The Key Components of a Compelling Character (According to Psychology)

 We’re fascinated by our fellow humans. In fact, we have a profound desire to try and understand the thoughts and feelings bouncing around other people, the characters on TV…the hero introduced on your first page.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Our fellow humans are pretty darned important to our survival. They’re our friends; the ones we collaborate and cooperate and mate with, and our foes; our competitors who can hold the power of whether we live or die. It’s why we get a burst of dopamine when someone smiles at us and the same part of our brain associated with physical pain lights up when we’re rejected (in fact, research has found that Tylenol is an effective way to reduce the anguish of social loss).

The wonderful news is that this desire to understand and connect transfers to the fictional characters we create on the page. It means that your reader is looking for someone they can connect with. Someone who will allow them to slip off of their shoes and step into their life so they can safely trek through new territory. They want to blur the line between themselves and your protagonist.

Your reader is wired for it and they are seeking it when they open a book.

You need to give it to them.

How? Well, there’s four key ways to achieve this. The first two acknowledge that a character needs to be someone your reader can establish a relationship with—and the truth is, we empathize more with people we care about. The more invisible the boundary with the self and other (i.e. the character), the easier it is to slip into empathy. To do that, we’re going to explore our commonalities. As diverse as we all are, and as unique as each of our characters are, there are some things that are universal to all humans: a want and a wound.

Make them Want

We empathize with people we identify with, and there are some needs that are universal. Basic human needs. These deep-seated drives grab our attention because they hold evolutionary stakes. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death, all grab us by the guts. The caveman song of survival or hunger or death? Their intrinsic connection to their father, mother, sister, brother, wife, child? That’s what we want to tap into.

As complicated as your plot gets, at its core it should be basic. It should connect with us on a visceral level. Ask yourself, would a caveman understand the core of your story? Does it have physical and/or emotional stakes? Even if your book is a sweet rom com, you need to be able to say yes.

Make them Hurt

I challenge you to find a person who isn’t carrying a wound, consciously or unconsciously. Our brains have a tendency to internalize negative events. I’ve worked with children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, teens who punish themselves for social transgressions, and parents who blame themselves for their child’s disability. These perceptions and conclusions aren’t always rational (or helpful), but they’re very human. Wounds will make your character authentic and ultimately someone a reader can empathize with, no matter what they’re facing.

The next two components are about harnessing two powerful psychological processes: curiosity and emotion. Your character needs to be someone who grabs our attention, and what captures our attention? Anything out of the norm, unexpected, or surprising. So we make our character unique. Then we harness the crucial emotional element by grabbing those heart strings and not letting go. To do that we make our character someone who is ‘more’.

Make them Unique

Crafting powerful, compelling characters relies on 4 key premises. Do you have them in place?

It’s a well-known rule that you want to avoid stereotypes and clichés when it comes to character development. Stereotypes and clichés are familiar, commonplace, and banal. But anything new, different, unexpected, or unprecedented? That grabs our attention, all because when we are experiencing something new we are also, quite inevitably and unconsciously, learning.

Which is why you need to make your character unique. How do you make your handsome billionaire CEO stand out in a crowd of other drool-worthy billionaire CEOs? You got it—surprise your reader. Intrigue them.

Make them one-of-a-kind.

Ask yourself, what about your character is unique? Is it their circumstance, their personality, their mannerisms? What haven’t readers come across before with this particular person on a page? Those are the characters your reader wants to spend time with.

Make them More

Many writers assume that to create an authentic, relatable character, they need to make them ‘like us.’ And they’re right. Relatable and authentic are pretty darned important, the issue is that you run the risk of having a character who is ordinary. And yes, that does translate to boring (sometimes depressing).

Luckily, when we make our character want and hurt, we create a character a reader can connect with. We all yearn and we all bleed. But the characters who are memorable? The ones who stay with us long after we finish the book? The ones who have us looking to see if maybe, maybe this book’s (please let it be) a series?

Those characters are more.

These characters have something about them that is extraordinary or exceptional, not in looks or intellect, but in timeless virtues. Traits such as compassion, strength, integrity, insight, a commitment to justice, family, love, steadfastness, sacrifice, selflessness. Essentially, they are any trait that is admirable or inspirational. In fact, research has shown that reading about good people elicits a sense of elevation and inspiration.

Ask yourself the following: what is extraordinary about your character? Even if they are an ordinary Joe Blow who lives next door, works nine to five, and drives a Volvo, what is extraordinary about him?

Have you incorporated some or all of these key components into your character/s? Have you noticed how best-selling authors use them in their writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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This entry was posted in Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Description, Emotion, Empathy, Motivation, Resident Writing Coach, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The Key Components of a Compelling Character (According to Psychology)

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  2. Julie Hiner says:

    Wow! Great article!!! I hadn’t really thought about the unique, stand-out of the crowd traits that a character could have to make them more interesting. I loved this article. Easy to read, and very useful information! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Thanks for this Tamar, so helpful! I’ve recently tried writing characters based on people I know, but whilst it helps to add depth (they are already real people with real problems), I’ve found it a little intimidating because as soon as you write anything unlikeable about them I feel bad… especially if they know the character is based on them! However, writing a character with depth from scratch is really hard!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      It’s a challenge, isn’t it? I found it useful to remember that what ultimately equalises us is that we’re all flawed. It’s what makes us human (and in the end, interesting). I also remind myself that writing is ultimately about the reader, so think about what they would want to read…and that’s characters who aren’t perfect. Then I remember that writing will always find a way to push our comfort zones – capturing the balance of our strengths and weaknesses, our potential and our flaws – is both confronting and really hard! But man, when you get there, does it feel good!
      My advice is push yourself – it’s worth it 😉
      Hope that helps,
      Tamar

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      HI Graham,
      It’s a challenge, isn’t it? I find it useful to remind myself that writing is ultimately about the reader – and they don’t want to read about perfect characters. Once I’ve done that, I reflect that flaws are what ultimately equalise us – we all carry a wound. It’s what makes us human (and interesting). And then it hits me – writing well is all about challenging your comfort zones. Characters who capture our power but also our weaknesses, our potential but also our handicaps, aren’t easy. It will confront you every time! In the end though, if you’re successful – man, does it feel good!
      So my advice is, keep going. It’ll be worth it 🙂

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  5. Patrick says:

    Avoiding stereotypes and cliches in character development is difficult. Do you mean avoiding minoriity physical and voice recognition? I am working on a novel with 3 antagonists with unique characteristics but are minorities. African-American with vitiligo, anorexic Englishman with bad teeth and Cotney voice, rough and tumble Puerto Rican ex NFL linebacker. The protagonist is Comanche. I bring the good and bad to each, but are definitely different.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Patrick,
      It certainly is! I think anything that is predictable or ‘old hat’ is going to be cliche. Readers already know what’s coming, meaning the power of curiosity/intrigue isn’t harnessed. Your character’s certainly sound unique! Reader’s aren’t going to be able to predict what they would say or do next. The challenge for these characters and their writers, is finding something for readers to connect with considering they are likely to be so different to them. The way to do that is through the power of the wound – we’ve all been hurt. It’s primal. It’s universal. They lead to emotions we’ve all experienced.
      Happy writing,
      Tamar

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  7. Susie says:

    I’m confused by this quote, “research has found that Tylenol is an effective way to reduce the anguish of social loss.” Do you have resource link for this study/ies? I’ll look it up, too. Thanks.

  8. Great post on how to breathe life into characters. Like real people, characters need pasts, or backstory, that make them who they are. Thanks for the tips. All best to you in 2019!

  9. Tamar Sloan says:

    Glad it’s useful! I do love a compelling character, they stay with you long after the book is finished 🙂

  10. Terrific post, Tamar. We are so grateful for your background in psychology!

  11. Glad to read this! According to this article, the characters in my novel are compelling.

  12. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    That’s it! A Volvo! Roger Moore drove a Volvo in ‘The Saint’ TV series. Nicholas Cage drove a beige Volvo in the movie ‘The Rock’. But in Volvo’s homeland Sweden the serial killer in both ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo’ movies drove a Land Rover.

    So a Volvo for the protagonist and a Land Rover for the antagonist. Job done. Who needs wants, needs, hurts, wounds, uniqueness, and virtues when we’ve got CARS?

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      LOL! How did I not think of that?!? Although I’m not sure what this means for Frodo in LOTR… ; )

      • JOHN T. SHEA says:

        A good question! The Hobbits had no cars, but Middle Earth did have AIR transport! So here’s my rewrite:-

        LOTR abridged by John T. Shea.

        Once upon a time Frodo Baggins hopped onto an eagle, flew to Mount Doom, dropped the Ring into the volcano, flew back home, and lived happily ever after.

        The End.

        Peter Jackson is making a movie version that will be thirty seconds long and cost 500 million dollars.

  13. Wonderful post, Tamar. I always love your insight into the human condition and how it relates to our characters!

  14. M.L. Bull says:

    Interesting post with great reminders about building character!

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