Friday, September 24, 2010

Compelling Characters

As part of The Great Blogging Experiment by Jen, Elana, and Alex , here is my contribution.

So with all the hype surrounding Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I placed my holds at the library and read the books. The whole series. I wanted to understand the craze. And I have to admit, I laughed . . . even harder when my six-year-old was rolling on the ground in hysterics.

But confession. The main character annoyed me to no end! I got to the end of the first book and wondered why I should feel bad for his situation. The last incident was an attempt to make him likable, but I wasn't convinced. I kept reading the series, and found each book worse than the last in that regard. Don't get me wrong. Yes, they were funny. But the character is a jerk! It made me wonder if I even want my kids reading it some day.

In contrast, take Charlotte from Charlotte's Web. She's a spider for goodness sake! I hate spiders. (Surely you remember this post on the subject). But I love Charlotte. I cry at the end every stinkin' time. And why? Because this character reaches outside of her meager existence to make a difference in the world. She thinks less of herself and more of others.

And no, not all characters will be like that. Nor do they have to be to be compelling. There are a lot of ways to write a compelling character, and I won't (nor even can I in this limited space) cover them here. But one way to make a character compelling is to give them something to love. Something outside of themselves. Something they are willing to fight for. Sacrifice everything for.

Those are the characters who have influenced me the most and compel me to keep reading. What makes a character compelling to you?

41 comments:

Jessica Carmen Bell said...

Yes, yes and yes! Motives! We gotta want to want them to reach their goals.

Vicki Rocho said...

I've got the Wimpy Kids books (3 at least) but haven't read them. Thought my son might be drawn in (no pun intended) by the illustrations and he reads like a maniac but NO fiction...now I'm curious if the MC will bug me.

Anyhow...characters are most compelling to me if I have something in common with them or there is a grave injustice. I will love/hate them immediately based on which side of the equation they are on.

Renae said...

Great post Janet! I like to see that a character has flaws and something that makes them unique, that's what keeps me reading.

Cleverly Inked said...

Yikes I have the wimpy books in my son's future box. I need to read these first. Thanks for letting me know.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I like believable characters. They don't have to be lovable, but they have to be real. And that includes having flaws.

Joanne said...

I like believable characters too. It helps if they're in some way sympathetic to the reader, or are experiencing a conflict of the heart, something the reader can relate to as well.

Amparo Ortiz said...

Awesome post. I find jerk characters intriguing, but they have to possess a little something extra in the sympathy department. I haven't read this series, though. Better check it out ;)

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

I've not read the wimpy kid books, but I agree with you about Charlotte's Web -- I cry too. lol.

As for characters, I agree there needs to be something about them to love.

Angela said...

Good post. I like how you compared Diary of A Wimpy Kid to Charlotte's web. I hate spiders, but I love Charlotte, and I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't.

Laurel said...

It's interesting that at the end of the day, it's virtue that wins over voice alone for you. I've felt that way too about some of the YA books I've picked up. I kept wanting the character to grow and she just didn't. Her attitude that made the voice initially appealing didn't have behind it a personality amenable to positive change. And that just sucks. :-(

Talei said...

I haven't read Diary of a Wimpy Kid but I do remember Charlottes Web from school. Interesting how some stories stay with us. ;)

Quinn said...

I like this ... give the character something to love outside of themselves. So simple, but it can show so much about a character.

Jen said...

You just found the one S (I don't spell it, far too scary) that I'm not afraid of. I love Charlotte's Web! It's amazing that she's an insect and there is still a relationship.

As for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid I almost rented the movie but the boy irritated me... and I didn't even pick up the book, how funny!

Great view Janet! Thanks a bunch!

Tere Kirkland said...

I definitely want to slap some characters for being so selfish and self-absorbed sometimes. I mean, real people can be self-absorbed, but it takes a lot of work to make them a sympathetic character in a novel, particularly as a lead.

Great post! Love Charlotte's Web. Always makes me cry, and I had a wonderful animated film version of it growing up that made me love it even more.

Elana Johnson said...

I'm so with you on Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The movie was even worse, and I couldn't even watch the whole thing. But motivation is important.

Kenda said...

What makes a character compelling to me? One who hooks me at the beginning and makes me not only want to know what's going to happen to her, but why I should care. Thanks for the question--it got me thinking!

C. N. Nevets said...

Great point! If the characters don't reach outside themselves, they won't reach the readers who are (tada!) outside them.

Shallee said...

I definitely love a character who loves something or someone like crazy. That's definitely a must for characters. Thanks for the post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm not much for the total jerks, either.
Ironically, I had to reel in the unlikeable characteristics of one of my main characters or I'd risk readers disliking him!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Give them something to love--what a beautiful concept. That adds so much depth to a character, for sure.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

If there's one thing that will turn me off of a book, it's a main character I don't like. I've given up on books that were interesting in other ways because I didn't like the MC. Good post.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I just bought one of the Wimpy Kid books....I've done a few blog posts in Macy's voice (our dog) and a couple people suggested I look at them when I said I had journaled her first year of life as a dog...umm she was and still is a dog...I was just pretending to think for her and write it down as she reacted to things...like her first hotel visit etc...(Yep...I'm rambling...I've been reading posts allllll day.)

Tamika: said...

I want my character to inhabit the pages with authenticity, even their flaws should draw the reader in.

Melissa said...

too true!

Characters are compelling to me because they firmly inhabit the grey area, neither all good or all bad. I like conflict, tension and strong personalities.

Christine Fonseca said...

Oh, I love your answer to this...give them something they LOVE. excellent

Hannah Kincade said...

aw, Charlotte's Web. I haven't re-read the book but the movie makes me cry like a big ol' baby.

RaShelle said...

That's a great comment - a character willing to sacrifice everything for. Great.

N. R. Williams said...

Good post, the character who is willing to love beyond themselves is always compelling.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Cinette said...

Giving the characters something they would sacrifice anything for...wonderful insight! I'll be keeping this in mind!

Lisa Potts said...

Charlotte's Web is such a great example of compelling characters. I eluded to it in my post too. Great minds think alike, I guess!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Motivation is key. Wonderful post. And I love Charlotte's Web.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Compelling characters may mean different things for different ages?
I hadn't thought of it that way.

What is your son being compelled to do? If it is read more of the same only it is a bad compelling character but if it teaches him that books are great... perhaps you could do the Nanny 911 thing - get him to discuss how the character's behaviour impact on others etc Get him to do the funny but responsible rewrite.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Such a good point! Must give them something to love. I think this holds true for villains/antagonists, too. Even if they aren't likeable, they remain compelling.

Medeia Sharif said...

I know what you mean about the spider! You're right about characters caring about something outside themselves and willing to make a sacrifice.

Victoria Dixon said...

Awesome point, Janet. Yes, if the character doesn't love something/someone outside of their own self, why should we love them? I'm with you on Charlotte's Web. I couldn't bring myself to watch the recent movie version because she was too physically realistic, but as a read character, I love her. And my most favorite characters are the ones who love deeply, among other things. I also love characters who are heroic, intelligent and (at least sometimes) funny. Love Bob, BTW. :)

MikeS said...

I didn't like the MC in Hunger Games for the same reason.

What makes a compelling character to me is that they experience the world in a similar way that I do, so I can relate.

Julie said...

"But one way to make a character compelling is to give them something to love. Something outside of themselves. Something they are willing to fight for. Sacrifice everything for."

I've read so many posts and I've loved every one of them (and I'm determined to make it through all 200 participating blogs), but you and that quote just took my breath away. Brilliant and yet so simple.

Glad I found your blog and great post!

Jen Chandler said...

Oooh, give them something to love outside of themselves. I love this!

Great post! Thanks for sharing and I'm glad I found my way here :)

Cheers,
Jen

Margo Berendsen said...

I think you just pinpointed the difference between the funny book (series) of the moment, versus a classic. "give them something to love. Something outside of themselves. Something they are willing to fight for. Sacrifice everything for"

Ishta Mercurio said...

We don't even have the Wimpy Kid books in my house. I leafed through one at the bookstore and thought, "Nope, not for my family." I really don't understand the craze.

You made a great point about a character needing something outside of him or herself to love in order to be compelling. You're so right.

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