A couple of weeks ago, Elana Johnson (along with Jennifer Daiker and Alex Cavanaugh) proposed a blogging experiment. They challenged readers of their blogs to post today on the same subject: creating compelling characters. The idea was to show how each participant (there are over 150) would have a unique take on the subject. I figured that in order to create a compelling character in fiction, it would help to look at a real-life compelling person. Those of you who know me are probably not surprised at my choice: John Lennon. Here's a short list of the traits that make John Lennon a compelling figure, at least to me. All of these traits can be given to fictional characters as well.
A Dramatic Backstory: John Lennon was born during World War II (some sources say there was an air raid in progress at the time), and his childhood and adolescence weren't peaceful times either. Abandoned by both his father and his mother (when John was five, his father forced him to choose between them), John was mostly raised by his aunt and uncle. He started seeing his mother again when he was a teenager but lost her for good when she was killed in an accident. He also lost both his uncle and his best friend. All this happened before the Beatles became famous. Perhaps it's no wonder John had what I'll call...
A Complex Personality: John presented a brash, rebellious face to the world to cover up his inner insecurities. His wit could be quite cruel, especially if he sensed vulnerability. But he could be kind to fans, signing autographs for them when they waited outside his house. John's personality was large enough to contain other contradictions, as if he was a "sweet bird of paradox" himself. He sang about peace yet had a temper. An intelligent man, he could still be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. He described himself as the laziest man in England, but he had the ambition and drive to travel across Liverpool to learn a single guitar chord, play for hours on end in Hamburg--in short, to do whatever it took to make the Beatles the best. Throughout his life, John continued to grow, seemingly conquering his inner demons. Although he wasn't much of a father to Julian, he was much more nurturing with Sean.
Leadership: John was the one who started the Beatles, but he inspired countless other people to do things, whether it was playing guitar or giving peace a chance. He was even one of three Men of the Decade (the 1960s, of course).
So to summarize, compelling characters have unique backgrounds that affect their personalities and actions in the story. They aren't one-sided, but have multiple aspects to their personalities. They have both strengths and flaws. And to make them compelling to readers, show how other characters in the story find your main characters worth watching and listening to.
I'm sure there's more I could say, but I'd rather watch this:
For a full list of the people participating in this blogging experiment, please check out the link to Elana's blog at the beginning of this post. And if you're here because of the experiment, hello! Please leave a comment so I can check out your blog too.