Guest post: What makes a Compelling Character? by Paul Lell

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of characters, is brought to you by science-fiction / fantasy author Paul Lell.

What makes a Compelling Character?

We’ve all read piles of information on how to make a believable character, right? Make them guy/girl next door. Give them foibles. Make sure they have flaws and strengths in equal measure, etc. There are dozens of schools of thought on the subject and no one method is right or wrong for everyone, or in every situation. But thinking about it the other day, and chatting with some friends about what sorts of things folks would be interested in hearing a writer talk about, the subject of making them compelling was raised.

You see, making them believable is only half of the battle. Most people don’t want to read a book about the average person next door unless there is something extraordinary about them, or their lives. And more often than not, having something extraordinary going on in your life, will bring out some extraordinary characteristic in yourself, just to cope with what life has thrown at you. Well, either that, or you get run over by whatever situation has arisen… But again, who wants to read about how Bill woke up one morning to find his kitchen counter levitating two feet above the floor, then was crushed to death by it when whatever magic caused it to behave so strangely suddenly gave out?

No, we want to hear about how Bill figured out what was causing such strange behavior in his kitchen furnishings, and harnessed it somehow. How he was changed by it. Maybe he has no idea and metaphysics (or just advanced physics, depending upon how we choose to explain the levitating counter) are not his bag. Then maybe some other person or agency who has a much keener interest in those disciplines shows up to take over the situation and Bill is suddenly forces to deal with being suspected of complicity with whatever force has latched onto his kitchen counter. How does he do that? What reserves, known to him or not, does Bill tap into in order to deal with this craziness?

In my first book, ‘The First Key of Kalijor’, there is a scene where the main characters engage in a high speed chase through a heavily populated archology on Mars. On the back of an ancient two-wheeled motorized vehicle, they weave through heavy pedestrian traffic while dodging (or not) their enemy’s gunfire and trying to escape with as little personal and collateral damage as possible. But why? Why didn’t they just call the authorities? Why not have professionals take care of the situation and go home to relax in front of the vid screen and catch a movie?

I submit to you that there is that one little nugget of crazy that a compelling character has to keep in the back of their otherwise every-person personality. There needs to be that ever so slight (or maybe much more significant, depending upon what your goals as a story teller are) unbalance to a good character that compels them to take up the yoke and forge ahead into the craziness that their lives are about to become with the beginning of any good story. Without that, they’d just call the cops and watch through the window as the trained professionals came around to sweep up the mess outside their front door.

Or, in the case of our friend Bill, he’d just disappear one day, kitchen counter and all, and nobody would ever hear the story of how his kitchen came down with a bad anti-graviton infection and Bill used it to learn how to dominate the niche market of roadside human tire-jack service…

“one little nugget of crazy” I loved that. Thank you, Paul!

Paul Lell is a Science Fiction writer and publisher, best known for his series, ‘The Keys of Kalijor’ which can be found on all major eReaders and at all major online booksellers. You can read more about Paul Lell, his books, and his crazy life, at


If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with murder mystery and children’s author Deborah Nicholson – the four hundred and fifty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

3 thoughts on “Guest post: What makes a Compelling Character? by Paul Lell

  1. Ian Miller says:

    What I do, for what it is worth, is to ask myself what, in the grand plot, does the character have to do? Then I ask myself, what sort of characteristics would be required for such a character to do them? This is particularly important for villains, because it is no good that they just do bad; to be believable there have to be signs previously so that “bad” comes as no real surprise. Then, basically, design the character and try to be consistent in their development.


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