Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Engaging Characters

Last week passed in a frenzy, but it seems positively laid-back compared to this one.  There comes a point when something’s gotta give (Isn’t that the title of a film?? Has to be a more interesting story than my life at the moment, which is spent lashed to my keyboard day and night!) and in my case it’s been this blog … but having said that, I’ve got half an hour, and a chance to strike something else off my list, so here goes with a quick whizz around writing engaging characters, as promised.

I talked in my last post about the importance of giving your characters strong goals and clear motivation, so that the reader understands exactly why the hero and heroine behave the way they do, and why they both believe a relationship between them could never work.

At the same time, you need to make your characters engaging, so that the reader likes them and cares about whether or not they’re going to be happy. 

My four top tips for creating engaging characters:

Jane Austen said: ‘Perfection makes me sick’, and how right she was about that, as so many things!  I don’t know about you, but when I read about a heroine who is beautiful and kind and sweet and good and plays the cello and speaks six languages, I want to throttle her.  What is there for me to identify with in that?  And if she’s perfect to begin with, what is she going to learn?  She needs to be different at the end of the story, she needs to have changed, and how can she change if she’s perfect to begin with?
Don’t go the other way and make her ridiculously stupid, but give her a weakness: maybe she’s nosy, or bossy, or distrustful, or snappy and easily irritated.

A ‘thing’ or a quirk or a mannerism will make your character more individual.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing: a fondness for shoes or silly earrings, pinching the bridge of the nose when exasperated, or an unexpected interest.  Campbell (Last-Minute Proposal) is driven, competitive and generally a typical outdoors kind of guy, but when pressed he admits to an embarrassing interest in Roman history.  Summer (Oh-So-Sensible Secretary) likes everything ordered and under control, but has a weakness for doughnuts.  Romy (Juggling Briefcase & Baby) wears bangles that she has collected on her travels, and fiddles with them when she gets nervous.  You get the idea.

Blake Snyder called his book on screenwriting Save the Cat! after the key moment in a script that makes us identify with a character.  Your hero or heroine doesn’t have to save a cat literally, of course, but if you can put in a moment which shows them doing something kind or generous or thoughtful or funny, the reader will want them to succeed.  Who remembers the film Romancing the Stone?  There’s a tiny scene at the beginning of that where the heroine, Joan Wilder, is in a hurry to deliver her manuscript to her agent when she meets an elderly neighbour hauling her shopping trolley up the stairs of the apartment block  Joan scolds her for not using the lift, but nonetheless turns round and carries the trolley up the last stairs for her neighbour.  It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s enough for us to see that Joan isn’t the kind of person who rushes past neighbours without noticing them, and we like that about her. 

Make sure your characters believe in something - work, family, justice, love – that we can admire and believe in too.


  1. Thanks for the great and valuable advice, Jessica!

  2. I did love Romy's bangles! Fantastic post. Thanks so much!

  3. Fabulous post. Thanks so much, Jessica.