Passion: What Your Character Needs Most

Thursday, March 03, 2016
“Nice people with common sense don’t make good characters. They only make good former spouses.” Isabel Allende

The first time that I heard Chilean author Isabel Allende say this, I just wasn’t sure I bought it. Certainly you can have a top notch character with more than a little common sense. Right?

Then I started to think about my favorite characters.

Phryne Fisher could easy flit from party to party, drinking cocktails and dancing the night away. Instead she takes on investigations for dirty orphans and nameless women alike, even when she’s threatened by drug dealers, angry madams or communist sympathizers. She’ll take on these villains and more in order to get to the truth.

Harry Dresden won’t back down even when a powerful underworld figure warns him off the case. Abandon truth when the simple act of investigation may get him condemned by the Wizarding Council? Pfft. Dresden wants to avoid execution as much as the next guy but he isn’t going to back down when someone is using magic in the wrong way.

The list goes on. Elisa in The Girl of Fire and Thorns goes from pampered princess to grubby rebel leader. Tana in The Coldest Girl in Cold Town voluntarily enters a vampire settlement because her former boyfriend needs her help.

These characters aren’t memorable only for the lack of common sense. Sure, they have to have a certain daring or they’d never get off the sofa, but what draws readers to them is their passion. It may be passion for an ideal (truth, justice, the American way). It may be passion toward a person (desire to help the victim, refusal to desert a friend, or admiration). They may want to prove themselves right, clear their name or conquer an unconquerable foe. What matters is that they are driven, passionate and just a little bit unhinged when it comes to meeting that goal.

Trying to write character driven fiction and just can’t make it work? Think about your character.

Is she the kind of girl who caps the toothpaste, flosses and always wears her seatbelt and sensible shoes? That’s okay as long as there is something that infuriates her like nothing else. There has to be something that means so much that she will leave her safe, comfortable world behind, cause her to alienate friends and family alike, and make her question her own sanity if only for the course of the novel.

If she plays it safe all the time and isn’t driven to act out, dial down the common sense. Then give her the passion that she needs to see the story through, solve the big problem and draw in readers who want to get to know her now and in books to come.


Sue is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins on March 21, 2016.


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