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.

The Flamebearer’s Male Characters

Character Comparisons
CIARAN – NATURALLY TANTRIC, Ciaran is a richly complex character, with elements of both strength and vulnerability, an almost naive emotional honesty, and a deeply felt need for love and intimacy. He is very direct, looking not just at you, but into you and through you, expressing an unfeigned desire to know you and to be known by you. He is changeable, unpredictable, at times abrasively impatient, even rude and dismissive, leading to the impression that he is arrogant and self-absorbed. If he learns that his words or his behavior have inadvertently injured someone he cares about, his remorse is instant and devastating.
  • Basic Fear: Of being worthless
  • Basic Desire: To feel valuable and worthwhile

He alternates between extremes of heat, passion, immediacy, and urgency on the one hand and a seemingly limitless capacity for tenderness and rapturous love on the other.

Ciaran tends to alternate wildly between ego-inflation and self-doubt; he can be self-assured and outstanding in many ways, yet also introspective and sensitive.

Whatever he does, he devotes himself to it body and soul. He hungers for the transformative experience, yet he finds himself perpetually suspended between yearning and possessing, never quite ascending to the exalted understanding he seeks. Will he forever be a restless spirit full of ambiguity and creative turbulence, striving after an outcome so elusive that, despite his determination, he can never hope to reach its promise of perfect equilibrium and fulfillment?

ROBYN PLAYFUL, BOYISH, CHARMINGLY EARNEST, Robyn embodies the eternal youth – adventurous, freedom-loving, and a bit of a rogue. His penchant for drinking, gambling, sport and all manner of amusements has led him into trouble more than once, but with his instinctive good luck, he typically succeeds in finding his way out.

He can be noticeably childlike, engaging, silly, and despite difficult experiences, he tends to retain a certain innocence and belief in life’s goodness. If he has money, he is generous with others. He has a soft, sweet side which can be very appealing. When he is functioning at his best, he is upbeat, enthusiastic, energetic, and optimistic. People enjoy his sense of humor and high spirits. He can be witty, quick with repartee, always ready with the facetious quip, the tongue-in-cheek aside. His sense of humor leans toward irony and sarcasm. He is a gifted story-teller.

Despite his Devil-May-Care attitude, Robyn has developed a realistic, pragmatic approach to daily events. He doesn’t take life – or himself – too seriously. He is bold and vivacious, pursuing what he wants with cheerful determination. Unlike his companions, he is comfortable in his own skin, at ease in most social situations, and not especially prone to deep thinking on any subject. He prefers casual and spontaneous encounters with women. He likes his sex rough and spirited, enhanced by several servings of his favorite lubricant – a hearty pint of ale.

Robyn enjoys encountering and interacting with other human beings. Robyn genuinely enjoys friendship, whether among his peers or with members of the opposite sex – and in spite of his easygoing, non-committal nature, he tends to develop strong bonds with the people with whom he chooses to spend his time. His genial, broad-minded personality garners him a wide-ranging, vastly diverse group of acquaintances, from princes to stable boys, harlots to scholars, and everything in-between. He possesses an uncanny talent for befriending people of all stripes: nobles, merchants, mummers, and priests.

Robyn is that odd combination of philosopher and skeptic rolled into one. Expansive, optimistic, truthful to a fault, he remains suspicious of orthodox religion with its dogma and hypocrisy, but speculates that the apparent randomness of life’s events are part of a greater plan, and that, ultimately, things have a way of working out for the best.

 THE BRUCE – powerful, physically imposing, and at the same time, emotionally reserved and surprisingly modest, the Highlander is both strong and weak, fearful and courageous, trusting and distrusting, a defender and a provoker, sweet and sour, aggressive and passive, a bully and a weakling, defensive and offensive, a thinker and a doer, a group person and a soloist, a believer and a doubter, cooperative and obstructionist, tender and mean, generous and petty—and on and on. In short, he is a  bundle of opposites.
He is often ambivalent about his feelings, frequently sending ambiguous, mixed signals to other people. His gruff outward demeanor masks an interior sensitivity which all but the most astute observers of human nature fail to detect. Those rare folk who possess enough insight and depth to recognize an Old Soul when they see one are naturally drawn to him though it may take years to break down his defenses and build enough trust for the Bruce to expose his True Self.
He can be moody, grumpy, and downright impossible sometimes, retreating into his “cave” to sulk, transmitting silent, but unequivocal recriminations and implied blame to whoever has wounded him. He may remain in one of his black moods for days, or even weeks; long after everyone else has forgotten the argument. When he, at last, decides to emerge from his (largely self-imposed) cocoon of pain, he expresses his desire to make amends by quietly going out of his way to do a good turn for the erstwhile offender. With a minimum of dialog, he demonstrates his thoughtfulness by delivering the unexpected, yet precisely well-timed gift or favor, without ever having discussed it previously.  *See “Puppies for the Gryffin”
Not gifted in the art of verbal communication like his companions, the Bruce is an attentive listener, and while his quiescence might lead some to believe he is disengaged or disinterested, he, in fact, possesses an almost supernatural memory for the details of what others reveal to him in moments of self-doubt, wavering courage, or loss of faith. In his understated way, he comes through for those he loves, which in the final analysis, reveals a man of great character, compassion, and humanity.

Author’s Quest for Meaning

*Struggling to get a handle on the sequel*- what motifs do I want to employ, what is the deeper meaning, how might I weave the many different threads into a cohesive story? When in doubt, I always go back to the great Arthurian Romances – Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading “Author’s Quest for Meaning”

Puppies for the Gryffin

A new scene idea:

The Bruce comes upon two young boys (the oldest about nine, the youngest, about seven) carrying between them a hand-woven short-handled basket. Inside the basket, the Bruce observes a coarse burlap satchel which appears to be writhing and squirming on its own. He learns from the brothers that the sack contains a litter of newborn puppies. The two have been given the grim task of transporting their unwitting charges to the river to drown them. Times being hard for everyone, especially the common folk, have left the lads’ father little choice. Feeding his wife and sons, as well as his livestock, take priority over a passel of unruly pups.

The Bruce cannot bear the suffering of small children or animals, so upon hearing the brothers’ woeful tale, he offers to take the puppies with him back to Narberth where they are sure to find homes among the village-folk. The youngsters pour out their gratitude to the kind stranger, crying “God bless you, sir,” again and again as he gallops away over the hills, basket and pups safely secured to his horse’s bridle straps.

The moment he arrives back at the fortress gates, the Bruce’s first thoughts are of his sorrowing friend. Upon determining Robyn’s whereabouts (the stables) he sets down the basket of squealing whelps and quietly slips away, leaving Robyn to acquaint himself with the litter and choose one for himself.

Having stumbled through the days since Ciaran’s departure in a grief-stricken trance, Robyn has yet to shed a single tear. His prime focus has been to numb the pain in a bottle or, if that fails, to distract himself with reckless gambling and fornication. But he finds himself surprisingly moved by the sincerity and simplicity of the Bruce’s gesture.
Sitting on his knees in a pile of straw with five barely weaned, panting, wet-nosed, tail-wagging, exuberant pups climbing all over him, licking his face, pawing at his hair, Robyn’s heart cracks open as if struck by a well-aimed arrow. Suddenly he finds himself sobbing like a babe, the floodgates thrown wide loosing a torrent of pent-up emotion.

Ciaran Looks Back on the Perils of Childhood

I can imagine the confabulation as Ciaran paints for Evaine a portrait from memory of what it was like to grow up in a castle full of vulgar men and unfulfilled women. What ordinary mortal could resist this curious child born under a cloak of secrecy and taboo? Who could avoid falling under the spell of his angelic appearance? What ordinary human would be immune to the speculation and suspicion that seemed always to hover around him? The unorthodox circumstances of his birth left much to the imagination and prompted many to question the legitimacy of his lineage. For some, it might have felt safer to objectify and demonize him in order to avoid examining too closely their own sins.

“For years, everyone thought I was a girl!” he said, his voice brittle with indignation. “My foster-brothers dubbed me “Princess of Narberth” until I turned ten when I, at last, developed the skill and the muscle to fight back. The ladies of the court fussed over me relentlessly. The nuns and the nursemaids used to chase after me with their hair brushes! Can you imagine?”

Keeping a straight face, Evaine pressed a palm to her heart, frowning at the injustice of it all. “How on earth did you defend yourself?” she asked earnestly.

Ciaran continued without pause. “Most of the time, I contrived to elude them,” he claimed, thrusting out his jaw with an air of self-importance. Adding an aside, he explained, “I knew all the castle’s hiding places. Whenever I spied one of them coming, I would scramble for the nearest hole-in-the-wall where I could keep out of sight until they grew weary of the search.”

“What happened when they found you?” Evaine wondered.

Ciaran scowled. “They sought to adorn my hair with ribbons and dress me in skirts!” he said contemptuously. “I complained bitterly, of course. But no matter how loudly I bellowed, the sisters would have none of it.”

He then commenced, in his most theatrical falsetto, to deliver a scathing parody of the dreaded voices of courtly female authority: “Sweet child, you’re just going through a phase.  All little girls like to pretend to be boys up to a certain age. You’ll see. Eventually, you’ll outgrow it. Now be a lamb and fetch my comb. That’s a darling. And please do try to sit still whilst I work the snarls out of your hair. Spun silk such as yours would be the crowning glory of most young ladies. Why you resist the necessity of grooming it is beyond me! Such abuse of one’s God-given endowments is an insult to the Lord!”