Whether you’re weaving together complex magic systems, sinister political schemes, a quirky meet-cute, or any other storyline, your narrative will fall flat without compelling characters. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve reviewed enough short stories and novels to know that compelling characters are those that have agency and dimension—they draw in your audience so that readers become invested in their decisions and future. Here are 9 ways to make your characters more compelling.
9 Ways To Create A More Compelling Character
Use fears, motivations, values, and goals: Your character is not a puppet that plays out the story you want to tell, but a being with agency who makes their own story. Be sure to fully flesh out your character with very real fears, motivations, values, and goals—all of which will determine how they act and react to events and other characters in your story.
Craft a good backstory: Your readers will become invested as they learn about your character’s past. This is a good opportunity to employ a well-crafted flashback or two. With this new knowledge, readers will become more interested in how your character moves forward.
Provide flaws and insecurities: Without any flaws, a character runs the risk of becoming a “Mary Sue”: a character who is too perfect and almost boring for lack of imperfections. Not only would these faultless characters seem inaccessible, but their inability to make mistakes could mean fewer plot twists for your story. A good, compelling character should be relatable and have flaws and insecurities.
Draw from personal experience: A story seems more realistic when it comes from somewhere familiar. Unless you’ve thoroughly researched the topic, you may have a hard time writing about a character nervously learning to scuba dive if you’ve never tried it yourself. But be careful about basing your characters on real people who might recognize themselves: You might start an argument at your next family gathering or offend your favorite eccentric barista.
Present a lie the character believes: This can be something heard from others or an untruth the character is personally convinced is true. A lie can add to your plot and determine what your character risks or gains in learning the truth: Is breaking the illusion good or bad for them? What would learning the truth mean? For example: If your character has been trained to blindly serve their government, what would it mean for them to learn they were actually working for a corrupt institution this whole time?
Give the character a secret: Is there something your character is hiding? How would the plot, and the character, be affected if the secret was revealed? If your character is a superhero with a secret identity, what would it mean if their loved ones—or their enemies—discovered who they were? How determined is the character to keep the secret? Will their relationships suffer, and do they think it’s worth it?
Add conflict: Stress or conflict can give readers a better understanding of your character’s personality and backstory. For example, if you are writing an antagonist whose true colors haven’t yet been shown, you can give readers foreshadowing glimpses of their real temperament. A selfish streak may be exposed when the character is in an argument, or they may unexpectedly lash out when their ulterior motives are close to being exposed.
Show vulnerability: Superman has his kryptonite, and your character shouldn’t be invincible either. People who appear strong in real life also have weaknesses, so your characters should too. You might have an aloof CEO character who’s worried about the welfare of a scraggly stray kitten, or a battle-hardened warrior who is deathly afraid of butterflies.
Reveal wants and needs: What your character wants versus needs can add conflict and a plot twist to the story—especially if the wants and needs are at odds. For example, your character may need to leave a toxic relationship but wants to stay because they are convinced their partner is more caring than the evidence shows. And if your characters don’t know what they want, then their goal should be to find out what that is!
To make your characters more compelling, follow these writing tips to give them dimension and let them make decisions based on their own reasons. Compelling characters will make your story more interesting for your readers and keep them turning pages until the very end. When you’re ready to submit your short story to literary journals or a novel to literary agents, the experts at Writer’s Relief are here to help! Our research team will pinpoint the best markets for your work and boost your odds of getting published. And that’s a pretty compelling reason to learn more about our services and submit your work to our Review Board today.
Question: How would you create a compelling character?