writing tips

5 Ingredients for a Compelling Main Character

What makes a great and memorable character? Is it their actions, their bravery or their background stories?

I believe it’s a combination of many elements that all come together like a mosaic to form a colorful character that comes to life off the page.

Photo Credit: BEP on Pixabay, Public Domain Image
Photo Credit: BEP on Pixabay, Public Domain Image

You have to have a great character or character(s) to move the story along and engage readers. It’s one of the most important elements in a story: your characters are the centerpiece.

I think of the characters I’ve come to love and adore: Nancy Drew, Sydney Carton, Nick Carraway, Emily Starr…

All of these characters were vastly different but equally as memorable and compelling to me. I think there are many ingredients that create a great character but I’ve narrowed down 5 elements of what I think makes an excellent character:

    • They’re flawed. Writing characters that are flawed touches on the human element, making them more real and relatable. For instance, Sydney Carton was cynical and pessimistic, with an addiction to alcohol. In the end of A Tale of Two Cities though, he was the hero who courageously saved the day and revealed his admirable character traits. Usagi Tsukino was often a crybaby and a coward in the Sailor Moon mangas, running from fights but still proving her resolve and bravery at the end of the day. Characters that seem too perfect or unrealistic are called Mary Sues or Gary Stus in the fanfiction community. You can find the link to a previous blog post here, where I discuss them more in detail.


    • They’re villains. Some of the most intriguing characters are the bad ones: Loki, Maleficent (the Maleficent in the 2014 film adaptation), Iago… And even then, sometimes they aren’t always the bad ones; sometimes they do good things. I’ve come to appreciate the antagonists and villains- you don’t know what they’ll say or do next. Sometimes the protagonists can even be villainous, making for well-rounded and multi-faceted characters.


    • They have a back story. They have a history just like we do that influences who they are, what they do and how they react. They have wants, needs, desires, fears, insecurities, motivations…It’s important to have their story fleshed out because this will shape their personality, their morals and their actions throughout the story. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale often has flashbacks of her previous life, before the revolution, when she thinks of her husband and daughter. This explains her actions and motivations in the novel, and helps the reader sympathize with her current circumstances.


    • They have quirks or something unique about them. They all have something that sets them apart from other characters, whether it be a special power, a dark history, a physical trait or feature, something they like to wear (with special meaning perhaps), important lineage, or a special destiny. For Harry Potter, it was his distinctive scar, shaped like a lightning bolt on his forehead that distinguished him from the rest. Harry was linked to Lord Voldemort through this and would continue to be throughout the series. The audience immediately knew that this boy was special and had an interesting back story.


    • They have redeeming qualities or strengths. They have something about them that the audience finds likeable or admirable. It could be their kindness, their strength, their bravery, their loyalty, etc. In The Great Gatsby , Nick Carraway was the narrator and observer, staying loyal to Gatsby till the end, and revealing his righteous anger and disgust for Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Nick wasn’t the most reactive character; he was actually quite passive, but he did have a lot of admirable qualities to him. The reader could relate to him.

What do you think makes an interesting and compelling character? Who are some of your favourite characters in fiction and film?

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