The Fire in Their Eyes

Why do our characters do what they do? What is it that makes me, the reader, care about these characters? What encourages me to finish reading the story? Passion. The characters in a great story have passion, passion that drives them to make the choices that they do, and make me–the reader–care about the character’s success or failure.

What motivates our characters? If the writer isn’t sure, chances are good that the story isn’t going to hold together–and it certainly isn’t going to interest the reader. A character can be sweet, funny, kind, and completely boring. A character can be sassy, snarky, witty, and pointless. I argue that the key factor in making a character truly interesting is whether or not the character has passion; what is it that puts the fire in the character’s eyes? Let’s take a look at some of my favorite characters.

J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas: She’s passionate about Roarke, her friends, but above all, justice. She is willing to live on little more than caffeine in order to find justice for the victims of the homicides she investigates. As she evolves throughout the series, her black and white sense of right and wrong grows to encompass more gray, but her passion never wains. If I ever needed a homicide detective, Eve’s the one I would want!

Lucy Burdette’s Hayley Snow: She’s passionate about family, including her friends as part of her extended family. While she loves writing and food and living in Key West, she gets herself in all sorts of tough situations because she is so passionate about her family. Who wouldn’t treasure a friend who is so protective, supportive, and caring?

Casey Hill’s Reilly Steel: She’s passionate about the science. As a forensic scientist, Reilly’s never met a puzzle she couldn’t solve, and she’s determined to use science to her advantage. New techniques along with tried and true, Reilly is successful–and lovable–because of that passion.

Who are some of your favorite characters, and what are they passionate about?



Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

15 thoughts on “The Fire in Their Eyes”

  1. So true, Pamela, passion is necessary to a reader and to a character. One of my favorites is the lesser known creation of PD James, Cordelia Grey. Her passion for justice and for her job made her few outings memorable. I often wonder why James didn’t continue with her. Perhaps the two were too close!


  2. One of my favorite characters is Veronica Mars and she’s passionate about justice and the truth and she won’t stop until she gets both.


  3. This is interesting to me because, as a writer, I sometimes struggle with this. With my characters I like to explore what happens when a normal person, like you or me or you next door neighbor, suddenly finds themselves thrust into the chaos of a bizarre situation way out of their experience — finding a dead body, dealing with a kidnapping and such. To use these terms, their real passion is simply to get back to their boring ‘ol life. Does that make them boring? Sometimes I’m not sure.


  4. Thanks for the post! Reading it alerted me to why one of my characters seems like such a dishrag. (I’ll give that serious thought.) Currently I’m re-reading Adrian McKinty’s The Troubles series. His protag, Sean Duffy, is a Roman Catholic who joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary, quitting his PhD program and giving up a career in academia, because he wanted to be part of the solution. The pressures on him are surreal.


  5. I have too many characters to count, but yes. All the most compelling ones have a “passion,” something that matters to them more than anything. Jumping to mind right now is Malcom Reynolds, captain of Serenity on the series Firefly. Freedom and his crew, that’s what matters. In a scene with Simon Tam, the young doctor (who is sure Mal hates him), Simon asks, “Why did you come back for me?” and Mal’s answer is simple: “You’re part of my crew.” And Mal will pretty much do anything for his crew.


  6. I’m with Becky. I love reluctant heroes and am drawn to the everyday people in extraordinary situations. It’s a tough job to infuse someone like that with passion, but you’re right. This is a really good reminder!


  7. What a fabulous post, Pamela! You’re so right, a character’s passion can truly make a story. One such character that comes to mind is Nichelle Clark from the Headlines in High Heels Series–she’s passionate about beating her competition to the scoop, discovering the truth, friends & family, and, of course, her fabulous footwear 😉


  8. These are all great examples! Most of the characters I am really drawn to have an overt focus/goal, even if it’s just a desire to solve the current predicament. I don’t know if they have to be overtly passionate for me to connect with them…but they do have to be interesting!


  9. I loved Mal in Firefly, Mary. And I’ve been watching his “second” in the series Suits, carry on with her passion to keep her law firm.

    I love this post (it kind of ties in with one I’ve been noodling on for later this month) and will remember it as I work on my newest story.

    Thank you!


  10. For me, characters can make or break a book. I like to think that I know them so well that I would recognize them if I ran into them at the supermarket or moved into the house down the street.

    Questions for you writers — do you develop character sketches or biographies of your characters before you start? Do you know their favorite music, their favorite foods, favorite colors, their pets, vacation spots, where they went to school, books they have read, or pet peeves? Do your characters have secret pasts that only you know about?


    1. I know a lot about my characters, but I learn things as I go. Just like with my real-life friends, information comes with time and trust. Writers are told to think of their characters/backstory/plot as an iceberg. They should know what’s under the ocean, but readers only need the necessary tip. Margaret Coel’s mysteries are set in the Arapaho Nation and I read an interview with her where she said she’s fascinated by everything surrounding their land and culture, but she knows it bogs down her story. She writes it all, for herself, then removes it for her readers who may not be so enamored. That has stuck with me over the years.


  11. 3 no 7, that’s a great question! I do work up the characters to a certain extent (never thought about their vacation spots, though…that’s a good one!) before writing, though I am always very happy when the character shows me something I didn’t know about them during the writing process. And sometimes I’m just plain wrong…that happened with the book coming out in April…one character simply refused to act the way I originally envisioned. 🙂


  12. 3 no 7, absolutely. I have detailed character sheets about the main characters in my novels and tons of backstory information in my brain. Most of it will never make it into a story, but it’s critical for me to know as I write so I get the actions/reactions right in whatever story I’m working on.

    And like Cynthia I love it when the character “tells” me something I didn’t know (in my latest WIP, I had no idea that my main character has a hangup about things being put into eyes – fingers, needles, etc. Yet he’s a police officer who has dealt with some pretty messy scenes.


  13. I just read the first book in Edna Buchanan’s series about Britt Montero. Britt is a crime reporter in Miami, and she’s passionate enough about her job to dig for the true story, despite the threatening consequences.

    3 no 7, I also write out character sketches. But what I find that helps me the most is to learn about the characters by writing short stories of significant moments in their past histories, moments that have shaped them into who they have become.


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