As I hop down from my censorship soapbox, I jumped on the bandwagon and doing a post today about writing compelling characters.
I think most people will agree with me when I say that compelling characters must be fully realized, rounded out characters. They have to be, otherwise there'd be nothing in them to relate to, and then no one would care about what happens to them. If you've ever read a book/watched a movie/seen a play/listened to a radio show where the characters are really just cardboard cutouts chilling in the story while the plot does its thing, then you know that can get old fast. After all, what's the point of watching people you don't care about do stuff, since you won't care if they succeed?
One thing that most fully realized and rounded out characters have are personality traits. You know, they have likes and dislikes, favorite things, things that scare them so much they scream like little girls as the sight/sound/taste of them.
Now, here's the kicker about personality traits: they can't be completely random.
Why? They'll make no sense, and they'll look like you put them there to make the character appear rounded out, and the audience will be able to smell it.
Story time: A while ago, Captain Film Major and I were discussing an old kid's movie, and he pointed out that the MC, a girl of about nine, I believe, had a big thing for Elvis. Captain Film Major's response to this was something along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing, dude, so if you see this, chill), "It would've been great if they'd explained that at all, instead of just chucking it out there so that it made no sense." (Okay, so, I paraphrased a lot. Probably should've written the exact wording down. Note for next time.)
Much as it pains me to admit that Captain Film Major might have point about a movie, he had a point. Most nine-year-olds I've met aren't Elvis fans. Most probably couldn't tell you who The King is. So how did this character know? They don't say. They just say she likes Elvis. Now, if she'd said, "He was my dad's favorite... before he died. He used to sing along to the CDs when he did the dishes... drove Mom crazy," it would have had meaning. Because now we know how she developed this knowledge and interest, and we know a bit more about her character as a result.
Here's the deal: If you're character is anything like just about every human being I've ever met (and I've met a fair number of human beings), likes, dislikes, favorites, and phobias come about for some reason. There's often something in someone's background that led to that reaction.
Story time: I love Irish music. I listen to it all the time. Captain Film Major hates it. He listens to it never. He blames his dislike on having to listen to it all them time when we were kids. I blame my love on having to listen to it all the time when we were kids. Both of our responses to that music are not random but the result of things in our past.
Obligatory Harry Potter reference: (Contains SPOILERS!) (And, seriously, if you haven't read all 7 Harry Potter books, stop reading this post now and get on it.) (No, I'm not kidding. It's much more important. Go.) Severus Snape considered himself the Half Blood Prince, because he preferred to associate himself with his mother's side of the family, because he didn't like his Muggle father, because his dad beat his mom. See how that relates to his life. Snape wasn't a fan of really any Muggles, because his dad beat his mom, which is how he could so easily fall in with Death Eaters. Severus Snape loved Lily Evans (later Lily Potter), so he betrayed the Death Eaters, joined the Order of the Phoenix, fought against Voldemort, and did everything he could to keep Harry alive. See how that relates to his history?
(Okay, so that was several Harry Potter references, but I think I made my point.)
To create compelling characters, they have to be fully formed individuals, and they aren't going to be fully formed by being hashed together bits of randomness. Follow the random to the history that made them who they are, and follow the history you have to the everyday things that will present themselves in your character's life.
Have you ever come across a character seemingly composed of unrelated bits? How did you feel about that? Could you still relate to the character? How much time do you put into your characters' histories? Have you ever learned something about a character by looking for the cause of a seemingly random aspect of their personality?