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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