It’s a conflict. 

If you’ve been a human for any length of time, you know this conflict pretty well. You’ve seen it in others. You know how to spot it in characters too, I’ll bet. Even if you don’t really think about it, you can tell the difference between a character who knows what to do in every situation, who never questions themselves, and whose only fault is sometimes they don’t put the cap back on the toothpaste, and a character who has to fight against themselves to do the right thing. One’s about as exciting as uncooked pasta, the other one has really got something going for them. And if they lose the battle against their own sinful nature, it makes you sad, because you’ve seen it before. If they win, it’s a battle you know didn’t come easy. That’s the power of a compelling character.

So how do you incorporate this struggle into your character? It comes down to goals. Your character has a goal and a handful of obstacles to keep them from getting it in the first chapter.  These goals are usually external, and so are the obstacles. But why would the character go after a goal outside of themselves that doesn’t resonate with a need they have on the inside? This is the inner goal. And with the inner goal comes *dramatic music* the inner obstacles!

Imagine a dude whose ambition in life is to become a world-class inventor. Did he just wake up with this goal one day? Nope. Maybe he feels trapped in a boring job where doesn’t ever feel he makes a difference. His inner goal is to leave a positive mark on the world. So why hasn’t he? Well, he has his outer obstacles to conquer. He probably needs money, some publicity, and, I don’t know, inventor stuff. I’ve never been a world-class inventor. He tackles these problems with all the gusto in the world, but something keeps tripping him up. He finally invents something worth publicizing, but even as his friends encourage him to pitch it to the public, he finds himself stalling.

And here’s that inner obstacle, right on cue. He’s been almost successful before, but it always ends in humiliation. He’s too afraid to try again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m interested to see where this goes. Which wins, the inner goal or the obstacle?

Now, this is all pretty clear cut, which, in the real world, it never is. Often, the character is remarkably oblivious to their inner goal and conflict. All that matters to them is what’s going on outside. But they can’t escape that easily. There’s going to be a moment where the conflict will decide their fate, usually right at the end where everything is falling apart.

And, the inner goal isn’t always admirable. Maybe it’s revenge, in which case, the inner obstacle would be the character’s deep need to forgive and move on with their life. Here, we, the readers, are rooting for the obstacle to win, but the character sure isn’t. This lends itself to a redemption arc.

So, there’s my theory! It’s heavily inspired by K. M. Weiland’s book, Creating Character Arcs, but I’d like to think there’s a little bit of an original idea in there somewhere. Thoughts? Ideas? Rotten tomatoes to throw at me?

4 thoughts on “Compelling Characters: a theory

  1. That’s so true though.

    If I may add my two cents, my English teacher taught me of two categories of characteristics shared by all humans: the Human Nature and the Human Experience. Human Nature consists of things we can more or less control (through God’s strength, at least) (e.g. All humans need love; All humans tend to want power; All humans sin). Human Experience consists of elements of the world around us that we cannot control (like weather; disease; our need for food, water and shelter; etc.). Plug your character into the concepts of Human Nature and Human Experience, and you have a realistic “human” character.


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