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I think most writers are familiar with obsession. Not in a creepy way (...necessarily). But more of us are obsessed with ideas, stories—and characters.

Sometimes character obsession comes easy. Right from the start, we're wild about a character,
crazy in love with writing them to life. Other times… not so much. They're stubborn coming out, anger-making in the wrong ways, frustratingly enigmatic, or just meh.

When I was finishing up the first draft of my third book, I realized I found several of my main characters interesting—but not fascinating. At best, I was curious about them, but never compelled. Worse, some I found sort of boring. It made me care less about them in general. Which made me care less about their interactions with my protagonist, and as a result, the whole story.

What's funny is, my first book, Like Mandarin, is about obsession – a younger girl's obsession with her town's wild girl. For my readers to buy Grace's obsession, I knew I'd have to be obsessed with Mandarin myself. I did the same in my second book, in which a girl joins two colorful, ultra-seasoned travelers off the beaten path. I made sure I was wild about all three of them.

Apparently it's one of those things I rediscover with every book I write: that I need some level of obsession with every major character. Because if I'm not intrigued by them, why should my readers be? If I want you to be excited when they appear on the page, I need to be excited to write about them.

I need to be obsessed.

And not just with my point of view character. Obsession with our protagonists goes with the territory, especially if our books are in first person: we reside in their heads. We think through them. We know almost everything about them—when we're finished writing the book, at least—and find all of it compelling enough to tell their story. Love interests are just as important, particularly if the romance is a focal point of the book. For the protagonists we know so well to fall for them, we need to fall for them too.

However, I'm also talking about antagonists. Think of all your favorite villains—weren't they just as intriguing as the main character? At times, even more so? What about secondary characters with lots of page time, like the best friend? The mother? The little brother? Do they hold your interest when reading or writing them? Is there a strong sense that they have whole lives of their own, extending far off the protagonist-led pages? Or are they just plot devices—or worse, stock space-takers?

Of course, not every character in every book can be entirely three-dimensional. There just aren't enough dimensions to spend on way-off-to-the-side characters we only catch in glimpses. But I do believe even third tier characters can be interesting: gifted some quirk or unique mannerism, a splash of color, a memorable tag or physical quality. All this can be clarified or amplified the more important a character becomes.

How do you become obsessed with your characters?

I'm not sure you can force obsession. But you can certainly guide it.

Here's what I do. Before I revise, I sit and think about each major character, one by one, out of the context of the story. Usually, I take notes longhand, jotting down what comes to mind. It's similar to the character brainstorming I do early on in the writing process. But at this stage, I already know quite a bit about my characters; I'm searching for more of a spark.

I think about backstory. Formative memories. Often, seemingly superficial stuff leads to deeper epiphanies. Scars or tattoos can have stories behind them. Pondering each character's upbringing, parents, siblings, friendships, prior relationships, sexual histories can result in intriguing surprises that resonate in the story at large. Hobbies, talents, or passions enrich as well as make characters more sympathetic.

Obviously, we can't pack in everything; the less prominent a character, the less about them we can fit in our stories. But even if I can't include some of the details I've figured out about my secondary characters, as long as I'm more excited about them and their contributions to the story, I think it comes across in my writing—and it will in yours, too.

What characters are you obsessed with in your own writing, or in books you love?
Any tips for falling in love with your characters?
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. I think this has been the problem with my current WIP. I'm not obsessed with my MC. This post has inspired me to work on that!

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  3. I'm obsessed with the kind of characters who display mental strength, not just physical. The ones who can think about the world on a deep, emotive level, and connect with other people in a way that isn't solely physical. I love being able to identify the layers in characters -- their fears, their obsessions, their pointless habits, the things they do to comfort themselves.

    I think with my own characters, I don't love them in the sense that I think they're model citizens. Often, my characters display traits that sadden me, or even horrify me. But I understand their choices. I know what drives them.

    With my current WIP, it took me a very long time to reach that level. Two full rewrites. I think if a writer hasn't reached a point where their characters are giving them some kind of emotional resonance (whether that's love, sadness, ect), then sometimes it's best to try something different -- a different POV, a different tense. I started my manuscript in first person past tense, and it just didn't work. I had to rewrite from scratch in third person to get to know my main character. And now I'm rewriting again in first person present, and I think I've finally nailed it. Some characters just take that extra bit of effort to reveal. But the end result -- seeing how far the character and the manuscript has come -- is so, so worth it.

  4. Make them as human as possible. That's the key for me. That means knowing their flaws as well as those things that make them great. Their quirks. The body part they always bemoan and the one that makes them attractive. And, I like smart characters. They don't have to be booksmart, but they do have to be clever and inventive. Either that, or they have to be fiercely loyal. I don't know why, but that's my personal secret formula.

    So characters I'm obsessed with? In my own writing, definitely Greer, the guardian angel in the series I'm working on right now. In others': Hermione Granger, Anne Shirley, PK from The Power of One...I could keep going, but I'll stop there.

    Fun topic!

  5. Great post - it took me a long time to have any opinion on one of my MCs in my current WIP. I kept having to make up unrelated-to-the book scenes and figuring out what he would do and how he thought. I'm slowly starting to get to know him and I think it's beginning to become obsession :)

  6. Great post. I'm definitely obsessed with my own characters, it's the hope that readers will be as well.

  7. Great post! This is something I need to work on with my WIP. I'm good with plotting, but I don't flesh out my characters enough. I never get obsessed with them where I know them inside out.

  8. what a timely post. just as I got ready yesterday to start what will essentially be the third rewrite of the same book, I thought to myself, I love these characters so much. I don't think we could make ourselves do it otherwise.

  9. This is timely for me. I've got a pivotal character in my current WIP who just isn't clicking. Supposed to be a crazy fascinating person, but he just seems tragic. Sigh. Revision time.

  10. I'm in love with the MC of my manuscript I'm currently querying for. Also, her love interest - def my fav character in the whole book (sadly, even more than my MC lol). My way of obsessing about my characters is putting them in a place together and seeing what they do. In my head of course. Hope that makes sense..

  11. Very well said!! If we as writers aren't intrigued by our characters, then how can we expect our readers to be? That definitely includes the villains, as you said--they have to have an appeal.

  12. Thanks for this post. I'm attempting a novel for the first time and I was actually starting to freak myself out a little bit. A couple of my characters won't get out of my head. I feel like a crazy person.


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Item Reviewed: Obsessed. Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard