I celebrate when one of my characters appears in my mind’s eye fully formed. However, the reality is that for most of us, this is a rare occurrence. Certain techniques are required to creating compelling character traits and to will our characters to life. We need to draw on memory, imagination and whatever Muse until our characters quicken, assume clear form and begin to act of their own accord.
The key is to understand what character traits your characters need from you to come to life, and then judge how best to give them what they need.
The most compelling characters are those who appear internally consistent and yet are capable of surprise. I am learning that to craft such characters you need four main character traits: a driving need, a desire, an ambition or goal; a secret; a contradiction; and a vulnerability.
Four Character Traits for Compelling Characters
A Driving Need, Desire, Ambition or Goal
There is one truth to creating fictional characters – those characters must want something, and the stronger the want, the more compelling the resulting drama. This desire intrinsically creates conflict, the primordial ooze in which characters form.
Take Blanche Dubois, from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, for example. At the start of the story, Blanche loses her family home and is left with nowhere to stay. Desperate, she comes to New Orleans to find her sister, Stella, and ask to be taken in.
This is a perfect demonstration that by giving the character a deep-seated need or want, you can automatically create conflict. The world does not answer our desires as easily as we might hope.
A secret is that inclination or trait or an incident from the past that, if revealed, would change forever the character’s standing in their world. They can be anything such as a psychological disposition to dishonesty, violence, sexual excess, or the abuse of alcohol or drugs, just to name a few. Secrets inform us of what our characters have to lose, and why.
Using the example of Blanche Dubois, her secret is that through drink and illicit sexual liaisons, she has become so emotionally and physically dissipated that she could not hold on to the family home.
We are our own best source for understanding secrets. We know our own, and if we’re insightful, we understand how they affect our behavior – specifically, how they make us afraid.
We all know people who are both shy and rude, cruel but funny, bigoted but protective. This complexity, which seems to particularly manifest itself during times of stress or conflict, is what can make a person inherently unpredictable. This sets the stage for the kind of surprising behavior that can keep readers enthralled, wondering what might happen next.
Our senses and minds are tuned to focus on the things that don’t quite fit, don’t make sense, or are simply in a state of change. This helps in analyzing the environment for threats. But it also attunes us to whatever is unusual in what we perceive; contradictions reveal what we couldn’t predict, the enigma, the surprise.
Again, let’s look at how this applies to Blanche Dubois: She is desperate and weak, hopelessly vain, with an alcoholic’s capacity for denial and delusion. However, she is also fiercely proud and resourceful with a surprising steeliness. It’s contradictions like these that can automatically pique a reader’s interest.
Nothing draws us into a character more than their vulnerability. When people are wounded or in need of our help, we are instantly drawn to them. It’s a basic human reflex. Sometimes we are repelled or frightened, but either way, the fact of the matter is that injury to another person instantly triggers a strong response.
Obviously, vulnerability is usually the result of the character’s secret. They fear their exposure. Or it may come from the intensity of their need or want. We all know, desire can render us naked in a fundamental way. The ambition and focus inherent in a strong desire can imply some form of inner strength. At the same time, it can render the character vulnerable to being denied of what they most want.
Blanche’s desperation to find a safe place makes her vulnerable, as does the tawdry nature of her secrets. Both threaten to shame her beyond redemption if revealed.
In other words, needs or desires, secrets, contradictions and vulnerability are almost always connected.
Question: What are some needs or desires, secrets, contradictions and vulnerabilities in your characters? You can comment here.