How To Create Compelling Characters In Ten Minutes

Photo Credit: Collegemagazine.com
Photo Credit: Collegemagazine.com

There seem to be countless schools of thought when it comes to creating characters. But no matter the method used, there is a universal truth to characters: they need to change and experience tension to feel real. Sounds easy, but for many, it’s anything but.

Plan It Out

Whether you consider yourself a natural, spur-of-the-moment type of writer or a meticulous planner, this is an area where every writer can benefit from a little forethought. Creating compelling characters that feel real and relatable can be relatively easy. Let me give an example:

Character Name: Gary Mordon

Why he resists change: His father always wanted him to do something meaningful—become an engineer, join the military, go into politics, etc. But his father abandoned him and his mother when he was fourteen, so he resists anything that seems like it would’ve made his father proud.

Opportunity for change 1: He really enjoys soccer and it looks like he might get a scholarship if he keeps with it, but his new friends at school sell drugs. He can start selling and using the drugs, but he knows he might get drug tested and kicked off the team.

Choice for change 1: He chooses the drugs. Ultimately kicked off the team.

Resulting change: He has moved toward what he thought he wanted, but feels a deeper disconnect. Struggles to know if he wanted success for himself or if he had only wanted it because his father did.

Opportunity for change 2: Dealing drugs is quickly becoming more serious. Harder drugs and more dangerous clients. If he wants to continue in his social circle, he will have to rip off a few gangsters to stay afloat. He’s terrified, but initially decides to go through with the scam because he knows his dad would’ve wanted him to get out safely. In the middle of the deal, he decides to back out and give the drugs to the men, making enemies of his former friends and putting himself in an even worse situation.

Resulting change: He realizes that the destruction he’s bringing to his life isn’t worth it. He decides that he wants success for himself, whether his father wanted it or not. But now that he wants to turn his life around, he fears it may be too late.

Final opportunity for change: His friend murders someone over a drug deal gone bad. He can turn his friend in, but will implicate himself in the process and risk a prison sentence. What will he choose?

What Does This Do For Your Characters?

To use the old cliche, it “fleshes them out.” I made up Gary Mordon for that example. Creating characters has never been my strong suit. In fact, I would consider it a weakness.

But using the method above, you shouldn’t need to be a great character writer. The first step is most crucial. You may have heard that every character should “want” something, even if it’s just a glass of water. I’m not trying to dispute that, but you may find it hard to write a compelling character just based on his wanting water. What works better for me is to identify want they want to do and why. Then, your story should essentially be a constant stream of them reaching for what they want and either getting something different than what they expected, or getting knocked farther away from their goal.

In other words, your character should resist changing in at least one major way. Maybe they resist giving up alcohol, fighting, loving, helping a particular person, forgiving a particular person, forgiving themselves, accepting a part of their personality, accepting that they are a good person, accepting that they are a bad person, quitting a bad habit, etc. Once you’ve identified this, it’s pretty easy to throw obstacles in the way of their resistance.

Each time you challenge your character in this way, you give them opportunities to change. Maybe they thought they could resist but don’t, and that will shift their personality in some tangible way. As a reader, those moments are what make characters interesting. Maybe they even resist change through several trials, but in the end they do change, and because they resisted for so long it becomes interesting and rewarding to read about.

Creating a Satisfying Conclusion For Your Character

Writers Digest provides a great list for crafting a “moment of truth” for your characters. You will find this to be extremely easy if you’ve plotted your character out based on resistance to change and moments of opportunity. Their list is as follows:

  • Make it fitIt (almost) goes without saying that the moment of truth has to be the collision of the two contenders in the hero’s life. You’ve got the old way and the new way. In your character’s moment of truth, she decides between those two options.
  • Make sure both options are compellingYour hero is stuck in the old way, which is hurting him on some level, and yet it gives him something he values. The new way has to be at least as attractive to him as the old way, even if he doesn’t see it at first. It must give him everything the old way is not giving him, and it must solve problems for him—but not without cost.
  • Include the cost of purchaseThe moment of truth is not complete unless the hero understands not only what he stands to gain by choosing one option over the other, but also what he stands to lose. If he lets go of his self-loathing to embrace a positive view about himself, it will be a betrayal of his father, who always said he was worthless. If she lets go of her fear and moves on with her life, it will mean risking failure again.
  • Provide smaller moments of truth along the wayWe’ll discuss this fully in the chapter on the escalation, but for now just keep in mind that you will need to think of ways for these two opposing options to skirmish before the decisive battle. Just as Frodo had temptations to use the ring at multiple junctures in the story (and in some of these, he chose wrong) and as Luke saw the promise of the Force over the limits of technology, your character will need to make minor yes/no choices between these two options before the big moment of truth.

Final Thoughts

This is just one method for planning. There are obviously many many more ways to plot out your characters, setting, story, etc. However, as someone who personally does not enjoy planning, this method is arguably the most complete and succinct way to gain both depth to your character and develop your story. I feel like I could write a novel about Gary after spending just ten minutes sketching him and his problems out.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

Happy writing!

The Five Biggest Mistakes Busy Writers Make: Mistake Two

Beware the Routine

Routines can be helpful if you’re busy. Your day may be full of projectile-grade baby poops, urgent emails, unexpected traffic, and appointments—not to mention your day job. It seems like it makes sense to find a regular place to sit down and peck out your thousand words for the day. So what’s the problem?

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The problem is that you are training yourself to wait until conditions are perfect to write. You’re making it okay to pass up all the little moments that present themselves throughout the day to spend some quality time with your writing. Not only that, you’re only tapping your brain at one specific point in time each day for creativity. If you sit in the same chair with the same atmosphere day in and day out and do the same thing, how likely are you to be able to think of new ideas?

Write Everywhere

First of all, let’s tackle the physical side of this problem: where you are writing. I’m not advising you to only write in strange and unusual places. It would benefit you to have a standard location for your writing. What I’m advising is that you let yourself write in the between time and the between places. For example, I spent ten minutes working on this blog post after eating my lunch while students were beginning to flood into my room for class. I spent another thirty minutes working on it in the time students are allowed to come see me if they need extra help after school. Then I finished it in my “normal” writing spot. It’s easiest for me to go back and make my sentences more concise and clear and to organize in my normal spot, but I come up with my best ideas outside my bubble. I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but give it a try for yourself and see if you don’t find some strengths you didn’t know you had when you push your comfort zone.

How to Find the Time

So if you’ve been telling yourself that you don’t have enough time, what you’ve probably meant is that you don’t have enough time to write in your special, preferred little bubble. So write outside of it. You’ll also find that your brain does not think the same throughout the day. If you measure cognitive performance for any individual, they will have peaks and low points. As a general rule, younger people tend to peak intellectually and creatively in the late afternoon, while older individuals peak in the early hours through noon. You’ll find that some parts of the day are better for you to organize and structure your writing while others are better for you to create new and interesting ideas. You’ll also find that writing in new situations stimulates your brain in different ways, making your writing more varied and alive. Not to mention, you could potentially avoid establishing a routine at a time of day where your cognitive ability is naturally at its lowest without realizing it.

Make It a Priority

My last point on the topic is one that works especially well for me. When the universe takes away your time to write and create, write anyway. Write as if the universe had a personal grudge against you and you’re writing to spite it. Find the small cracks and the places it overlooked. Wouldn’t you do the same thing if the universe said you weren’t going to have time to sleep? You would catch sleep whenever you could, even if it was five minutes on the train or in a waiting room. If you care about your writing, make it a priority, a part of yourself that is and will always be regardless of outside forces.

The Five Biggest Mistakes Busy Writers Make: Mistake Number One

Mistake Number One: Not Setting Goals

“But I did set a goal,” you say. “I want to be a famous, wealthy, inspirational author!” Okay, sure. That is a goal. Is it a goal that’s going to make your life any easier? No. So for now, take that goal, put a little bubble wrap on it, and toss it in a cabinet. I only want you to worry about goals that are going to take advantage of your own brain chemistry and psychology to make writing easier for you. After all, it’s all about results.

Set a Writing Goal and Track Your Progress

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I started with this tip because it’s the most important. Often, the first thing that goes out the window when our schedules get busy is writing time. This tip will help you prevent the biggest and most detrimental hazard to your writing: not writing.

The right kind of goal helps your brain chemistry work for you. When you set a goal and reach it, your brain releases dopamine, which is like a Scooby Snack for your body. Even no-brainer goals that take seconds to complete will give you a dopamine fix and help you establish a positive association for your brain between writing and satisfaction.

What does that mean? It means you need to set short-term, easily obtainable goals. My suggestions are to set at least three goals for yourself every day and track them.

Three Goals That Work For Me

Goal number one: Open the word processor every day. Whether you write in Word, Scrivener, Evernote, on the cloud, Yarny, or on your uncle’s hairy back with a sharpie, make goal number one to open the word-processing program every day (or un-cap the sharpie).

Goal number two: Write one more sentence when you feel like stopping. Even if you only write two sentences and just aren’t feeling it that day, write one more and check that goal off on the spreadsheet you will be using. As an added bonus, forcing yourself to write just one more sentence after you want to stop does two great things. It forces you to push past whatever obstacle made you want to stop, which often will lead to many more sentences. It also helps build your mental muscles and strengthen you against the desire to just call it a day whenever you run into a sticky situation in your writing.

The first two goals are your freebies. They protect you from the inevitable moments when something comes up and you can’t meet your word count. This gives your brain two shots of positive reinforcement to outweigh the negative feelings that can come from failing to meet your third goal.

Goal number three: Write X amount of words per day. A lot of authors swear by 1000 words a day, but you can find what works for you or even plan to write more on days before a holiday or an event that you know will have you out of commission.

Try Svenja Gosen’s beautiful and artistic spreadsheets for tracking your words.

You can also use a more utilitarian approach through google sheets. 

Isn’t There Research Against Setting Goals?

Yes. Kind of. If you set goals like the ones above, you’ll be fine. If you set goals that are too hard to reach, your brain gets confused. It has a lot of trouble telling the difference between “want” and “have”. So your identity gets wrapped up in what you want. This can feel good at first. Think of the New Years resolution syndrome. It felt great to promise yourself you would go to the gym every day for the rest of your life. For a while, you even started identifying as a gym-goer and started thinking of yourself as a healthier person. But even if you do keep going, the results often don’t match up with your expectations.

The problem is that big results like a better physique (or a successful writing career) take a lot of time. Eventually, cognitive dissonance will begin to sap your motivation and get your brain to send out chemicals that are in no way good for your progress. So it is okay to have that goal on the back burner, but don’t put it in the trophy case and show it off to everybody you meet. Focus on the small goals.

Keep It to Yourself!

The last tip about goals is probably the toughest. Don’t tell people about your goals or that you’re planning to accomplish them. Your brain gives you the same feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction from receiving praise for having a goal as it does for completing the goal. So if you read this article and got hyped up about writing and planned to go tell your significant other that you’re going to start writing 1000 words a day and tracking your progress and so on and so on; well, don’t. You’ll get the same feeling of accomplishment from talking about it that you would’ve gained from doing it and chances are that you won’t actually do it.

In short, keep your goals daily and simple, keep track of your progress, and keep it to yourself. You’ll be happy that you did.