10-Steps to Building Compelling, Irresistible Characters

10-Steps to Building Compelling, Irresistible Characters by E. Madison Cawein

1. Endow your dashingly handsome, tantalizingly sexy Hero with flaws that drive him to behave badly on occasion. For example, he may initially come across as arrogant, hostile, and dismissive toward his friends and even his Love Interest while putting on an act to impress his enemies or his superiors, or to hide his inner anxieties. If you strive to make him “too perfect”, no one will trust or believe you and they may decide to stop reading.

2. The Hero’s deepest fear (usually a wound received in childhood, not always conscious) may cause him to conceal or deny his vulnerabilities. Perhaps he was abandoned at an early age which precipitates a fear of intimacy as an adult. Either that or it motivates him to seek the opposite: deeper, more meaningful relationships which, as a man, he thinks he can control, whereas his child Self was powerless to shape or to hold on to those he loved and depended upon the most.

3. The Hero may harbor overwhelming hatred and distrust of the Antagonist, who presents an almost likable first impression to other characters and especially to the reader. This can be delicious fun to write, especially if your Hero has spent a good portion of Part One honing an image of the Antagonist as the most worthless of scoundrels, the Bad Ass to beat all Bad Asses. Then, when he is finally introduced to the reader in Part Two, he doesn’t seem like the Villain he’s been made out to be and the reader realizes his menacing, nefarious intent was in the Hero’s head all along.

4. The Antagonist may be experienced as a tyrant by the Hero, but is, in reality, is a mixture of positive and negative traits, giving him subtlety and nuance. The reader may find him/herself identifying with him at first, not knowing whether to sympathize with him, mistrust him, or to despise him. Let him reveal himself (or herself) gradually, scene by scene. One successful device is to show a subtle shift from Good to Evil over the course of the entire second half of the book – the Antagonist’s Character Arc if you will. In any case, he should have his own perfectly rational reasons for his corruption and cruelty and not simply be Evil for Evil’s sake.

5. Let your Heroine display vulnerability, fear, clinginess, jealousy, mistrust, anger, opinions and convictions no matter how wrong-headed, contrariness, self-doubt, yearning, affection, tenderness, wisdom, aloofness, even icy coldness if it moves the story forward. In other words, let her be a real woman with a wide range of emotional frequencies. Allow her to evolve into a fully 3-dimensional being, keeping The Hero guessing until the end.

6. I beg you, PLEASE DON’T portray your Heroine as a one-dimensional Warrior Woman who comes across as superior to her male counterpart, outsmarting him and diminishing him as The Hero, unless of course, she happens to actually be a warrior. (A Shield Maiden?) Your Heroine should have the capacity to hold her own with the Hero, matching him in wit, intelligence, and self-possession. But let these traits emerge a little at a time so that when she does reveal her true inner strength, it comes as a surprise to the Hero. (He can’t always be allowed to maintain the upper hand, after all. Every Hero needs to be put in his place now and then!)

7. Think about your peripheral characters (the sidekick, the faithful servant, the bodyguard, etc.) as more than shallow clichés, but as fully realized individuals in their own right, with backstories, fears, flaws, and mannerisms all their own. These details may never make it into the final draft, but being aware of them will help you to add shading and depth to your minor characters which will draw your readers deeper into your fictional world.

8. Think of your setting as another character. The time period, landscape, architecture, climate and weather all play a role in creating the structure within which your characters operate. People living in austere environments will be compelled to behave differently than those enjoying relative ease. A cold climate breeds rugged, practical, hard-working individuals, while warmer climates tend to allow people to relax and take life at a more leisurely pace. Likewise, environment influences modes of dress, customs, seasons, types of dwellings and crop production, which in turn determines the health, lifespan, and general attitudes and behavior of the population. A society on a constant war footing will differ dramatically from a society at peace. Is your Hero from a wealthy family or a poor one? Is money no object to him or is he forced to constantly struggle for survival?

9. In character-driven stories, each and every plot point is determined by what the characters DO, how they FEEL, what they COMMUNICATE, and WHO THEY ARE AT THEIR CORE. Likewise, their REACTIONS to the things that happen to them drive the story forward.

10. The kinds of STRESSES and CONFLICTS you put your characters through (otherwise known as PLOT) will shape their personalities, their actions and reactions, their emotional equilibrium (or lack thereof), and ultimately, the degree of growth and change they go through during the course of the narrative (called the Character Arc). Some characters will resist conflict, refusing to learn from their mistakes. Others will meet a challenge head-on and come out the better for it in the end. All of them will endure highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies and may even be compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice – undergoing the rite of passage from this world to the next by story’s end. But whether you give your story a happy ending or a tragic one, including each of the above steps will have made the adventure worthwhile for your readers and hopefully turned them into enthusiastic, lifelong fans.