Fascinate Me: The Intriguing Character

When I began my writing training, my characters weren’t much more than a name, hair color, and a series of tasks I wanted them to attempt. Sometimes I jotted down a list of dialogue points I wanted them to make in scenes. Without my list, I often got sidetracked and my scenes didn’t always come out the way I wanted.

Since then, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to characterization than that. What makes us love a certain character and remain indifferent to another? What makes one character live beyond the story he appears in, while others fade from memory the moment we shut the book? Why are some characters intriguing and others dull?

An intriguing character doesn’t have to be the good guy.

Count ’em on your fingers … Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Captain Bly, Bill Sikes, Sauron, Mrs. Danvers, Count Dracula, and Cruella de Vil … to name only a few memorable villains. (Yes, I left out Moriarty and Voldemort on purpose.) No doubt you can come up with many, many more, and there are lists of fictional villains on the Internet to jog your memory.

Let’s take Treasure Island’s Long John Silver as an example. He’s a ruthless, black-hearted pirate who signs on as ship’s cook. During the voyage, he deliberately befriends the young boy Jim, taking advantage of Jim’s naivete and trusting nature. He serves as a confidant and mentor to Jim, only to betray the boy later. Worst of all, when his true self is revealed, he expects Jim to stick with him and also turn on the others. Jim, of course, won’t do that. Silver reproaches the boy, saying plaintively, “I thought you and me was friends.”

Our fascination with Silver is less about his piracy and more about the psychological damage he’s wreaking.

Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a nasty piece of work. She hates the new Mrs. de Winter from the start and does her best to sabotage the young bride’s self-confidence, marriage, and chances of social success. Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper, supposed to serve and assist. Instead, she despises Mrs. de Winter and preys on every weakness, even compelling the girl to almost commit suicide. Finally, when she can’t break the girl, Mrs. Danvers burns down the house.

If we look only at Mrs. Danvers’s cruel actions, we have a one-dimensional villain. It’s not until we examine her motivation that we can see her complexity. She loved the first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful, vivid woman named Rebecca. She was Rebecca’s nurse and remained a servant to her–becoming housekeeper–even after Rebecca married. Mrs. Danvers can’t and won’t accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers lays out Rebecca’s clothes each day, has preserved her room exactly as it was, has forced the household to continue doing everything the way Rebecca preferred. Mrs. Danvers has been warped by her grief. If she accepts the second Mrs. de Winter (who’s never named in the book), then she’ll have to accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers is far too cruel and sick to evoke our compassion, but she’s anything but ordinary.

Not all intriguing characters are villains.

Consider Zorro, Superman, Batman, James Bond, Tarzan, Rhett Butler, and Sherlock Holmes–to name only a few.

What makes these fictional individuals so compelling?

I found the answer in Robert McKee’s book, Story, where he discusses a writing technique dealing with “true character.” McKee says that audiences are fascinated by characters whose true nature is in contrast to their outward appearance or behavior. At any moment, the mask may drop and we glimpse the real individual inside.

Zorro is literally masked. By day, he hides behind the mild persona of Don Diego. Batman is a wealthy businessman who dons the cowl to fight crime. Superman and Tarzan are also double-identity heroes. James Bond doesn’t wear a mask or costume, but we have a heroic super-spy capable of killing, jumping from airplanes, and blowing up facilities who conceals his violent abilities inside a tuxedo and suave demeanor. Each time we watch Bond sauntering through a glitzy casino with a beautiful woman on his arm, we’re anticipating the moment when the action hero will be revealed. Rhett Butler is not a crime fighter, but we never know when he will drop his mocking cynicism for kindness and generosity. Sherlock Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive abilities are jeopardized by his cocaine addiction. We fear he will break apart, never to be mended by Dr. Watson.

In designing your characters, strive for a contrast between the surface and the truth. Look at the why behind their actions and make those motivations work. If you can create a complex character, chances are you’ll have a compelling character.


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6 responses to “Fascinate Me: The Intriguing Character

  1. CD

    It’s interesting you name Zorro and Batman both. Batman’s creator acknowledged he was inspired by Zorro (wealthy socialite who seems above getting his hands dirty, so nobody is prepared to believe what he does by night in a mask). After Batman, of course, secret-identity superheroes became so common that the secret identity had become a trope by the time the Incredibles came out.

    When I started writing I was much more interested in the world than in the characters, and the result was dismal: people read stories to see what happens to the characters, but won’t care unless the author makes them (and by extension their problems) interesting. I’ve been working on characters for a little while, and I’ve begun producing things my “why should I care about this character?” readers are now saying “when can I have the next chapter?”

    And that, I like to hear : – )

    • Deb

      You’ve discovered that people are interested in reading about people. While there are stories that feature setting as a character, just pick up any Agatha Christie novel to see how small a role it plays in her fiction.

  2. I discovered that you are likely the teacher that taught Jim Butcher his craft – granted he learned as a byproduct of trying to prove your method wrong, but it still worked.
    I’ve read countless books on the craft. I’ve taken several courses and workshops, yet I still found myself unable to complete my work. Then after finding an interview with Jim Butcher and learning who taught him, I chose to find you. The one person able to get Jim Butcher to improve his writing, in spite of himself. That is the kind of teacher I need.

    I can see that to bring my own writing to the next stage, I would benefit from learning what Jim Butcher did. Raw talent alone can’t often complete what it starts, there are too many distractions.
    I need to find a way to focus, to complete the works I have begun, before my time runs out. I’m legally blind, the number of years I will have what sight I do are limited. Beyond that is my age, 50 may be the new 30 for some, but unfortunately, time has not been as kind to me. Personally, there are days it feels like much older and that worries me.

    I’ve been writing since I was a child, crafting words into worlds of magic and adventure. I’ve entertained my children over the years with many tales, but I’ve only bits of them written down.
    I want to leave my stories behind, not only for my children and my grandchildren, but for others who have enjoyed them. This is my legacy, my treasure, a part of me forged into reality that will go on.

    I’ve stories within me like a rainstorm, they fill my mind and I feel them. I can hear their voices like a tempest wanting desperately to be heard, to be shared.

    I’m not a very organized person, not as a whole. I can be at times, but as a rule I’m more like the product of a packrat & a whirlwind. Which is probably why I get very little accomplished, except in energetic bursts due to impending deadlines. Unfortunately, this isn’t how one completes a novel or finishes a series, let alone gets anything published.

    I don’t know how much the course you offer would be, nor can I attend the University as I’m some distance away. Do you think that you would be able to offer an online version of your writing class? I would be very interested in signing up, if it was ever made available.

    Thank you for being an inspiring teacher, because of you, the rest of us have been given a gift of talented and creative authors.

    • Thank you so much for your note. I think it’s a shame that the writing craft is so often veiled in mystery, when in fact the principles are simple ones. Once you understand them, it’s a matter of practice and harnessing your talent in a productive way. I remember how it was when I was trying to learn. My imagination felt like it was going to boil over if I didn’t find an outlet for it. While I don’t have an online class in the works right now, it might become a project for the future. Presently, I’m kept pretty busy with my own writing career plus my full-time courses at the university.

      My best recommendation for you is to study Jack Bickham’s texts on writing. He was my teacher, and I in turn used his methods for teaching Jim Butcher–despite his determination to prove me wrong. 🙂

      I also recommend Dwight V. Swain’s TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITING. Meanwhile, the best I can offer are these blog posts on technique.

      Wishing you the best,

  3. Does leaving Moriarty and Voldemort out reflect a view that they are too two-dimensional to be interesting, and work only because they are opposing a host of characters for whom readers have come to care?

    Or is there something else?

    • They work well as the shadow archetype. Because they’re off-stage most of the time, they can remain enigmatic. That element of mystery allows reader imagination to build them up to a much greater menace.

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