5 traits of compelling characters

As writers, we know we have to create characters our readers will love—even if that means creating characters our readers will love to hate. I think Dolores Umbridge in J.K. Rowling’s “The Order of the Phoenix” is a great character. That doesn’t mean I want to have tea with her (afraid she’ll slip me some of Snapes’s veritaserum). But I love reading about her.

Earlier this year, I blogged about creating villains that aren’t cardboard cutouts. But what about our protagonists? If readers are going to follow this person for hundreds of pages—or across multiple books, if we’re writing a series—hopefully that person is someone they enjoy reading about.

Here are a few must-have qualities that I admire in protagonists. Every reader is different, obviously, but these are the important ones for me.

No. 1: They’re clever.

One of my favorite characters is Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit.” Bilbo’s greatest quality is his cleverness. He constantly outwits the enemy. This characteristic is important because Bilbo lives in a world where brute strength often means victory. Thrust into those circumstances, Bilbo proves that cleverness and wit can win out in cases where brute strength fails. Jane Austen’s characters often have this cleverness. They know what they need to do to survive or thrive in the circumstances of their world. Cleverness is necessary whether our character is a tiny hobbit in a world full of warriors or a woman seeking security in Regency England.

No. 2: They’re active.

In every story, we’re basically heaving rocks at our characters. If they just stand there as the events of the story unfold, they won’t be very interesting to read about. Active characters respond to what’s happening to them in meaningful ways. Their actions and reactions drive the story from one plot point to the next. Their actions won’t initially solve the problem; in fact, plenty of times, they’ll just serve to make things worse for themselves. That’s all right—as long as they’re doing something.

No. 3: They’re loyal.

Okay, I confess to having a thing for reading about hobbits. I love Samwise in the Lord of the Rings books. Why? Because even though all Sam wants to do is stay in the Shire and marry Rosie Cottonwood, he follows Frodo on a journey to Mount Doom. When times get tough, he faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles to help Frodo complete his task. Loyalty is an often overlooked quality in our world, but it’s vital in our characters.

This loyalty can also be a source of conflict. What happens when someone close to the protagonist isn’t loyal? What happens if someone close to them isn’t worthy of their loyalty? What happens when someone to whom the protagonist is loyal asks them to do something that isn’t in line with their beliefs? How do they react when their values are challenged in this way? Are there other characters in the story who aren’t loyal who can serve as a foil for the main character?

No. 4: They don’t whine (much).

I once read a book in which the hero had been betrayed by people close to him. Initially, I felt sympathy. But halfway through the book, he was still whining—despite the fact that the world as he knew it was irrevocably changed and his life and others’ lives were hanging in the balance. I didn’t exactly expect him to be over this betrayal, but I wanted him to stop spending pages of the book droning on about it.

Our characters should have issues and flaws and possibly even traumas or phobias. But if they spend more time whining than acting, we’re going to get annoyed—or worse, bored.

No. 5: They’re strong—even if they don’t know it.

This doesn’t have to be physical strength. It can be strength in the form of resilience or strength of character. Maybe our characters know martial arts, or maybe they’re just quick-thinking. Maybe they find hope in a situation that seems hopeless. Hopefully our main character will find their strength in the end—the strength to risk their heart for love, the strength to stand up for someone or something, or the strength to overcome the obstacles the story throws in their path.

Before I forget…My midweek ROW80 check-in

1.) Writing:

  • Finish the second draft of the novella I finished in Round 1, “Good Old-Fashioned Magic.” Not much progress to report. Continuing work on the first chapter.

2.) Read 4 books on the craft/business of writing.

  • This goal is already met for this round, but I’m rereading James Scott Bell’s “Revision and Self-Editing.”

3.) Social media:

  • Check in on Twitter daily. Took Monday off, met for Tuesday.
  • Comment on 3-5 blogs per day, Monday-Thursday. Met, except for Monday. I took the holiday off to spend time with family.
  • Blog 2 times a week. On track to meet this goal.

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop!

Here’s my question for you: Who is your favorite character in a book, and why? What qualities do you admire in characters?

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17 thoughts on “5 traits of compelling characters

  1. Love this post (will share). My biggest character pet-peeve is whining. Because of it, sometimes I worry I make my heroine a bit too strong (one 4-star review said the only negative was that my character seemed too strong and didn’t fall apart on a major reveal). Plus, I like a sarcastic wit, so I put that in characters, too. Loyal is a great one, too.

    About hobbits… I thought Sam was the real hero, especially in the end. He’s the one who kept Frodo on the straight and narrow. Without Sam, Frodo wouldn’t have made it. Sam’s the unsung hero. Love him!

  2. Congrats on the goals you met!

    I don’t have one, single favorite character. But, yeah, I think strength in adversity is a big selling point for a protagonist, especially if at first they don’t look like they’re cut out for the job. 🙂

    • Thanks, Ruth.

      Yes, a protagonist has to be strong, even if it’s not physical strength. I like characters who learn about their true strength over the course of the story. Maybe that’s why I’m so partial to hobbits. 🙂

  3. I enjoyed your commentary on what protagonists should be. Something to remember as I am writing.

    I love strong willed characters, but they definitely have to learn and progress throughout the story. I am fond of the Imaginarium Geographica series by James A. Owen. He writes great protagonists, but if I have to pick one or two. I also like characters that are a bit flawed. Then I love Jack (from the Imaginarium Geographica series. There are 7 books in that series) or Meg from Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. Currently making my way through Catching Fire, and I think Katniss might fall into this category.

    Have a good week Denise! 🙂

    • Thanks, Cindy. I love strong-willed characters, too, and you’re right that every character needs to have a few flaws, too. Katniss is definitely a strong-willed character, a necessity for survival in the world she lives in.

      You too, Cindy. 🙂

  4. One of my favorites is Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. She’s definitely stronger than she thinks, loyal to her friends and family, active (she spends a lot of time chasing after FTAs and wrestling them into her car) and clever (the way she talks some of the FTAs into going to be rebonded, the way she plays Morelli and Ranger off of one another, the way she usees her Burg connections to help find people). And she’s generally whine-free, and when she does there’s the sense that she’s telling herself to get it together. Either that, or she buries her sorrows in food and goes out with a better attitude.

    Congrats on finishing draft #2!

    • Thanks, John. I haven’t read the Stephanie Plum books, but I’ve heard good things about them. That combination of strength, loyalty, and cleverness can create a truly likeable protagonist. It sounds like Stephanie Plum has those qualities in spades!

  5. This is a fab post. I wrote a lot about protagonists a few months back, more about the different types of protagonists, but these are fabulous traits to bare in mind. Oh and I refer to Hobbits quite a bit; you’re not alone on that front.

  6. Reblogged this on A Young Writer's Notebook and commented:
    A few months ago I wrote quite a bit about different types of protagonists. This post by Denise D. Young explores traits of compelling characters, which I not only agree with, but that I aspire to follow. Highly recommended read.

  7. Pingback: The Key to a Great Story – Protagonists | A Young Writer's Notebook

  8. Congratulations on keeping up with your goals! I have to agree with you on the character traits – especially the not-whining bit. Whiny characters are very frustrating. I love the way Sam’s loyalty shines through, even when he thinks he’s made a blunder (like revealing the nature of their task to Faramir).

    • Sam and Bilbo are two of my favorite characters of all time. I love Sam’s loyalty and Bilbo’s cleverness. They’re also both self-sacrificing, another characteristic of compelling characters. Sam, especially–he really doesn’t want to leave the Shire, but he does anyway.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Pingback: 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation

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