What Makes a Compelling Character?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Good evening!

I am reading this amazing book called Write Like the Masters by William Cane.  He analyzes classic literature and shows writers how to learn from authors like Hawthorne and Faulkner.  As I read this book, the one thing that stands out to me the most is that every writer in this book crafted a compelling character.

There's something magical about the way a good writer can make black markings on a page become flesh and blood, real living people who are as dear to the reader as their own friends.

But...what exactly makes a compelling character?

Every story ever written has attempted to construct lively, realistic characters that become endearing to the audience.  The realism and depth of literary characters are grounded in how well the author is able to reflect human nature and display a sense of mystery.  Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson clearly expose these points by developing the complexities of the plot through the people experiencing it.

Characters are the foundation of every story.  Readers are engaged in a book not by the intensity of the plot but by the connection they feel to the people involved in it.  The best characters are ones who capture the essence of human nature.  When the audience feels a bond and is able to empathize, the story becomes more compelling.  If characters goes through physical and mental difficulties or must overcome great adversity, readers form a relationship with them and feel that they can identify with the situations.  In order for words to leap off the page and become flesh and blood, there must be the element of universal human qualities.  What are his aspirations?  What does he fear?  What is his greatest secret?  What is he proud of more than anything else?  A truly adept author will strive to answer these questions and form an affinity between the story and the reader.

Another significant component of a compelling character is the aura of mystery.  Renowned English writer Charles Dickens once claimed his motto to be: “Make them laugh.  Make them cry.  Make them wait.”  He realized that a good character doesn’t just need to display a true human disposition but he also must be an enigma, a puzzle to solve by the end of the novel.  If a character is only one-dimensional and easily transparent, the reader will lose interest in the story.  The book Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist by Archibald C. Coolidge Jr. discusses how Dickens integrated techniques that would capture the reader’s attention: “He solved the problem of the constant need for advance in plot by creating a mystery...which had alternating sublines.” Dickens displayed this through many of his popular classics, including Oliver Twist.  In the book, the truth of Oliver’s family remains unknown until the end.  The reader is also bemused by the presence of the peculiar Mr. Monks, who finds himself playing an irreplaceable role in the life of young Oliver.  Here, the mystery captured the readers and the kept them connected until the end.  He withheld crucial information and made the audience wait to find out the truth.

Stevenson also made use of both components, empathy and mystery, in his thriller The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  From the beginning, the desire to know more about the unusual Mr. Hyde provides the continuos question both of Dr. Jekyll’s sanity and of his morality.  The intrinsic battle of good and evil is waged throughout and the reader becomes bound to Dr. Jekyll.  This connection is formed both out of compassion and curiosity.  Is Mr. Hyde really who Dr. Jekyll says he is?  Why is Mr. Hyde so misanthropic?  What kind of ailment is taking over the prestigious doctor?  As the story unfolds and the mystery of Mr. Hyde is developed, the reader begins to be suspicious about the validity of Dr. Jekyll’s claims.  When the resolution is found and the duality of personas is revealed, the question of morality is answered.  Because all humans must choose between right and wrong in their lives, people can sympathize with Dr. Jekyll, for he succumbed to the duality and lost control of himself.  The mystery of who Mr. Hyde is makes readers engaged and interested.

This analysis is not limited to Dickens and Stevenson, naturally.  I believe that it is universal for every piece of quality literature.

Some of my favorite literary characters are Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlet O'Hara and Jo March.  Why?  Because the writer found a way to demonstrate life, to create living people with personalities, joys and fears.  Each of the three women I mentioned above come alive off the page.  They are all so different.  And yet each one seems so real.  It can be difficult to remember that they only came from the imagination of a young writer.

Truly compelling characters are the foundation to a great story.  The must parallel the truth of humanity by capturing natural feelings and desires.  There must also be an element of the unknown.  Both Dickens and Stevenson demonstrated this fact beautifully.  Their words became people, the lives created in man’s imagination became real.  And that is what makes both the characters and their stories so endearing.

Who are some of your favorite book characters and why?


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