9.24.2010

Blogfest - Writing Compelling Characters: Who was that again?

It's Sept. 24th, which means The Great Blogging Experiment is underway! Check out the other cool entries on the topic!

Alz and I discussed for a long and frantic time how we should approach this. I wanted to have our characters debate each other to the death, but you don't know them, so that wouldn't be very compelling, and Alz pointed out that they would probably just tear the blog apart (I think they only hear the 'to the death' part of my plan). So, we settled on a list of characters we found compelling and not so compelling and why.

Yeah, this was a little rushed, so I probably shouldn't have watched Fringe but it was SO GOOD. Ahem. Alz wrote up the descriptions after we discussed and I went to sleep early. Thanks, Alz!

HERE'S OUR POST on Writing Compelling Characters!
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COMPELLING

LIKABLE Compelling

BOOK: Soulless by Gail Carriger
CHARACTER: Alexia Tarabotti - Soulless, Victorian, a bluestocking, and quite conscientiously conscious about all of these things.

Krispy - She's confident but also very aware of her flaws and even insecure about them. She's compelling because she deals with all the craziness in her life head on with such delightfully plucky aplomb and poise.


BOOK: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
CHARACTER: Katniss - This 17-year-old BAMF cares deeply for her family and is their sole breadwinner. She can shoot a squirrel in the eye in the dark from a hundred paces with her bow and arrow. She's forced to engage in a fight to the death with twenty-three other teens in a booby-trapped arena beneath the thumb of a ruthless totalitarian government.

Krispy & Alz - What more can you ask for?
Krispy - Katniss is actually a very reactive heroine rather than active, but she's still incredibly compelling. Of course, the compelling circumstances help, but still, you always hear about the importance of having an active protagonist and here we have one who mostly doesn't act until she is forced to/has to. What makes her compelling then? When she does act, Katniss does so with courage and determination. She tries to remember what is important to her and to be true to herself.


Alz - I also found that Katniss's occasional indecisiveness and uncertainties made her compelling. Ordinarily I find a female protagonist's indecisiveness about boys or what to do about etc. to be wishy-washy same-old same-old, but because Katniss is normally such a strong character (and also because of her circumstances) it's refreshing to know that she still worries about these things. Also, she doesn't wallow in self-pity or drama, indeed, Katniss is a very practical-minded and down-to-earth girl.


INTRIGUING / UNLIKABLE Compelling


BOOK: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
CHARACTER(S): The Warden - Ambiguous and manipulative, full of hidden depths, intrigue, and questionable ambition.
Keiro - Ambiguous intentions and actions, moral yet immoral, a loyal cheater, sort of not good but not bad either.

Krispy - Both of these characters are compelling for their ambiguity. I was never quite sure where either of them stood, especially Keiro. They're both blatant about their own ambitions, but they act in ways that sometimes hint at something deeper - that they might have less selfish motivations.

Alz - I was never sure if I liked Keiro or not, but I cared enough to want to know what would happen to him. You keep reading because you want to get a better grasp of who they are. Even with the Warden I was never really sure if what he claimed in his more emotional moments was true or all an act.



MANGA: Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
CHARACTER: Light - He's a teenage genius whose disillusion with the system and good intentions develop into a giant God-complex. He thinks he has an absolute sense of justice and, when given the nigh-undetectable supernatural power to inflict his moral vision on the entire world, he does not hesitate to murder as, when, and who he deems unworthy of life—and whoever gets in his way.

Krispy - Here's a great example of a protagonist who is not necessarily likable (I stopped liking him real fast as the story progressed), but is super compelling. I was actually rooting for his antagonist - the guy sent to catch him - because I liked the antagonist more, but I was still pulled along by Light's brilliant machinations.

Alz - Even if you don't like him, you find yourself invested in his plans. You kind of want to see him get away with it, even if you don't agree with his methods or even his ideology. He's supremely intelligent and though he has good intentions, well, you know what they say about the road to hell.


RELATIONSHIP Compelling

BOOK(S): Havemercy & Dragonsoul by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
CHARACTER(S): Rook & Thom - Listed together because in both books, their first person narratives are on the same plot-line. Rook - no-nonsense, foul-mouthed, rough-around-the-edges Airman of the Esar's Dragon Corps, who grew up in the roughest parts of the capitol city. He doesn't give a flying *bleep* what you think of him, but if you're on the same team, he'll have your back. Thom - a street kid who managed to pull himself out of the slums by intellect. He's smart, well-mannered, University-educated, and in the first book, he has the dubious pleasure of having to rehabilitate Rook (and the other Airmen) into (at least) presentable members of Society.

Krispy - They're very different characters with very different views of the world and ways of approaching situations. Thom is easily likable, but Rook is a huge JERK a lot of the time. Still, Rook ended up being my favorite character because he's also funny, honest (like in a character sense, his actions and words feel authentic), and has these moments where you get where he's coming from and why he's so antagonistic. Thrown together, Rook and Thom have a lot of personality clashes ,but there's also growth. Nothing comes easy for these two, but you want to see if they'll manage to work together or even understand each other a little. The dynamics of their volatile relationship is what drives the story forward.

Alz - I only read Havemercy but I have to say that Rook and Thom were my favorite POVs in that 4-person-POV story. They have a very intense relationship that starts off based on bullying, hatred, fear, and disdain, but neither guy is going to give in to the other. The sizzling chemistry practically burns the pages of the book to a cinder. Rook is indeed a big fat jerkface quite often, but he makes no excuses for himself or for others; Thom is a little more stable a character, but hard work is his ethic and he sticks to it grimly in the face of people like Rook who want nothing better than to make him give up.


BOOK: The Tamir Trilogy by Lynn Flewelling
CHARACTER(S): Brother & Tobin - Here we have a creepy baby ghost. "Brother" was killed as soon as he was born so that his twin sister could magically assume his male form and escape the execution her female nature would have brought upon her.

Alz - Their relationship is fascinatingly ambiguous and often violent as Brother haunts Tobin; Brother knows everything while Tobin knows nothing. They grow up together, the ghost who was robbed of his life and the boy who doesn't know he's really a girl.

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NOT COMPELLING

BOOK: Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
CHARACTER(S): Nora Grey - Boring name indicates boring non-personality, too much teenage angst, zero sense of self-preservation/caution, beyond poor taste in friends, not enough wits to compete with a potato in a first-grade spelling bee.
Vee Sky - Nora Grey's best friend, boy-crazy, fewer brains than a mummy, criminally stupid, criminally juvenile, criminally existent.

Krispy - Maybe you can tell Alz didn't like this book much. Nora was okay to me, but there was nothing about her that really drew me in. She was kind of just...there.

Alz - I freely admit that my descriptions are perhaps a wee tad bit biased. I suppose that Nora was all right, but she lacked any strength of character or interesting/unique characteristics to separate her from a thousand other generic YA-romance heroines. As for Vee, though, I feel I was probably too gentle and generous in my description...


BOOK: Joust by Mercedes Lackey
CHARACTER: Vetch - So overwhelmingly pitiable and pathetic that the author feels it is necessary to explicitly tell us on page 12 that "he was truly the most miserable of boys," after 12 pages of telling us how horrible and pathetic and terrible his life is, and then 5 pages later he's whisked out of said horrible life into a brand new life where everything conveniently, and coincidentally happens to go exactly right for him for the rest of the book.

Alz - This is a classic case of show, don't tell. The author spends the entire first chapter telling us how miserable Vetch is, and then it becomes pretty much a non-issue for the rest of the book. Vetch is very much the angry downtrodden serf-boy, and he was extremely irritating because I felt like rather than outside circumstances making him feel that way, he adopted the attitude and styled himself to suit it. Vetch has no personality beyond the cardboard rebellious-serfboy cutout and his struggles are pretty much nonexistent.

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LIKABLE BUT NOT COMPELLING

BOOK: Shadow Magic by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
CHARACTER: Caius - one of the 4 first-person POV characters; a young, very talented magician. He's eccentric and charismatic, witty and funny, and strange enough to keep most people on their toes. He also has a rather dark reputation, which adds to his air of intrigue.

Krispy - So I kind of loved Caius. He's the type of character I like - seemingly composed and good-natured on the surface, but harboring some sort of unpleasant past. The thing is, by the end of the book, I didn't feel like I'd gotten to know him THAT much better than when I started, even though I spent a quarter of the book in his head. I didn't feel like he'd changed very much over the course of the book, which is a problem when the book is heavily character-based.
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So that's our post! Agree? Disagree?

I guess the takeaway message is that compelling characters come in MANY DIFFERENT forms. You can love them, hate them, love to hate them, but no matter what, you're drawn to follow them on their journeys. Also, it takes more than just likability, cute quirks, or badassness to make a compelling character. They have to be real, flawed and human. They need to ring true to the reader, and I think most importantly, they need to grow and change to be truly compelling.

Be sure to check out other takes on the Compelling Characters topic by visiting the link at the top of this post! Have a glorious weekend!


P.S. This is a great article from Nathan Bransford about the role of parents (or lack thereof) in kidlit: In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature

P.P.S. I'm seeing MUSE this weekend! I didn't even realize! It's going to be EPIC!!!

18 comments:

Solvang Sherrie said...

Wow, you guys did quite the analysis here! I totally agree with you on Hunger Games and Hush, Hush. I just started Incarceron so I'll have to get back to you on that one :)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wow...You guys put a lot of work into this...Sadly I haven't read any of these books yet. Some of them are sitting in my TBR pile... (I'm reading Nightshade City right now.)

Have a great weekend!

Melissa said...

You guys put a heck of a lot of work into this analysis. I totally agree with Hush Hush, Hunger Games and have now added a couple books onto my to be read pile.

Christine Fonseca said...

I love this post! great job guys....

Lyla said...

Wow! I love this post. Great approach. I like your explanation of Katniss, because I agree that reactive characters can still be compelling when done right. The others... well... I haven't read them... *ducks books thrown by horrified bloggers*

N. R. Williams said...

This is a good list and one that compels me to read the stories I haven't...oh, except for Nora Gray.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

RaShelle said...

Great analysis!

Katniss irritated me in a lot of ways. I loved, loved the books for the storytelling (haven't read Mockingjay yet - my daughter has it). That was compelling to me. Other characters drew me in more.

ali said...

I have never, ever considered character-building in terms of COMPELLING. You've blown my mind here and I have to say I thoroughly agree with your examples. And because you shared examples I was able to categorize some of my other recent reads and immediately see why I didn't/did care.

Thanks for the lightning bolt!

Elena Solodow said...

Wow, great examples. I have to agree with you on Ms. Nora Gray. It's a great idea to offer up that compelling characters take many forms!

Lisa Potts said...

I haven't read Soulless yet, but it's on my list. Great examples in your post.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Good examples! The only one I've read is Soulless, but I do find her compelling.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Wow, what indepth analysis. My tbr list is growing. Thanks!

Danyelle said...

I love this! Not only did you give great examples, but I love how you broke them down to show there are many different ways of compelling. Awesome job!

foldingfields said...

It's refreshing to read your take on these characters--genuine and honest. I have to say I haven't read every single book you mentioned, but the points you made are great!

lbdiamond said...

Ooh, great list! Love this!! :D

Patti said...

That's amazing. Just goes to show that all compelling characters do not have to be likeable and vice versa.

Elana Johnson said...

Ooh, I like how you put up unlikeable, yet compelling characters. It's important to remember that all the characters in our novels need to be compelling, not just the MC's.

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is some analysis!

The only book I've read is the HUNGER GAMES, and I agree with your standpoint on Katniss (although I DID find the whole "which boy" thing to be annoying - I always do).

Nice job!