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Han Solo, Scarlett O’Hara, and Your Characters: What Makes Them Compelling?

I’m so pleased to be introducing our guest today, K.M. Weiland, author of the wonderfully instructional blog, Wordplay, which has been one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers for the last two years. She writes historical fiction and is the author of three books, including Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. You can also follow her on Twitter on @KMWeiland. Enjoy the post!

We all know what a compelling character looks like.

Han Solo. Scarlett O’Hara. Tom Sawyer. Anne Shirley. Frodo Baggins.

Those are the characters we’ve cheered for, and those are the kinds of characters we want to put into our stories. But watching Han Solo swashbuckling on the big screen is scads easier than trying to write someone who can pull in readers with the same force of sheer charisma.

Han Solo

Sometimes we get lucky, and a fantabulous character plops onto our pages fully formed. Other times, our characters are less than cooperative and we have to work at making them likable and interesting. We’re not going to find an absolute formula for writing great characters. But, instead, we can break down the great characters of literature and film to figure out what makes them tick.

Start by grabbing a blank piece of paper and writing down a good long list of all your favorite characters. Then, consider why you like them and write down the traits you particularly resonate with. Try to keep the traits to one-word tags to simplify the exercise and keep it as generic (and therefore widely applicable) as possible.

I did this a few years ago to figure out what traits contributed to the best female characters. Here are a few results I came up with:

Cora Munro from The Last of the Mohicans
Traits: Tough, Brave, Loyal, Open-Minded

Trinity from The Matrix
Traits: Tough, Brave, Skilled, Dedicated

Elizabeth Bennett from Pride & Prejudice
Traits: Witty, Outgoing, Opinionated, Loyal

Danielle de Barbarac from Ever After
Traits: Optimistic, Spunky, Passionate, Idealistic, Ethical

Sue Barton from Open Range
Traits: Kind, Brave, Unprejudiced, Generous, Unflappable

The traits your list highlight will vary, depending on the type of characters you examine and your own personal values and preferences. But, in the end, you should come away with a rounded idea of what traits you want to emphasize in your own character to achieve the same effect as those from your favorite stories.

The trick here, of course, is to make sure these traits appear organically within your character. Saying you want a tough, brave, sweet heroine is fine, but you can’t force any of those traits onto a character. You have to work with them and mold their personalities, back stories, and motivations to make sure these traits are an inherent part of their personalities—and not just tacked on for aesthetics.

Using this fun little exercise, you can take character work from the realm of the merely instinctual to that of conscious decision.

PRACTICE

Make a list of your favorite characters. Then, think about what character traits you like about them.

Spend at least fifteen minutes on this to make sure you get a well-rounded list.

If you’d like, share your results in the comment section.

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If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out our new tutorial, Characterization 101: How to Create Memorable Characters. If you want to create characters that stick in your readers’ minds for years, you should think about signing up.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress PJ Reece

    Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and author of “The Hero’s Journey”, pointed out that early in a story the hero will indicate through some subtle action that he or she is capable of transformation. Because, let’s face it, a hero isn’t someone who can pummel the most villains, but the person who has the courage to change. To drop their own belief systems and emerge as someone truer to their higher nature.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I love The Hero’s Journey, PJ. So to use the Michael Jackson song, to change the world, the hero has to start with the man in the mirror?

    • K.M. Weiland

      Really, the only characteristic that singles out the protagonist from among every other character in the story *is* that ability to change. Literature and film are full of fabulous characters (antagonists, side kicks, etc.) who only missed on the starring role because they had no character arc.

  • http://nancyhendrickson.com/ Nancy Hendrickson

    You gave great examples here – - I especially like Sue Barton – it’s really easy to “see” her characteristics, not by being told but simply by her actions. Good one!

    • K.M. Weiland

      You bring up a great point, which is, of course, that character traits never fully resonate unless the character proves them through his actions. An author can say a character is brave until he’s blue the face, but the character won’t *be* brave until he faces down an enemy battalion single-handedly.

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Agreed. True characterization is all about showing through action and plot.

  • K.M. Weiland

    Thank you so much for hosting me today, Joe!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Whatever. Thank YOU so much for writing this awesome post!

  • Jc Piech

    Brilliant! This is so useful :D

    Also, just wanted to let you know that I really love this blog, so I’ve nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award! It’s a great way for bloggers to network and support each other! I have more information here: http://jcpiech.blogspot.com/
    xx

    • K.M. Weiland

      Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed the post.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks, JC!

  • talia

    well said.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Thanks for reading!

  • http://rebeccaberto.wordpress.com Rebecca Berto

    I like that you reminded us our characters need *motivations*. That’s crucial to creating a natural, believable story. After all, characters should be crafted as people–not two-dimensional things on paper.

    • K.M. Weiland

      We’ll never achieve memorability in our fiction if we’re not able to present well-rounded, realistic characters, and, as you say, that means their believable actions have to stem from believable motives.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Very true, Rebecca. We went into depth on exploring your characters motivations in a post earlier this month. You’d like it:

      http://thewritepractice.com/how-to-explore-your-characters-motivations/

  • http://unknownjim.com/ Jim Woods

    I like a lot of the classic “guy movies” as you can see. Almost all of the characters I like are rebellious, sarcastic, funny and smart.

    Rocky Balboa- simple. Stubborn. Determined. Real. Rebellious. Funny. Defies the odds.

    Michael Corleone- flawed. Calculated. Thinker. Outlaw. Smart.

    Han Solo- rough around the edges. Flawed. Courageous. Funny. Smart. Sarcastic. Outlaw.

    Superman- the jekyll and hyde aspect of his life. Noble, full of honor. Smart.

    (Heath Ledger’s)Joker- scary, intriguing, unstable. Isolated. Smart.

    Doug Heffernan- funny, simple, lazy, smart, normal.

    Arthur Spooner- funny, cynical.

    Fox Mulder- sarcastic, smart, rebellious, adventurous, cynical.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      It’s true. Even Joker is funny. Michael Corleone, though? Not so much. Although he’s the only one in your list who’s not.

    • K.M. Weiland

      ‘Nother good list! Lots of great characters here. Ledger’s Joker is one I find very interesting as well. A lot to chew on there, and the movie left the door open for a lot of interpretations, since we know nothing about his backstory or, really, his motivations.

  • http://writex3.blogspot.com/ Steph

    That was a great exercise. Thanks for warming up my keyboard this eve!

    • K.M. Weiland

      Gotta keep that keyboard warm – especially in the winter!

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Ha!

  • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

    Great post, especially in light of yesterday’s post! I’ve learned so much here in just the last week. I’m realizing I need to go back and do some serious evaluating and editing on my novel. It will be hard but worth it.

    Laura Ingles
    Traits – Stubborn, Kind, Curious, Adventurous

    Jane Eyre
    Trait – Honest, Patient, Strong, Sensitive, Adaptable, Survivor

    Sherlock Holmes
    Traits – Enigmatic, Brilliant, Loyal, Exciting

    William Wallace (he’s the most difficult)
    Traits – Driven, Idealistic, Sacrificial, Brokenhearted

    Hercule Poirot
    Traits – Clever, Fastidious, Endearing, Intuitive, Moral, Loyal

    Virginia Harper (The main character in my novel)
    Traits – Hopeful, Relational, Honest, Warm, Southern

    This was more challenging than I expected! Good exercise for my little grey cells!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      William Wallace. Good one. I’d add intelligent to his list of traits. I like that you put “Southern” as one of the traits you liked!

    • K.M. Weiland

      Fabulous! I love that you’ve got such a wide range of traits listed here. It not only gives a rounded view of the characters listed, but also gives you a lot more to work with in crafting your own characters.

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Seriously awesome.

  • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

    I’ve to agree with one of the comments I’ve read. This was harder than what I’ve expected. Thanks for the challenge!

    Here’s my list of characters and their traits:

    Tyrion Lannister – Cunning. Determined. Survivor.

    Eddard Stark – Honorable. Loyal. Steadfast.

    Vin – Brave. Stubborn. Instinctive. Determined.

    Rick Blaine – Tough. Selfless. Kind. And he’s just plain cool (I know I’m breaking the “one word tag” but I just have to say it).

    Batman – Smart. Complex. Tough. Ladies’ man.

    Gregory House – Smart. Cynic. Exciting. Narcissist.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Good list. I like that you included House. I secretly love narcissists as characters in fiction.

      • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

        Thanks! Yeah. I like them too. They’re more interesting than your usual goody two shoes heroes / characters :)

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          True. I especially like Jane on the Mentalist. What’s a good example of one in literature?

          • Antonia

            Skulduggery Pleasant and Valkyrie Cain from Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series.

  • Yvettecarol

    Thank you very much. You’ve given me a great tool!

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