Six F-words for Compelling Characters

Got you at F-words, huh? That’s okay. All these f-words are fine to use in whatever company you happen to be in right now. No one will wrinkle a brow once they get past the title, so there’s no need to angle your screen or slouch and look over your shoulder.

In today’s world of publishing, catching—and keeping—a reader’s attention is rarely easy. Today I’m sharing six words to help you craft characters that no one would dub as “cardboard.” Incorporate as many of these ideas as your story can handle, and you will also create backstory and plots that readers can identify and connect with, no matter the genre you write.

  1. Failures: Whether it’s in the past or the present, or looms in the immediate future, failure is a shared human experience. Whether it’s the fear of future failure, the frightening effects failure can have on a character’s life (can you imagine a lawyer’s failed arguments that send an innocent client to Death Row?), or failure in the past that affects a characters belief system or perspective, failure has many degrees and always carries unseen ramifications.
  2. Flaws: From minor to major character flaws, everyone can sympathize or form opinions of a character based on their flaws. When these flaws are skillfully revealed through backstory, dialogue, internal monologue or actions, we see the character dealing with their weaknesses. This gives us an opportunity for showing growth and character arcs, as well as the possibility for humorous plot situations because our protagonist tries to compensate for their shortcomings.
  3. Frustrations: Plot twists, secondary characters, Mother Nature, past actions, relatives and friends—these can all have varying degrees of frustration. In a romance, frustration about the pace of growing feelings (too slow for one partner, too fast for the other) can provide many opportunities for revealing how your characters deal with adversity and other people or situations.
  4. Firsts: We’re rarely at our best the first time we try something. This is probably true for our characters, too. Remember the first time you put the car in gear and drove out of the garage or driveway onto the street? The first time you had to make a lane change or merge onto the freeway? Oh, maybe there was some…
  5. Fear: I thought about putting this one first, but having a character who is always afraid isn’t compelling. Having a strong, confident, successful character who has a debilitating fear of, say, spiders, could be interesting if we see that fear and the backstory gradually layered in to reveal the why of the fear. Then we see how someone used that fear to scare the helpless child, and how that fear grew into something bigger than just the fear of spiders. The determination to overcome the fear can bring a wealth of story ideas via secondary characters, action required to attain something of great importance, or character arc growth.
  6. Funny: Even if you’re writing a thriller, a funny detail or an expression can defuse a tense scene, relaxing characters for the next terror. A fun-filled memory can inform readers about another side of an otherwise staid character. Something that has the reader giggling, that the protagonist does not admit or recognize as funny, can be that much funnier and show us something about the character as well. And what about the place of a character who just wants to have fun, or the humorous side-kick? There is a big difference between a character who can laugh at herself versus one who refuses to acknowledge funny remarks.

Do you have an f-word that helps you write more compelling characters or stories? Please share it with us and tell us how you use it.

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