Saturday, October 2, 2010

Three Traits of Compelling Characters

by Kathleen Ernst

I’m grateful to all of Poe’s Deadly Daughters for allowing me to be a guest today. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a drawing for one free book. The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles. Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!

I enjoy a good stand-alone as much as anyone…but my greatest reading pleasure comes from discovering a wonderful series. And the best part about that is getting to know the protagonist. I want to go for a long ride; to see her grow and change not only within a single book, but over the arc of the series. I want to settle in and spend time with characters I truly care about.

Old World Murder is the first book in my new adult series, and I hope readers will feel that way about protagonist Chloe Ellefson.

My previous novels have been for teens and kids, but the challenge remains the same. Over the years, as both a writer and a reader, I’ve distilled what I consider the most important aspects of a compelling main character into three main traits.

1. Compelling protagonists have inner strength. Call it spunk, call it sass, call it spirit—great characters have it. It may be buried deep inside, but it has to be there. The characters I care most about are people I can admire, even if deeply flawed. And I don’t want to wait too long to find evidence of it. Who wants to go on a long ride with a total wimp?

Chloe Ellefson is starting a new job as curator of collections at a large historic site when Old World Murder opens. Although there are hints that she’s dealing with a troubled past on page one, we also see her stand up to an overbearing co-worker in the first chapter. Yes, she’s in some emotional pain—but that doesn’t mean she’s going to be pushed around.

2. Compelling protagonists are also vulnerable. I will admire a character who shows supreme strength every day, every hour. I probably won’t care about her on a personal level, though, because I can’t relate to her. When I discover what makes a character vulnerable, I keep reading to make sure she’s OK in the end.

I thought a lot about Chloe’s backstory as I developed Old World Murder. The full story is revealed gradually, but when the book opens she is recovering from a bad breakup, a lost job, and a bout of clinical depression. And that raises the stakes as troubles and threats begin to multiply.

3. Compelling protagonists want or need something, badly. Often this personal, inner plotline works against the external events of the mystery investigation. The mounting obstacles that get between the character and her goals keep me turning pages.

In Old World Murder, Chloe’s new job at the historic site gives her an opportunity to make a fresh start both personally and professionally. On her first day on the job, Chloe meets an elderly woman who begs her to find a valuable family artifact. The woman dies minutes later, but when Chloe tries to discover the whereabouts of the missing object, the search quickly turns dangerous. And when Chloe’s new boss orders her to stop looking, she may have to choose between finding the truth and keeping the job she so desperately needs.

How does that list compare with your own? I’d love to hear what traits you find important!

****************
Kathleen Ernst is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder (Midnight Ink). She has also written eight mysteries for young readers. Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards. For more information see her website, http://www.kathleenernst.com, or her blog, http://sitesandstories.wordpress.com.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your post has helped me understand why I'm having such a hard time creating my protagonist! Thank you....Flo

Kathleen Ernst said...

Gee, thanks, Flo! You just got my day off to a wonderful start. Good luck with your protagonist!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the three important requirements. I have had difficulty in staying with a book when one of them is missing.

Hope to read your latest book.

CarolNWong(at)aol(dot)com

Deb Salisbury said...

It took me a couple of books to realize that my MC must need something early on - I was content to let circumstances batter him. This is great advice for every writer!

I'd love to read you new book!

Allene Reynolds said...

Loved your post - it emphasized the importance of making your characters human. Sometimes I forget to look at my characters deeply. To take the time to find out what's really bothering them and why they are behaving in a certain manner. Went back over a few chapters of my latest manuscript and will implement your wisdom to help my readers better understand my characters. That's really what its all about, isn't it?

Ellis Vidler said...

My MC is a museum curator, looking for a home after a nomadic life as an archaeologist. I loved your book (Whistling in the Dark?) about the newspaper woman and her daughter. It's been years but I haven't forgotten it or the bloomers.

Suzanne said...

Great post! These characteristics also apply to the best villains in fiction. The easiest way to turn heroes or villains into comic-book figures is to make them invulnerable.

Suzanne Adair

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

I'm working on exactly whereof you speak: a compelling backstory to the protagonist in my new novel. If there's no depth, no psychological thing at stake, the book is flat and no one really cares.

Anonymous said...

It was nice to see the traits catalogued so clearly. It's always useful to see character development from another person's angle.

I find it fascinating to see so many other museum/historical society professionals who also write mystery. We have our own little sub-sisterhood!
Llyn K.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I know that the authors I most admire are those who create characters so real they walk off the page and into our hearts!

CherylsPearls said...

Great blog! I agree 100% on the traits! I hate to try to read a book when I could care less about any of the characters! Thanks for the article!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Ellis - I am so glad you enjoyed Whistler in the Dark! That was great fun to write, and I was introduced to the whole Reform Dress movement while working as a curator.

And to you, Lyn, and anyone else - the history professional world, in broad terms, does provide great fodder for mysteries, doesn't it? I'd love to swap stories. Perhaps at a conference some time.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. It's these three traits that give the character depth and create a real person, not a cardboard cut out. A great post.

Lesley Diehl

Christine said...

Thank you for distilling these three steps!I have never actually thought about it in those terms but, everyone is spot on.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for visiting us this weekend, Kathleen, and for contributing such a great post. I hope a lot more people will comment before the weekend is over so they'll have a chance to win one of your books.

About character flaws: I think some aspiring writers are reluctant to give their protagonists flaws, bad habits, etc., because they don't want readers to dislike them. Yet those are the very things that help readers identify with them -- the things that make the characters real. We can't be too protective of our characters. Like parents with children, we have to allow them to make mistakes and fail sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I think that the three traits that you mentioned are right and I look forward to reading your new series.

I also love the American Girl series and have a large collection of those.

Helen Kiker

Pauline Alldred said...

I enjoyed your post. Maybe when you talk about spunk you mean the same as I think of as the ability to decide on an unpopular choice of action and to follow through because it's the most human thing to do.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sandra - I think you make an important point when you said "We can't be too protective of our characters." So true, and yet it can be difficult! We create these characters, we love them, we want the best for them...and yet sometimes we have to let them stumble, and even fall.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Pauline - I love your definition of spunk. A character who exhibited that ability is one I'd happily follow through a book--or a series.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Kathleen. I'm just a few pages inside of Sandi Ault's 4th mystery featuring Jamaica Wild (Wild Penance, 2010) and realizing that when I turn the last page my "friendship" with JW will be on hold until Sandi's next book is ready...am already feeling the loss, perhaps because JW has all three of your compelling traits. Perhaps ethical depth or something like that might be a fourth trait, e.g., compassion for animals, underdogs, nature, justice... Not sure where sense of humor fits in. Am looking forward to meeting Chloe and hoping she'll become a longtime friend...Kori

Kathleen Ernst said...

Oh, good additions, Kori. We're used to meeting characters in mysteries who are strong and capable--so how compelling to see evidence of that kind of ethical depth. I like a sleuth who can handle the tough stuff, but does not get hardened by these events.

And as for Chloe...I hope so too.

Renaissance Women said...

I agree that the protagonist cannot be too perfect. When you look at the flaws, that is what makes them intersting and human. It also helps to create a need in the reader for the protagonist to win out. If the antogonist is equally as interesting what wonderful sparks can happen. It is the 'hits' that we take that create the 'steel' we become. That is what I love about stories. I have been watching this creation unfold and am very excited to see what happens.

shirley said...

I like a protagonist who has inner strength, can be vulnerable but able to do what is right even when it hurts. I like a life interesting enough to want to follow it into the next novel. Keep writing, it keeps us readers happily reading.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post! -- BrendaW.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for the good conversation, everyone. I've been on the road, but as soon as I can check in with Sandy we'll have the name of the book winner.

This was my first stop on a month-long blog tour, so I hope you'll continue the discussion! You can find the full schedule at my blog, http://sitesandstories.wordpress.com/
There will be a giveaway with every post!

Otherwise...happy reading, and writing.

Sue Curran said...

Hi Kathleen, hope to see you and M&M in M. next month. The new one is out and I can't wait to show it off.

Diane Finney said...

Thanks for sharing your tips for creating interesting characters. I'll keep them in mind during the revisions of my first mystery.
Sincerely,
Diane Finney

Anonymous said...

maxexisefer
[url=http://healthplusrx.com/sexual-health]sexual health[/url]
JittyCatImina

Anonymous said...

А! Ah!!! at last I found what I was looking for. Somtimes it takes so much effort to find even tiny useful piece of information.