What Makes a Compelling Character?

Glory is compelling. I ponder why.

Glory is a RainWing dragon in the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland and the point-of-view character in The Hidden Kingdom (Wings of Fire Book 3).

Spoiler Alert.

The following contains spoilers for the Wings of Fire series.

Glory’s egg was a substitute for the SkyWing egg that was destroyed when the eggs to fulfill the Dragonet Prophecy were collected. Because of that, the adult caregivers didn’t consider her to be a true part of the Prophecy. And being a RainWing, they considered her to be a lazy, weak, fruit eater, which was the stereotype for RainWings.

The caregivers treated her as inferior, which caused her to grow up bitter and with a bad attitude that hid her sadness. She almost always expressed herself with biting sarcasm. However, she was smart, remembered what she read, and even though she wasn’t as good at fighting as some of the others, she learned to fight and was willing and able to fight when needed.

Even though the caregivers treated her badly, her fellow Dragonets of Prophecy always treated her as one of them. She might have been in a constant state of irritation and annoyance, but she was loyal and true to the other dragonets because they were her family and despite her cynical opinion of her place among the Dragonets of Prophecy, she protected them at any cost.

When she finally meets other RainWings, she learns they act like the stereotype she had been accused of being. The RainWings were not what she had hoped for. She began to despise her people. But she learned the truth about what it meant to be a RainWing and eventually becomes proud of them and of herself for being one of them.

But she has a character change arc journey first.

She tended to be a loner and always wanted to do things for herself with no help because she had to prove she was more than what the stereotype said she was. This caused her many problems. But when she learned her people were threatened, she was willing to do anything to protect them. Initially she tried to do it alone. Her upbringing had made her different from other RainWings. When the NightWings captured her and considered her not to be a threat because she was a RainWing, she thinks, “They’ve never met a RainWing like me.” Sure enough, they end up regretting underestimating her. Still, her attempts to do it all alone did not go well. Ultimately she learned the lesson that she needed others and she embraced the help given to her by others.

Across the first four books of the Wings of Fire series — The Dragonet Prophecy (Wings of Fire Book 1), The Lost Heir (Wings of Fire Book 2), The Hidden Kingdom (Wings of Fire Book 3), and The Dark Secret (Wings of Fire Book 4) — she goes from a despised and neglected replacement dragonet who everyone thinks will amount to nothing to being the respected and feared Queen Glory of the RainWings and NightWings.

And that is the reason Glory is compelling. She was broken, damaged, and downtrodden, yet her experiences, determination, and personality, with the help of her friends and her people, enable her to overcome her personal problems and to ultimately prove she had been great all along.

Glory is a lesson in how to write a compelling character.

Glory surrounded by Jambu, Mangrove, Tamarin, and Kinkajou, with Sunny and Tsunami watching, after Glory becomes Queen of the RainWings. Kinkajou says, "You did it, Glory."  Glory responds, "Not by myself. I needed all of you to make it happen."
Glory Learned her Lesson
Image from Wings of Fire Graphic Novel #3: The Hidden Kingdom
I highly recommend the Wings of Fire books, audiobooks, and graphic novels.

Emotional Change Arcs

As I work through this story of two co-protagonists learning about each other, my challenge has become weaving the emotions of the characters. They each have moments of fear and moments of cheer. Each meeting brings one emotion or the other. Highs and lows intertwine until a moment of crisis when their relationship almost fails. From this near failure comes new understanding, and a new way of see each other. I’m feeling my way to that critical moment. It’s hard work that requires many experiments to find the right words.

Learning a Lot

My current story project is a challenge. With two point-of-view characters of equal importance, the story passes back and forth between them, scene by scene, as it progresses. I put a lot of effort into designing the story, but ultimately, the finished outline was little more than a list of plot point events that guide me through the story’s structure. I know less about the details that lead from plot point to plot point than I typically do when I write a story. The story is still on track, but there are times I must pause to think about what happens next. It’s challenging, but fun. And, I’m learning a lot.

Making Charts, Graphs, and Maps While I Think

Some people doodle while they think. Some people twirl a pencil. Some people bend paperclips. I like to make charts, graphs, and maps while I think. These charts, graphs, and maps are useful. They always support what I’m thinking about, which is usually the story I’m writing.

My current story makes occasional references to the backstory. I realized I did not know the timeline of that backstory. The timeline is important because some of the characters are children whose ages would dictate how they responded to or participated in past events, and even to what events they might remember. To help ensure what I described about the children made sense, I made a timeline and age chart. Now I know, for example, that Naia was two years old when the Dragon War ended. She could not have done some of the things I had imagined her doing. I’m glad I checked her age before I wrote those scenes.

My stories are always better when I make charts, graphs, and maps while I think.

Timeline of events and age chart for characters.
Timeline and Age Chart

Resolution then Edit

This novella has been a challenge, but it has been a good challenge. I like the story. Only the last few paragraphs of the resolution remain. Then, the editing begins. Getting the original words down can be a painful struggle, but editing is pleasant. I enjoy refining the story, improving word selection, and honing to make the story precise with no unnecessary fluff. This will be a fine story, a story to be proud of.

Word cloud of manuscript with the size of the words indicating frequency of words.  Beneath that is a picture of the 88 pages (the text of the pages is not readable).
Word Cloud and Pages of the Manuscript

Avoiding Deus ex Machina

Deus ex machina is a plot device where a person or thing is introduced unexpectedly and which provides a contrived solution to an apparently unsolvable difficulty.  I fear accidentally creating these.

In my current project, I have several situations that require setup ahead of time so that when the story arrives at one of those situations, the solution does not come across as contrived.  However, sometimes I haven’t fleshed out the events that would feel contrived if not properly setup ahead of time.

Tonight, I revisited earlier parts of the story to sow more seeds to cover the situations that are now beginning to take on their full form.  This weaving of story elements into a complex pattern is fun, but I will need beta readers to tell me if the setups work to prevent deus ex machina.

Symbols

A symbol is a method of attaching meaning to an action or item by associating it with something else thus giving the symbol a new, significant meaning in the story. Symbols are ways to inform the reader without using actual words to explicitly convey that information.

My current project is an origin story for a character used in a later story. When this character is introduced, I give her a locket I intend to use in the later story. However, this triggered the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle paraphrased as “If you introduce a narrative detail, that detail must be used later in the story.” I decided I’d deal with that later and moved on.

Then, I needed something to help express the character’s distress. The locket introduced at the beginning was the solution. It was related to a tragedy in her life, which was the cause of her distress, and it resolved the Chekhov’s Gun dilemma.

The magic of this revelation was how it affected the story’s ending. I knew what needed to happen at the end of the story, but I did not know how it would happen. In a rush of adrenaline induced euphoria, I saw how the locket defines the story and creates the ending. Moments like this make writing addictive.

Symbols are wonderful. I think I’ll keep them.

Locket on necklace chain.
Locket used as a Symbol

Motifs

A motif is a recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. An example I noticed in the movie Hidden Figures (2016) was when child Katherine G. Johnson’s teacher handed her the chalk, and then later her boss handed her the chalk. Both times Katherine proved herself by solving a math problem on the blackboard. These scenes also ended with Katherine adjusting her glasses. The movie had other motifs as well, such as Dorothy Vaughan saying “attagirl” when she got some device to work.

I tend to do a few motifs without thinking about them. My goal is to improve my motifs by actively giving them the thought and planning they deserve.

Two scenes from the movie Hidden Figures (2016) when Katherine G. Johnson was handed the chalk.
Handing the Chalk to Katherine

The More I Write, the More I Learn

As I practice writing, I learn about the writing craft, I build skills in the writing craft, but I also learn other things because I do research to support what I’m writing. For the story I’m currently writing, I researched childhood trauma.

The two main characters suffered childhood traumas. That trauma drives the attitude and behavior of the point-of-view character. She suffered her trauma years ago and is now an adult. The other character is a child who recently suffered her trauma. It is easier for me to write the adult than to write the child probably because I can relate to how an adult who suffered trauma as a child might deal with it as an adult. I can’t do that for the child. Thus, I researched childhood trauma to gain an understanding of how a child reacts to trauma.

I learned many things from my research and I now have a better idea of how to write the child, but I also learned about me. While I did not suffer childhood trauma as severe as what some people have, there were things that left their mark on me. I now understand myself better and I understand why I can write the adult. However, even with this new understanding, I still have my childhood trauma scars. In part, those scars make me who I am.

The more I write, the more I learn, and sometimes what I learn is about me.

Keep Pushing, Keep Improving, and Keep Having Fun

For years, I’ve practiced the craft of writing fiction. The scale of the subject is sizeable. Every author has their own take on the topic and each has their own process for achieving success. By studying what these people teach, and by writing close to a million words, I’ve developed my process, a process that accommodates my personality and idiosyncrasies. I may never be a master, but I do constantly improve.

This year I’ve applied my process to short stories. The turnaround time for creating a short story as opposed to a long form novel has allowed me to rapidly practice story structure, character change arcs, and other details of story theory. Each story has strengthened my skill set. And, each story has been wonderful. I am proud of my accomplishments.

I’m going to keep pushing, keep improving, and keep having fun.