The success of a story often hangs on the presence of a compelling character.
When I first started writing fiction and submitting it to magazines, I was fortunate to receive feedback from editors (perhaps they recognized my newbie status) via rejection letters. In particular, Charles Ryan at Aboriginal Science Fiction used to send a checklist of reasons for his rejections, often with a little hand scrawled note of encouragement. My most often rejection reason from Mr. Ryan was a lack of character depth, or what is sometimes call “flat” characters. Basically, my characters weren’t compelling.
Over the years, I’ve worked hard to write stronger characters, and while I don’t think they are necessarily my greatest strength, I also don’t think my characters tend to hold back my stories anymore. Over time I believe I have developed a feel for what makes a compelling character. I’m not saying I have the all the answers, but I thought I’d share my process for character development. When developing a main character (as opposed to a supporting character), I consider four important facets:
If I can develop each of these well enough to engage a reader, then I likely have a compelling character on hands, and one that can support a short story.
I think the most important feature of a main character is that they undergo a “character arc” over the course of the story. This simply means that the events of the story should cause the main character to experience a change, either in their external or internal condition (or both). I believe the most compelling arcs include an internal transformation, usually a fundamental change in who the character is. It is this transformation that makes the events of the story meaningful. Basically, a character arc should tell what that character has learned and how they have chosen to use that information.
A main character must have agency, that is they must be the source of their own change. This usually happens through the character making a critical decision, usually at the climax of the story. The events of the story must drive the main character to this critical juncture, and once there, the main character must be the one who decides what they are going to do. This decision should not be made for them by another character. Sometimes this is referred to as having an “active” versus a “passive” main character. Main characters who are victims to the bitter end, or a tossed by events beyond their control, or are simple doormats for other characters are seldom compelling to read about. A main character must have the means to make choices and must make them.
In real life, people do things because they are motivated. The more motivated the individual, the more they apply themselves. Main characters should do the same. Characters should have reasons for doing what they do. In general, the more personal the motivation, the more compelling the character. For example, a character could have many reasons for robbing a bank, but it is generally more compelling to the reader if they are robbing the bank to get money to pay for their child’s life-saving cancer treatments, than if they simply want the money to buy a fancy car. Motivations matter, otherwise, characters appear to being doing thing for no reason, who in the real world does that?
Finally, a main character must face ramifications for their actions (or inactions). They must have something at stake, and like their motivation, I believe the more personal the stakes, the more compelling the character. The stakes should be meaningful, clearly at risk, and be as large as possible. Competing stakes should exist to make the character’s decision as difficult as possible. In my bank robbing example above, my main character risks losing their child if they are unable to raise the money. If they do not attempt to rob the bank, their child will most likely imminently die. However, if they decide to rob the bank, it introduces a different set of competing stakes. By deciding to rob the bank, my character risks incarceration if caught or perhaps even being killed during the robbery. These seems like high stakes to me, and this main character is in a real bind.
While I certainly don’t have the answers to character development, I have found that compelling main characters need to be well-developed, such they have arcs, agency, motivation, and stakes at risk. As every write is different, this approach may work for you or not. If you’ve found another way to create compelling characters, please drop me a comment. I am always looking for ways to improve my characters and may writing.