Thursday, April 28, 2011

Creating Compelling Characters by Jodie Renner

Quick – who are your favorite fictional characters? Some of my favorite thriller writers are Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and C.J. Box. Their plots are riveting and keep me on the edge of my seat, but it’s the characters that endear themselves to me and stay with me longer – Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett. And I’ve just recently met Michael Connelly’s very likeable defense lawyer Mickey Haller. And who can forget Janet Evanovich’s great cast of characters—not to mention all the excellent characters in our favorite stand-alone novels!

Your novel can have a great premise and riveting plot, but if your characters are weak, boring, or undeveloped, your book will be quickly rejected by agents and acquisition editors. As Elizabeth Lyon points out, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)

Your protagonist needs to be likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He needs emotional depth and a few flaws and insecurities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your character is annoying, boring, too perfect, or a wimp, you’re dead in the water. –And don’t make your villains 100% evil, either.

Please – no annoying protagonists

Your main character can and should have a few faults, but overall, she needs to be sympathetic and likeable – not whiney, ditzy, cold, immature, or annoying. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character. If the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist and what happens to her within the first few pages, she will put down the book and go on to another one. As James Scott Bell says, in fiction, “readers will respond only if they are connected, bonded in a way to the lead character.” (Revision & Self-Editing)

A perfect character is insufferable

Don’t make your main character too good to be true. Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes.” As Mittelmark and Newman so aptly put it, “Perfect people are boring. Perfect people are obnoxious because they’re better than us. Perfect people are, above all, too good to be true.

“Protagonists should only be as nice as everyday people are in real life. Making them nicer than the average reader will earn the reader’s loathing, or make her laugh in disbelief.” (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel)

Develop those cardboard characters

To avoid flat, superficial characters, you need to create an interesting backstory for each of them, including their secret fears and insecurities, hopes and desires, likes and dislikes, quirks and attitudes, and strengths and triumphs. Many of these details won’t make it into your novel, but knowing them yourself will make your character more complex and well-rounded, and reduce the chances that you have him acting out of character.

Also, a sure-fire way to deepen your characters is to have them react more to events. Show how they’re feeling, through their words, actions, and body language. An emotionally flat character is boring.

Give your protagonist charisma

“GRIT, WIT, AND IT.” – That’s James Scott Bell’s answer to the question “What makes a great Lead character?” Here are a few of his points about each of these essential attributes:

GRIT – “Let me lead off with the one unbreakable rule for major characters in fiction: No wimps!

A wimp is someone who just takes it. Who reacts (barely) rather than acts. While a character may start out as a wimp, very early on he must develop real grit. He must do something. He must have forward motion. Grit is guts in action.”

No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve their life. As Bell says, “Know your character’s inner lion. What is it that will make her roar and fight? Bring that aspect to the surface early in your story and you won’t be hampered by the wimp factor.”

WIT – Wit can rescue a character from a moment that can become just maudlin self-pity, or be overly sentimental, almost sappy, and will enliven even a negative character. As Bell says,

“Find an instance when your character can gently make fun of himself. Work that into a scene early in the book. This makes for a great first impression on the reader.”

IT – “It” means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It’.”

Bell gives several suggestions for making sure your lead character has “it”, including:

“Work into your novel an early scene where another character is drawn to your Lead character. This can be because of sex appeal, power, or fascination. It can be subtle or overt. But this will set It in the minds of the readers.” (Revision & Self-Editing)

And don’t forget to give your main character plenty of attitude!

Don’t wimp out on us

“Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active—risk-takers—highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person—a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.” (Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them))

As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion. […] Usually the writer simply doesn’t realize that his character is a dishrag type because he modeled the character after a real person or he doesn’t realize that fictional characters differ from us mere mortals.” (Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us)

So don’t model your hero after someone you know. He needs to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Morrell puts it, “fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.”

Make sure your protagonists aren’t boring, perfect, annoying, or wimpy. Make them appealing and memorable by giving them charisma, flaws, likeable traits, and above-average moral and physical strength and inner resources.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, March 2011

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”


Joelle Charbonneau said...

Jodie - what a great post. I would also add that your characters should never be TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). Nothing kills my enjoyment of a book more.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here at The Thrill Begins!!

Jodie Renner said...

TSTL - Love that, Joelle! Especially a protagonist (or antagonist). Makes for very frustrating reading - and when I get frustrated, I put the book down and don't pick it up again!

Terry Odell said...

Writer Gayle Wilson said that a reader should put him/herself in the character's place and say, "If I was ever in that situation, I hope I'd respond the way he did." A sense of honor can endear the character to the reader.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jodie Renner said...

Excellent point, Terry! And a character who doesn't seem realistic or is too good (or bad) to be true will turn the reader off.

Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Jodie,

Thank you so much for the great post! According to my agent, writers have a hard time creating 3-dimensional villains. Many tend to be cardboard character.

Have you found the same thing?

Thanks, Tracey

Jodie Renner said...

Yes, Tracey, most new writers make their villains all bad, which isn't good! LOL.

Here's what Donald Maass says about that in his excellent book, The Fire in Fiction: "Cardboard villains don't scare us. Stereotypical antagonists lack teeth. By contrast, an antagonist who is human, understandable, justified, and even right will stir in your readers the maximum unease."

Tracy March said...

Hi Jodie,

Loved your post. Great reminders of how I should write my characters.I'm a fan of so many of the gurus you reference in your post and comments--Elizabeth Lyon, Jessica Page Morrell, Donald Maass. If only I could catalog all of that good advice in my brain and magically convey it in my writing!

Mmmmm. Sounds like the makings of a fantasy novel! :)


Jodie Renner said...

Yes, Tracy, I keep reading the best of the craft of fiction books out there, hoping I'll retain most of the jewels of advice they offer. They all seem to agree on most points, which makes it easier for me to feel confident about the advice I give my writer clients.