Writing a compelling character is often about extremes.
The best characters are believable but pressured. The whole point of a plot, in fact, is to apply pressure to a character to make them act and make them change. So to create a character who will be compelling and function well in the story you build, it’s helpful to know the extremes of the person.
What is he passionate about?
What does she dream of?
What frightens him most?
Create a list of emotions: love, hate, fear, worry, hope, etc. Then ask yourself: what creates the strongest version of this emotion in your character? When you know that, you’ll know the forces that work on that character, and therefore you’ll better know how to move the character believably through your story world.
Discovering Through Questions
For example, let’s consider a possible character named Duford (whom his family calls “Du.”) What does Du hate most? His name. Duford is an old family name, and his mother told him it was the name of a great general, and that he should be proud. But how can you be proud of a name that so easily turns into “Dufus?” So with one question of one extreme emotion, I’ve found some interesting backstory. For one thing, Du lays the blame for the name calling on the family that gave him a problematic name. He doesn’t seem to blame the ones doing the cruel name-calling. At least, he doesn’t seem to at this opening phase of my imagining Du. I find that interesting. Du is applying kid-logic, and it feels very real to me. This one question of an “extreme” pointed me toward more things to consider. How well does he get along with his family? Does he feel like they understand him? So I can pull back from the extreme question for a moment and begin poking at other things that are less extreme, things that spun off his name and help me round out the character.
But let’s ask Duford another extreme question. This time I’ll choose one that can be considered positive. Who or what does Du love most? His loves his dog, Digger. Digger has been with him for his whole entire life, and Digger is the one Du tells his troubles to. Digger is getting old, and he’s a bit slow, but Du likes that. He’s not a rambunctious boy. He likes life slower and more thoughtful, so he and Digger often go on slow rambles through the patch of woods behind Du’s house. And as I’m working on Du and Digger, another extreme might pop into my head. The thing Du is most worried about is Digger. The dog is old, and old things die. Du knows that. He’s a logical boy. But he can’t stand the thought that it could happen to Digger. The old dog could die and where would that leave Du? So now I know a lot more about Du. He’s a boy who prefers lonely pursuits with his dog. A slow ramble through the woods is a pastime that shows us a lot about him.
As you ask questions, don’t give answers randomly. Each answer should feel right for this particular person. So if you gave one answer early in the process, but all the rest are pulling you in a different direction, don’t be afraid to change those that don’t fit in order to shape a believable person. Hold onto the ones that are interesting and feel true when you think about them.
Fitting the Extremes into the Plot
Now, obviously, Du and Digger would have to live in a plot where conflict involves the dog. Growth may come from Du getting a new understanding of someone else in his family. I could imagine that. Or perhaps Du ends up getting a new best friend, one who listens well but can also talk back. All kinds of new things could happen for Du, but with what I’ve learned about him so far, I know Digger is going to have to play a part in the story. One thing I do know: the story is not going to be about Digger dying. It’s hard to sell a death story. So, it’s not impossible that Digger might die in the story (perhaps very bravely) but the story is going to be bigger than that in order to work.
For me, looking at extremes for a character is a doorway into more questions and more details. I usually won’t peer into every extreme. I may not have asked myself what Du’s greatest hope is. But I might learn while I’m writing that Du hopes Digger will somehow outlive him. And as the plot unfolds, I may also learn that under all of Du’s own views on his extremes lies the real truth. Du feels mostly alone and believes that without Digger, he will be totally alone. No one will understand him. No one will ever be his friend. So even if we threaten one thing in the story (his fears for Digger) we might ultimately give Du something amazing, the vision to realize he’s not as alone as he thought, nor as friendless.
Extremes aren’t Always on the Surface
On the surface, Du might not seem like a great story character. He’s a quiet boy who is almost a ghost in his own home. He’s awkward, and it seems the only time anyone notices him at school, it’s with a scornful remark. He shares a lunch table with others who are as much outcasts as himself, people who have given up on the idea of friendship, so most meals are had in silence. Du isn’t a force for chaos. He’s not disruptive. And most of the time he seems barely there. But when we allow the plot to apply pressure to Du, we can turn someone who seems nondescript and passive into a more active character. We are all capable of acting in the right circumstances. So by looking at those extremes that lie under the surface for Du, we can see which buttons will need to be pushed by the plot, and what kinds of reactions each may get.
So apply this to your own story characters. Ask your questions and let the answers guide you to a character who lingers in the mind of the reader, someone we can fall in love with. Do that, and you’ll fall in love too.