For writers: compelling characters

Modern fiction is increasingly about character, less about plot. Aristotle would not necessarily have approved: he argued that character follows plot, and perhaps it needs to. But written literature faces a problem today which it did not one hundred years ago, and to an extent which it did not even ten years ago.

It was not until the arrival of speaking motion pictures, ‘talkies’, that viewers could be presented with an immersive visual experience that could completely show the story, without having to narrate it. Film, and later television, was able to take the viewer through a progression of plot which could be effortless.

Previously, written literature was the king of plot in a way which theatre could never be: theatre required a constant suspension of disbelief. Shakespearean theatre required the exercise of the imagination to a great extent. Nineteenth-century theatre, with its detailed stages and scenery behind the Proscenium arch could invoke a more exact reality, but only at the cost of restricting the range of settings. Drama became domestic, when it had previously spanned the known world.

Written literature had no such bounds: anything which could be imagined could be written, anything which could be written could be read, and re-enter the imagination.

I still believe that plot is important in a good story. And I recognise that, despite its intrinsic advantages, film, especially Hollywood film, as often as not fails to deliver compelling plot. In fact, from promising beginnings, Hollywood is falling ever further behind its viewers. Today’s audiences grew up on They are genre-savvy. Plot twists need to be deeply buried or highly innovative to get past them. This is done better in England than in the USA, and better in France than in England. Last year I watched Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element with a twenty-something Australian. Her comment was ‘finally a film that treats you like a grown-up’.

But what written literature has—and always will have—which film can never have is the ability to get inside a character. We see Bilbo Baggins in the film, but we know him in the book.

This is not limited to ‘literary fiction’ (scurrilously defined as ‘books people discuss without having read’). A Lyndsey Davis, or a Suzanne Collins keeps you reading because of your close association with the lead character. We are concerned about Katniss, and Falco, and even Flavia Albia. we want to know what makes them tick. Readers fall in love with Lizzy Bennett long before they become interested in Mr Darcy. Some of Raymond Chandler’s plots were so incomprehensible that when it came to sorting them out for the film version, he couldn’t explain them, and yet every reader who sticks with the series falls in love with Philip Marlowe, even if they aren’t entirely sure which of several murders he is trying to solve.

To me, a truly effective novel is compelling from the point of view of character, and satisfying from the point of view of plot.

But how does that work? When I was closely involved with young adult writers, I saw more agonising about characterisation than anything else. Much of it was pointless: people would compile long lists of a character’s preferences, history, mannerisms, family history and styles of dress. They would conduct interviews with their characters, imagine them in alternative scenarios, even slip them into other stories. They were, above all, desperate to avoid the ‘Mary Sue‘.

They were not the first to attempt characterisation in this way: Emile Zola’s school of naturalism ticked every conceivable box and mastered every possible nuance. And yet Zola never created a single character that has outlived his era. While Hollywood has ruthlessly rifled through Hugo, Verne, Dickens and Conrad for what has been at times little more than Mary-Sue fan-fiction, Zola’s characters have been left in peace. Sadly, because no one really cares about them.

So what makes a truly compelling character? The answer—I would suggest—is quite the opposite of what most people think.

The compelling character

The clue is in the word ‘character’. What is a character? Certainly not a real person. A character is an inscribed letter. A Ž, or ? or ?. If you say of someone ‘he is quite a character’, you are not entirely complementing them. Such a person is not really larger than life—which would make them a hero— but smaller than life. They seem like they belong on the stage, not at a family BBQ.

Attempting to recreate real people in books is pointless. It can’t be done, and, even if it could, we encounter real people every day without having to pay a publisher for the privilege of doing so. Many of my most avidly reading friends would describe themselves as introverts. They are not looking to increase their range of relationships with real people when they read. But they are looking for something.

On the other hand, distilling characters down to simple figures—like the Hero with a Thousand Faces—does not satisfy either. This can work, or appear to work, in a movie, or even on the stage, because we are presented with a strong visual representation and voice. But in books, they recede to mere markers in the plot. This can work: most of Isaac Asimov’s early characters, in his golden age when writing the original Foundation Trilogy, are little more than figures. Hober Mallow and Lathan Devers are really just repeats of Salvor Hardin, but it would, in my opinion, be a foolish critic who said they were bad stories.

Consider for a moment the modern phenomenon which is Harry Potter. No character in the last fifty years has captured the popular imagination in the way of Harry. But if we look at the investment in characterisation which is put into him, he is one of the most economical characters in the Rowling corpus. Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore and Draco Malfoy all get significantly more lines of description, and they are given memorable dialogue.

Harry, by contrast, says and thinks only the things which we the readers would say and think, in his position. This is not because Rowling doesn’t know how to write a focal character, but exactly because she does. Noone since Dickens has written with such an outrageously rich imagination coupled with such a supply of memorable characters. It’s often been pointed out that we know more about minor characters in Dickens than we do about major characters by most other novelists, but what is more often overlooked is that we know much less about Dickens’s major characters. We have a much stronger sense of Miss Havisham or Magwitch than we do of Pip. Paul Dombey is no more than a slate onto which things are written, and Florence Dombey fares little better. And yet it would be well into the realms of foolhardiness to suggest that Dickens did not know how to write characters.

Major and minor?

You could respond to this by saying that the narratorial character—or focal character for a third-person narrative—is a functional proxy for the reader. We are supposed to see ourselves in Harry, or Bilbo, and so characterisation gets in the way. The minor characters have to be better dressed, as it were, for the story to work.

I think there is some functional truth in this. Dickens, Rowling, Chandler and Asimov all understood in different ways exactly how to tell a good story, and part of telling a good story is immersing the reader. But that is not all there is. We are genuinely interested in Harry Potter, and in Pip, and in Marlowe, and in Arkady Darrell. If Potter were to disappear two-thirds of the way through one of the books, in the way that Hale does right at the start of Brighton Rock, we would simply stop reading.


Creative writing books, and teachers, and the members of the literary community which turned down JK Rowling, talk (to my mind) incessantly about the importance of giving characters agency. The character must, right from the beginning, be taking control, not just being moved around. We want kick-ass characters, even if their kick-assery is standing up to the man at Starbucks who gives them a Latte not a Cappuccino.

But our most favourite of all characters: Harry, Bilbo, Pip, Mole, Marlowe, Marlow and the Wart 1 all show very strong signs of being pushed around in the opening chapters. What agents will take and publishers will sell is not a mark of what makes a book great, but of what marketers believe will sell.

The unanswered question

I want to suggest that a character in a novel is essentially an unanswered question. The question is asked when the character first appears. When the question is answered, the story is over. For there to be a sequel, a new question has to be asked.

The question does not have to be spelled out—not in the way that Tolkien spells it out at the start of the Hobbit—but it needs to be clear enough for us to take an interest. The question can be as general as ‘what is this person like’ or ‘what really makes them tick’, or as pointed as, in Lord Jim, ‘is Jim an honourable person or not?’

At the start of Nostromo—to my mind one of the greatest novels of the golden age of novel-writing—we are introduced to the character of Fidanza, ‘Nostromo’, in such glowing terms as regards him being a man of honour, that we are fascinated by the question: is Fidanza genuinely incorruptible, or is there something else going on? He is tested in all the usual ways, and passes with great distinction. But as the plot develops, we begin to suspect that all is not well. Ultimately, Nostromo’s concern is not for honour, but for being perceived as honourable. It takes a great deal of story to draw out the fine distinction between these two, but the final conclusion is devastating. It is at that point that the book finishes. We close it, completely satisfied.

I have only read Nostromo once, more than thirty years ago, but it still lives in my memory. The character of Fidenza is indelibly engraved on my consciousness. By contrast, I reviewed a new novel last week, and can no longer remember the name of the main character (Kane, perhaps?), nor have I any real interest in finding out what happens to him in a sequel.

At the start of the first Harry Potter book, the question is ‘will Harry Potter be allowed ‘in’?’ He is an outsider where he lives. From the moment he arrives at Hogwarts, he lives in fear of expulsion. The story closes with his final acceptance. Other questions are brought to our minds in the following books. To my mind, the least successful is The Order of the Phoenix, and this is at least partially to do with the fact that there is no new question about Harry that really grips us.

Virtually any question can keep us engaged with a character. Will Odysseus get home? Will Crusoe get off the island? Will Lizzy Bennett escape her fate of being married off for the sake of having somewhere to live? Will Winston Smith find something worth living for? Will Bilbo become the adventurous type? Will Marlowe get ahead of all the people trying to manipulate him for long enough to figure out what is going on?

The questions don’t have to be simple ‘will he or won’t he?’ questions. In adventure fiction, the question of survival is, of course, always important. But in one of English’s first great adventures, Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight, we are much more interested in the question of whether Gawain will lose his nerve and break his promise, or whether he will be found wanting. Connoisseurs of the Arthur cycle surely know that he is going to survive, even if they can suspend this knowledge to keep the story interesting. At the conclusion, the story finishes where it does not because Gawain has survived, but because we have the final assessment on his honour (he gets an A–).

To be clear, what I am suggesting is that a compelling character in fiction is not a person, but the raising of a question about a persona in the book. What makes them compelling is not the depth of description, but the degree of our investment in wanting to know the answer. The reader literally creates the character as they read. The raw materials are provided by the author, and the interest in the question can be stoked or doused by how the story is handled. Directive writing can force the reader to perceive the character in a way close to that of the author, and more open writing can allow the reader to imagine themselves into the character.

Beyond the printed page

We began talking about the particular importance of character to literature, but the notion of character as unanswered question is just as applicable in drama and film. Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear can all be described in terms of answering the question about the lead character posed in the very first scene.

Shakespeare did not invent this, though. Oedipus the King, Antigone and the Oresteia can all be described as plays which ask a question about the title character at the beginning, and conclude when that question is answered.

The world of film and animation also benefits from this. In Netflix’s seminal (though not at all times safe for family viewing) series Love, Death and Robots, arguably the best story, Lucky 13, raises a question about the character of a spaceship at the beginning, and answers it at the end. The spaceship has no other anthropomorphic characteristics, beyond the simple fact that its character as an ‘unlucky’ ship is called into question at the beginning, and answered at the end.

Still in the realm of science-fiction, the unlikely 1979- hit-series, Mad Max, initially shot on low budget and far from Hollywood sensibilities, revolved around the simple question ‘What is Max like?’ Each of the three original films questions the character in a different way. The more recent sequel puts a different character, Furiosa, into the question-seat.

To a certain extent, all films must ask questions to be watchable at all, so we must be careful of imposing a template on them. However, to my mind, films which take a famous actor who always plays effectively the same character and about whom, therefore, all the worthwhile questions have already been asked, have little in the way of character interest. I enjoy Schwarzenegger, but I have no illusions about depth or surprise. Noomi Rapace does rather better: I cannot look at the character of Liesbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy, and from that make guesses about her character in Prometheus or Closer.

Leaving the reader to do the work

As a BBC Radio 4 journalist once told me (I believe it is an adage in her trade), ‘the pictures are always better on the radio’. Our tendency as writers is to write exhaustively. We want to fulfill our side of the bargain, give the reader so much imaginative detail that they feel they are right there with us. But the great stories that dwell in the imagination — Le Petit Prince, The Snow Queen, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — are sparsely written. Even as detailed a writer as Chandler holds back from telling us too much about his main character. We are allowed to listen in to Marlowe’s stream of thought, but we learn very little about where he comes from, or even what he looks like.

For writers struggling to make their characters live in the minds of the readers, my suggestion would be to think of more intriguing questions, rather than providing more exhaustive answers.

Show 1 footnote
  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Hobbit, Great Expectations, The Wind in the Willows, The Big Sleep, Heart of Darkness and The Sword in the Stone

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