Creating Captivating Characters

Creating Captivating Characters

One of my all-time favorite characters is
Jonathan Strange from the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Hugo-award-winning novel. At the beginning of the story, he cares for
little but wooing the girl of his dreams, but then he discovers that he has a natural
talent for magic. He fights for the exploration of unknown worlds
and will stop at nothing to save those he loves. He’s earnest and reckless and his passion
for life is contagious. So how do you go about creating a character
like this, one who captivates your audience? Many people use character charts like this
one, but with so many lines to fill, it’s easy to get bogged down by the details of
the character’s appearance or their favorite foods and everyday routines. While these details can make your character
feel more three-dimensional in your own mind, they aren’t very relevant to the story itself. Your plot takes shape around your characters’
desires. Because of this, it is better to work from
the inside out, and focus on their personality and goals first. The acronym ARCS is a good starting place. A character should have an attractive quality,
room for growth, clear goals, and something to lose. Let’s deconstruct each of those. First, in order for characters to be interesting,
they need to have attractive qualities. Intelligence and humor are common but effective
ones, as are kind-heartedness and resiliency in times of hardship. They may be honorable in that they stick to
their moral code no matter what, or they may be endlessly loyal to their friends. Perhaps they have a special skill, magical
or otherwise. This doesn’t need to be a “strength”
in the traditional sense; maybe they have a knack for lying or getting into fights. Usually a character will have multiple attractive
qualities, as with Jonathan Strange, who is not only gifted at magic but also has a strong
sense of creativity, a curious mind, and a loving heart. When it comes to identifying attractive qualities,
just ask yourself “What about this character will intrigue readers?” Second, your characters need room for growth. In real life, humans are not static beings. Our relationships, our opinions, and our feelings
about life change over time. The same should be true for the people you
invent. For example, a character may be very selfish
at the beginning, but after learning to empathize with others, he becomes more altruistic. This change doesn’t always need to be a
positive one, however. Someone who is naïve may become more jaded
as the story progresses, as in a loss of innocence narrative. It can also be growth in terms of beliefs
rather than personality. Maybe they hold a prejudice against a certain
race, or have strong religious views that are challenged, resulting in a shift in opinion
by the end of the story. Maybe their relationship with someone close
to them changes, or they gain a new perspective on the death of a loved one and themselves. When thinking of room for growth, ask yourself,
“How does this character change over the course of the story? What are their initial and end states?” Third, a character must have clear goals. Almost all stories are character-driven, with
the protagonist’s actions creating a causal chain of events—but it’s important to
pay attention to passive vs. active goals. With passive goals, the protagonist is merely
reacting to the antagonist. With active goals, the protagonist has agency
and is making plans to change the future. For example, imagine that a young racecar
driver dreams of winning his local championship, but someone is trying to sabotage him at every
turn—stealing his uniform, messing with his engines. If all the driver does is try to manage these
obstacles, then there’s not much of a story. But, if our racecar driver has an idea about
how to catch the saboteurs in the act and take his revenge, then now he has agency. He is fighting back, taking action, making
his own choices, and facing the consequences of his mistakes rather than having others
force him to make those decisions. Goals can come in many forms: survive, defeat
the Big Bad, gain wealth and get the girl, redeem oneself, find meaning and purpose in
life. Goals are tied to character growth in that
they can shift as a result of a change in perspective or motivation. Going back to Jonathan Strange, he is at first
focused on finding an occupation that will impress his future wife, and later he aims
to put his magic to good use in the war. His goal changes again in the middle of the
story, but I won’t spoil the reveal. Developing clear goals boils down to a two-part
question: “What does this character want, and how do they plan to get it?” In addition to goals, the character needs
something to lose, or as you’ll often hear, there need to be stakes. In genre fiction, these stakes tend to be
huge—the fate of the universe hangs in the balance or a city could be destroyed. The threat of a large loss can work for plot
purposes, but there also need to be smaller, more personal stakes. Oftentimes, the stakes involve death, a damsel
in distress, or the loss of a family member. But stakes are often more relatable when they
focus on everyday fears. We’re afraid of being embarrassed in front
of our peers. Of our loved ones never granting forgiveness
for our mistakes. Of not pursuing our dreams and living a shell
of a life in an office cubicle until we’re old and gray. We’re afraid of having regrets. Think of George Orwell’s dystopian classic
1984. The protagonist, Winston Smith, rebels against
the totalitarian regime by writing in a diary and falling in love with fellow rebel Julia. His goal is freedom of thought and expression,
which comes at the risk of getting caught by government officials and killed. But the stakes are higher than that. In addition to his life and his relationship
with Julia, Winston’s humanity is on the line. If he gives in to Big Brother’s rule, it
is not only his body that will be imprisoned, but also his mind and his values. Think of a fear that is universal to the human
experience, and let it haunt your character. “If the character doesn’t achieve their
goal, what will they lose?” Let’s create an ARCS map for a beloved character
from classic literature: Sydney Carton, of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I’ll make this example as spoiler-free as
possible. As far as attractive talents, Carton proves
to be a brilliant, quick-witted lawyer. The reader also sees his devotion in his unrequited
love for the beautiful and innocent Lucie Manette. Carton’s room for growth comes from the
fact that he’s a bitter alcoholic filled with self-loathing. He tells another character, “I am a disappointed
drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on
earth cares for me.” Carton feels that he has wasted his life,
with the only light in his days being Lucie. Even though Lucie loves another man, Carton
would do anything to preserve her happiness. That is his goal. If he doesn’t achieve this goal, his life
will feel meaningless. Also, his beloved Lucie will fall into despair
if he doesn’t do something to save the man she loves. Sydney Carton displays one of the most memorable
character transformations in all of literature because he is a good-but-flawed man who wants
something desperately enough to go forth and be fulfilled. Which characters captivate you? Tell me all about why you love them in the
comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.

46 thoughts on “Creating Captivating Characters”

  1. Am finding your videos really helpful! As an aspiring author, this is great for helping me with my characters. I really hope that you keep making these videos.

  2. Your videos are really being helpful to aspiring authors. If it's not a problem, can I ask you if there's anyway I can contact you? I'm an artist but I wanted to work on a story so I jumped into writing, but as this is my debut novel, therefore I need your help just to get critique on my writing.
    I've been designing world and plot for 6 months now, and have just started writing now. I've completed 2 Chapters. So can you help me by reading it once and by sharing some thoughts on it.! As I think you are the perfect person to do this.

    Thanks (:

  3. I couldn't help but think, "I wonder if Jonathan Strange is the ancestor of Doctor Strange. They have the same last name and use magic."

  4. I really appreciate that you focus on the internal construction of characters! When I was on deviantART, I saw a lot of ginormous lists to fill out, some hundreds of items long. While window dressings like that can lend some interesting color to a character, it's not nearly as important as the internal, delicious meat covered by ARCS. You make it sound so easy… And maybe it is if you have any capability of making decisions without being paralyzed by anxiety.

    You make me want to re-watch Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell! I adored that show. My memory is terrible, though, and I remember very little now. I'm currently watching The Magicians. Have you seen it or read the books? I don't know the books, and I'm only partly through season one, but there is just no angle at which this show isn't amazing–as a SyFy production, as a book adaption, as a moving picture production! I rather fancy Eliot. Upon introduction he seems like he'll just be a snooty asshat, but he quickly comes into his own. He's knowledgeable, confident, talented, and clever. He seems to know just what he wants and just where he's going. Eventually we learn about the struggle he's gone through to get where he's at, and when he ends up having to kill someone it breaks him. Like hardcore, life-is-a-joke-nothing-matters-anymore breaks. It's delicious. I'm really looking forward to seeing how (or if?) he comes out of this. Viscerally painful transformations like this are some of the best in my opinion!

  5. When it comes to attractive talents I´m drawn to characters that use their inteligence and wit to overcome obstacles. I just love it when a protagonist has outsmarted the opposition.

  6. My favorite character is "Frank" in the movie "Thief."

    He's an anti-hero, though, as he loses all he's gained. He gives in to the Devil, (Leo) but realizes his gains do not belong to him. His only way out is to give up everything and lose all caring, so that "Nothin' means nothin'." I guess, in that way, he does win in the end. He certainly learns a powerful lesson.

  7. A random thought… About the race-car driver… What if that isn't their personality?
    What if they are shy and submissive and docile, and racing is the only kind of risky, bold thing they ever do?
    It could be a character arc for them to become more assertive and to fight tooth and nail for victory, but maybe that would be out of character…

    So what if that character would choose to ignore the sabotage; they'd just fix whatever was damaged and come up with ways to get around the disadvantages without trying to hunt down the one who did it.
    Maybe they don't want to stoop so low as to fight on the same level as the bad guy? Or maybe they have a hunch as to why the other person does that, and feels like fighting back would only make things worse?

    I'd argue that it would still make for a fascinating story, because the protagonist's safety is on the line, but they'd rather get hurt to prove a point, than fight with underhanded means against someone whom they feel they wouldn't be able to save that way?

    (I guess this is a very "anime" kinda thinking, giving away where much of my inspiration comes from ^^)

  8. My favorite stories are ones in which the protag tries to fight back using the antag's rules and theater of battle. He fails, but then manages to draw in the antag to HIS rules and game… and wins.

    "Thief," which I mentioned below, is one of these. I think the best one of this sort of story is "The Silent Partner" with (yes) Elliott Gould as the protag, and Christopher Plummer as one of the most evil, violent antags you'll find.

  9. The blade itself was a great example. Almost every character in the book is a horrible person but you can't help but care for them.

  10. Is it alright if the goal is constantly changing or should there be one clear main goal throughout the story?

  11. man is EVERYONE talking about writing making the stakes/steaks pun? seriously it´s only funny the first four hundred times a person sees it^^ jk. but again i feel like the idea character and storywise is not as good as i thought. Because well the mc of my new idea has a clearly passive goal. He wants to protect his student at all costs from his own enemies and people who hurt her in the past. I thought well maybe it could get interesting, how a character goes at a goal like that. Alex for sure won´t just sit idly on the couch and wait for his old enemies to blast open his door. Far from that, in fact he´ll get help wherever he can, and most other important characters have either obscure goals at best or it´s hard to believe they have any goals at all.
    for instance my favourite in the whole cast i thought up so far, doesn´t even seem to have goals at all. Well okay one goal: to have fun. simple as that. that´s all the Red witch wants and that´s what raises the stakes when dealing with her. She´ll be reliable as long as shge´s having a blast but what if things turn out in a manner she´s not appreciating? She´s pretty much the only person that can keep all bad guys at bay and who would have the power and knowledge to get Lina to the level she needs to be, but when she helps with Linas education she´s not that helpful. at least on a surface level. Like "that idiot Alex is far too tense. you´re with me and he´s capable of watching his own back. let´s go to the mall. i snatched the credit card from his wallet" things like that. Well she isn´t hedonistic in a sense that she has no self control, quite the contrary and she can plan very far ahead but that only makes dealing with her more dangerous. (did i mention that she is ridiculously overpowered? like yeah she´s not around all the time and written to by nature stay out of trouble for that specific reason. if she got too invested, she´d lower the stakes to zero. and yes while she is around Alex and Lina are save as in their mothers womb, that´s why Alex is requesting her help after all, but that´s only when she´s there and when she´s helping and if she´s helping she does it on her own terms making it very difficult to work with her but that´s why she´s my favorite out of the bunch. if you know the DnD alignment system she´s around chaotic neutral. that´s how i see her at least

  12. I love Peggy Olsen from Mad Men. She's one of my all time favorites because she's so strong. She's not strong the way that some people use the term, as if it only means you kick ass and take names, but she's so emotionally strong. She's shit on and disrespected and insulted over and over and over again and she gets up one more day and puts on her skirt and goes into work to get shit on and disrespected all over again. She has fortitude and she never quits.

  13. I really like characters who start out timid but get stronger as the series goes on. My favorite of these characters is Audrina Adare (My Sweet Audrina), and Piglet from (The World of Pooh).

    I also really like characters who start off as pessimistic jerks but get better. My favorites of these are Zooey Glass (Franny and Zooey), and Eric from (Tenderness). Also, the television character Charles Winchester (MASH).

    I also really like characters who are always there for others. My favorites of these include Pooh (The World of Pooh), Nina (The Summer I Saved the World … in 65 Days). Also, the film character George Baily (It's a Wonderful Life).

  14. Over the course of the last couple of years or so I've stumbled across 4 stories I really enjoy. 2 of them I couldn't really care less about the characters. In the other 2 I practically only care about the characters. So it's a bit strange 😛

    Taking the main character Ye Xiu from The King's Avatar for example. (Chinese light novel /animated series)
    Attractive talent/quality: He is stubborn, honest and patient. Will do everything in his power to reach his goals and if life gives him lemons, lemonade is fine with him.
    Room for growth: He has a lot of room to grow as a person, how to get along with people better for example. And when it comes to talents that aren't playing online games.
    Clear goal: Become champion in an E-sports tournament.
    Something to lose: His identity and his sense of self. (He does kind of lose it in the beginning, so we know what the stakes are early)

    Or Cadis Etrama di Raizel from Noblesse. (Korean webtoon/manhwa)
    Attractive talent/quality: His struggles with modern life. How protective he is of his friends especially, but also strangers. His sense of justice. His quiet and down to earth nature.
    Room for growth: Learning how to deal with technology. His sense of direction XD
    Clear goal: Living a peaceful life with his friends.
    Something to lose: His life and his friends and more or less everything he lives for.

    For the characters I don't really care about (the world and the ridiculous plot in the stories are more interesting). They're two dimensional and there is not much depth to them.
    Shiba Tatsuya from The Irregular at Magic Highschool (anime/japanese light novel)
    Attractive talent/quality: His intelligence and his unique abilities
    Room for growth: There is no room for emotional growth. No room for growth in either unique abilities or his intelligence, so I am honestly not sure…
    Clear goal: Protecting his sister
    Somthing to lose: His sister

    As for his sister Shiba Miyuki
    Attractive talent/quality: Being really good at magic…?
    Room for growth: Her self control
    Clear goal: Getting others to acknowledge her brother's talents
    SOmething to lose: Her brother

    Mo Fan from Versatile Mage/Full time Magister (chinese web novel/animated series)
    Attractive talent/quality: Coming from another world and being different
    Room for growth: He could do with being a bit more humble
    Clear goal: Getting the people around them to show his father respect and not treating them like garbage. After he fulfilled that, I'm not sure. Probably being better than everybody else.
    Something to lose: His family/his life (but considering the plot armor and his ridiculous luck, you're never really worried)

  15. OMG u are AWESUM :D!!! thanks.. Syncronicity is amazing.. exactly what I needed to hear to keep my characters going.. thanks..

  16. I love this videos. I'm an artist and I'm currently working on a comic but I think that about characters, world building and other things prior to the drawing part it is really similar to writing a story on a book, so I wanted your advices if there is a way to contact you, I need some criticism by someone that actually understands what she is doing, obv if you can do it or there is a way to do it

  17. Thanks for the great video! Harry Potter will probably always remain the most captivating character for me. Though Dumbledore and Jaxon Hall come close. But this writing advice is very helpful: I'm writing a HP crossover fan fiction story, but the main character from the other book series is a bit too flawless. It's helpful to see how I can improve him a bit.

  18. Do you have a video on how to create multiple captivating characters that aren't all clones of each other?

  19. Handling a believable change in a character is tough for me. There is in literature and in my religion a disdain for “cheap grace.” If a character thinks a change will do h/her some good they say in effect that it’s all over boy and from now on I’ll be good. No problem:!only a matter of making up one’s mind. Ask anyone in recovery from an addiction if they haven’t yet willed themselves into sobriety. Sidney has made up his mind many many times nd goes on benders when his resolve breaks. Knowing he’s an addict he has to act for Lucy’s sake before the cycle starts again.

  20. He never thought much of heroes, stupid protectors of the failing status quo, is what he called them. Villains however, were far more interesting, upsetting the status quo while simultaneously proving just how stupid heroes were. Why was it that villains monologued? Well, it was because they were trying to win the hero over to their side. If the villain truly were a bad guy, it would be easy to kill the hero outright; no, it was far more humane to let the hero see the way with his own eyes.

    He snarled at his friend, "If you are the protagonist of your own shitty story, can you honestly tell me that you're more kinder, more humane, more generous than he you who you would consider your villain? It's easy to say you are kind, good, and caring. Actually being those things often puts you in the cross-hairs of some would-be hero. How many innocent people have been lynched by altruistic heroes? Hm? Answer me!!!"

    "Heroes don't harm the innocent…" She said under her breath.

    "BULLSHIT!!! Heroes wipe out innocents in droves. And that's when they're actually looking for villains. All to often at the behest of the true villain! If you aren't the antagonist of your own story, you're just writing a diary. Fuck off!"

    "That tone is going to be your undoing."

    "You got a hero on speed dial or something? There's the door, I don't need useless people making idle threats over amorphous feelz cuzz they can't maintain a debate. You can't keep your argument civil, fuck off!" He pointed to the door.

    When she crossed the threshold, she turned and raised a finger, "someo…"

    He slammed the door on her, "Never fails, no argument left, but has to have the last word. Now, where was I… salt stocks… Sebastian!" He called.


    "Close enough…"

  21. i think my favorite character is john gardners, "grendel". grendel is all of us to some extent. an outsider who wants to fit in but ultimately accepts that he's different and, well, eats people. in the end, while dying, grendel says, "ah, poor grendel". the ultimate fate of us all. on the death bed, not much matters but our last few breaths. i think grendel embodies the darker side of us all.

  22. God. What a voice! When building a character, should there be a structure as to how the information is presented? I am writing (what I think is) a short piece, and I leave much to the reader's imagination, occasionally giving info, but not much. Also there isn't much setting description. I have not decided whether I will (or should) enrich the end product at editing time. Now I am just splashing stuff on the page.

  23. the characters i found very captivating in the recent time have been from AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER the cartoon for children…
    they are so well written and thought out that i was amazed in the work they put in them for such a simple target audience (yes i watched it as an adult just because of its writting and IT WAS WORTH IT). (i read somewhere that they spent approximately 9 months researching and preparing each episode's characters plot and writting, and it can be noticed!!!)

    as for my favorite all time, that goes to Eragon, from the inheritance cycle. He might not be the best well written character, and the first book may be noticeably written from a new amateur author, but he evolves greatly in my eyes and managed to captivate me a decade ago enough, to still be my fav till now…

  24. I have to be honest, I didn't find Johnathan Strange remotely likable. I thought he was a very poor character all the way through.

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