Friday, September 24, 2010

What makes a compelling character?

A sidekick, an unusual appearance, an odd habit or two, and a few magic tricks up the sleeve.

Just kidding.

Instead of looking up some great character building advice from one of my thirty-odd writing books that collect dust on my shelves, or visiting a few famous writing blogs and spouting off great terms like "character arc", I decided to wing it with just a little help from one of my all-time favorite characters, Gandalf.

This post is part of Elana Johnson's Great Blogging Experiment, wherein she theorizes that given the same topic, such as "Writing Compelling Characters", all participants will manage to produce very different results.

Seriously, do I need to introduce Gandalf? If you don't know what books he was in, and who the author was, you are not old enough to be reading blogs and I'm going to tell your mother that you are sneaking around on the internet again. (Just kidding. Skip to the end of the post for the details if you need them).

You know when you fill out profiles about yourself and the "who is your hero" question comes up? Well - I list Gandalf here. The "If you could meet any person in all of history" question? - I've answered "Gandalf" to that one, too. Even though he isn't historical. But he is iconic.

I digress.

What makes Gandalf a compelling character?

I wish I had time to re-read a certain trilogy overnight to answer this question (one can never re-read these books too many times). But here's a few ideas.

He is powerful, but disguised. Only a select few realize his greatness... the rest admire him merely for his firework shows. His gray robes are not kingly or dazzling, but at the same time his wide-brimmed wizard's hat, ash staff, pipe and impressive knack for producing smoke rings hint at his fascinating personality.

He is wise, but flawed. He speaks in riddles and rarely gives a straight answer. He knows how to break spells that bind kings, and yet none of his spells could open Moria's gates. For that, he had to wait until his common sense finally kicked in.

He is mysterious, and he has a temper. We have no idea how old he is. We have only a vague idea where he comes from. Small eavesdropping hobbits are afraid he will turn them into into toads or worse things. He can wield both a staff and sword and face demons and wraiths with heartbreaking bravery. He can rage "You fool of a Took!" and it makes us smile.

The guard still hesitated. "Your staff," he said to Gandalf. "Forgive me, but that too must be left at the doors."

"Foolishness!" said Gandalf. "Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another. I am old. If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here, until pleases Theoden to hobble out himself to speak with me."
Compelling characters engage you emotionally. They make you care about them. Sometimes they make you laugh, sometimes they frustrate you with their stubbornness, sometimes they keep you guessing. But the GREATEST characters are those who will give up everything for what they believe in. Gandalf, with Aragorn and a few other leaders, stood in front of the Black Gate, their forces hopelessly outnumbered by Sauron's, in the slim hope that the distraction would buy Frodo and Sam the time to accomplish their quest.

The greatest characters are faithful to the end, and though they may not start out on the right track or they make a few wrong turns along the way, by the end you are 100% behind them because somehow you know they'd be 100% behind you.

Who's your favorite compelling character?

For those of you who haven't googled him yet, Gandalf is one of the main characters (though the not the primary hero) in both the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Btw, Wikipedia has some interesting facts about where Tolkien got his idea for Gandalf, where the name Gandalf comes from, and what his original name was before it was Gandalf (thank goodness he changed it).

42 comments:

  1. Wow, what an awesome character to use as an example! Despite not being one of my top ten movie's the very first character that pops into my mind when I think of compelling is Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. Can't think of her name in the movie for the life of me, but I sure as hell remember how compelling she was!

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  2. Gandalf is a great character - his mysterious nature makes him all the more fascinating. Are you posting at THE REJECTIONIST'S Public Humiliation Uncontest on Monday? Scary.

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  3. Awww Gandalf so rules!!! LOL!! But I was quite partial to Prince Boromir myself. He was such a flawed tortured soul and died valiantly thus wiping all his darkness! He's my kind of character - extremely conflicted but ultimately heroic!

    Take care
    x

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  4. This is such a great post! Gandalf is an amazing character. There are so many incredible and fascinating characters out there!

    Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series) is definitely one of my favorite characters!

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  5. There's so many of them, and I can think of none right now other than Katniss for The Hunger Games.

    Great post, Margo! Agents are currently salivating, expecting in a few months time their slush piles are going to filled with books lush with rich characterization after today's

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  6. I love Gandalf. How can I chose just one hero? In this year's reads probably Katniss Everdeen.

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  7. Jess - I know what you mean, I don't remember the character's name from Moulin Rouge either, but I can still envision her, and not just because she was played by Nicole Kidman. Though that didn't hurt!

    Old Kitty - Boromir and Sean Bean - potent combination!

    Laura, Anne Shirley is definitely a top ten character! I named one of my daughters after her, Anne with an E.

    Stina and LotusGirl, Katniss is definitely it for 2010. Katniss, oh conflicted Katniss. Unforgettable.

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  8. What you said about characters who are deeply committed to something, and willing to sacrifice for it really resonated with me. I think it's an echo of the "greatest story ever told"--of the kid born in a barn who is falsely accused and executed, yet through his sacrifical death saves his people.

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  9. Laurel - you are so right. It really is the greatest story ever told, and probably the underlying reason why heros who are willing to sacrifice themselves really resonate with folks, even if they don't know exactly why.

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  10. I may have to look into this "Gandalf," of whom you speak. He sounds interesting. I'm just way too young to be familiar. *cough* *cough*

    Actually, that's a fantastic example, Margo. I think my favorite from the same is Borimir. (And maybe this will clarify some of what I meant in my own blog. lol) At the outset he has this great potential for heroism, but you see him develop into a short-sighted, almost self-centered character willing to sacrifice others. And, then, in the end he flips that around in an amazing redemptive twist.

    Full of potential, but twice delivering what readers don't necessarily expect. (Not a perfect example, but I have talked too long on your blog. :) )

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  11. C.N. - using Boromir as an example actually really helped me understand what you meant - and it's great advice. Interesting, the second person to mention Boromir... conflicted characters are definitely compelling.

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  12. There are certain words in here that totally stuck out to me. Wise, disguised and mysterious. I think those combined, are a recipe for success in any character.

    And seriously. How can you get a better example than Gandalf? YOU CAN'T. Great job!

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  13. Nicole Kidman's character was Satine :D

    Love the Gandalf examples - I love a character that can make me laugh and has me sort of scared of him at the same time :D

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  14. Couldn't agree more! Mary from The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is one of my favorite compelling characters. She is determined, strong, and completely devoted to doing what she thinks is right, even when others doubt her.

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  15. Love Gandalf! He has the best lines. Such great advice!

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  16. Rachel Morgan from "Every witch way but dead" series by Kim Harrison is my fav MC! Great post

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  17. Ah, love the mystery of Gandalf and that he is definitely faithful to the end. Great example for the experiment! ;)

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  18. Gandalf is pretty awesome. They just had a LOTR marathon on tv and it reminded me how many great characters it has. Even though some of the characters feel like cliches now, Tolkien was the one who started it all.

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  19. Gandalf is a great character to use as an example. Seriously, excellent choice.

    My favorite compelling character? Probably Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series... I'd start telling you why but then I'd ramble for hours. I won't bore you.

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  20. Just wanted to pop back to say that I accept your challenge. :)

    Next week - not sure what day but it will happen! - I am going to explain why, to me, Severus Snape is the most compelling character.

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  21. Ooh, I LOVE Gandalf. This is a great breakdown of what makes him so powerful in the LOTR. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by my blog!

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  22. I've read The Hobbit years ago, but haven't read the rest of the series even though it's sitting on my shelf. No excuse either...I LIKED The Hobbit. So what is my problem? (uhhhh, don't answer that)

    Great post!

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  23. Such an excellent example of a compelling character. Gandalf is unforgettable. And, you're so right that it is the strength in his belief and willingness to sacrifice for it that makes him so.
    Short answer: Buffy.

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  24. Love Gandalf! I want him as my own personal wizard protector too. One of my favorite characters of all time is Anne of Green Gables and I think that's because she is relatable. We, as readers, like to see a little of ourselves in the MCs we read about. Anne found me at just the right age of my life. :o)

    You make some great points, Margo. Thanks!

    Have a great night!

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  25. I love Gandalf! :) LOTR wouldn't be LOTR without him. But your points are so true as well--we need those traits in a character otherwise it isn't compelling.

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  26. I love Gandalf and he is a perfect example to use for this. Great post!

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  27. Gandalf is an excellent choice for a compelling character. Great post!

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  28. One of my favourite characters that I've read is Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Yes, she was written in such a way that I cared for her and I wanted to look after her. I jumped each time she'd go out with Jem and I felt that she'd be in danger. I totally agree with all points you've written. I love your post, another great post about Compelling Characters. I love reading each one of them! :) I'm a new blog friend and follower :)

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  29. I love Gandalf too. The trilogy is stock full of great dialogue. I grew up on J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis...no wonder I write fantasy. Loved your post. The next time someone ask me who my hero is, I might just say Gandalf.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  30. A lovely analysis of Gandalf. Definitely a compelling character.

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  31. Great choice! Myself...I liked Strider, the reluctant hero. And Sam who is the one who actually saves the day.

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  32. Great post! I love lifelike characters! I cannot stand to read a book that doesn't have them. Whenever I write I make certain my characters are around to help or I refuse to write. I think a book cannot be a real book without real characters.
    I agree about Gandlaf. He is very life like. I think it is because, as you mentioned, he has faults. I always thought that was one of the keys for a character seeming real, having faults everyone else has. He is very wise but can over look the simplest things. He puts up with a man - in the movies at least - who is reluctant to reveal who he is and yet gets annoyed at a little hobbit. He is devoted to his friends and never gives up on Frodo though often worries about his safety.
    I have always liked Aragorn - among others. I have a huge list of favorite characters, ones who are so real to me I feel like they are in the same room with me when I read. I like the mysterious characters, who always hide part of themselves and leave you guessing. And the ones who are full of surprises, doing things that seems completely out of character for them - like Sherlock Holmes does. I also like the quiet ones who only want to stay at home and live their day to day lives but find themselves in some form of danger and have to complete some deed to save their friends or home. But, if I had to pick just one character I would have to say Henri Baillot who had nearly all of those characteristics 8-D

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  33. Oh, I LOVE your final comment. That's so on target. And yes, I love Gandalf, too. If you think about it, we see him in a lot of different disguises. Of course, Tolkien took him from older myths including Oden, so I guess I should not be surprised it's an enduring archetype. LOL

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  34. Great, great post! And who DOESN'T love Gandalf?! Perfect example. :-)

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  35. Thanks for reminding us all of what a great character Gandalf is. I really liked how you characterized him as disguised and wise. Great post!

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  36. Gandalf is a great character! Hmmm, most compelling to me? I don't know if I can choose. When I was a teen, it was Anne of Green Gables. Duck, in Click, Clack Moo fascinates me. Snape, like Melissa said. Gandalf, and even Sam Gamgee . . . No, I can't choose for sure.

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  37. I love Gandalf! What an awesome character to use as an example. Great post.

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  38. Awesome, Awesome, Awesome post!!!

    I love Gandalf (but I must say Aragorn compels me like few others can). :)

    Love your take on the Blogging Experiment and glad I found your blog.

    P.S. You didn't win the Alyson Noel books, but I'm having another contest over at my blog, so stop by. :)

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  39. Nice example! It's been a long time since I read LOTR; I should go back and read it sometime.

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  40. Awesome example! I adore Gandalf :)

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  41. Awwww, what a great post about a great character! I especially like "by the end you are 100% behind them because somehow you know they'd be 100% behind you". I never thought of it that way, but I love it!

    And welcome to the NaNo Blogchain as well! This is one of the (many) blogs I haven't yet made it through on the Writing Compelling Characters blogchain and I found you on the NaNo one!

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  42. I haven't even read The Lord of The Rings but I still know who Gandalf is. If that isn't a compelling character, than who is?

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