Fiction Writing: What Makes Readers Care About Your Characters?

redridinghood.jpg“Really scary books succeed because we come to know and care about the characters. I like to say, “It’s the PEOPLE, stupid” — NOT the monsters!” - Stephen King

What makes readers care about your characters? What makes them hate with a passion or fall in love? What keeps them reading? How do you create that bond between real people and people that only exist on paper?

Recognition

When you see yourself or someone familiar to you in a character concept, the connection is instantaneous. It’s like meeting a stranger and knowing immediately that you’re going to share a long-lasting friendship.

The situations that your characters experience and the actions they take achieve that bond. When we see situations a character faces as ones we’ve been through ourselves, we feel closer to the character.

Some experiences are universal. Who hasn’t told a lie to spare feelings? Who hasn’t faced a tough decision between what’s right and what’s tempting? Who hasn’t wished for a lifelong bond with someone that loves us?

Or, maybe the situation is even closer to home. Maybe the character is a single mother, trying to do the best she can to support her family – and you’re in that situation, too. Perhaps the character is disenchanted with having an empty life that means nothing – and that’s your life right now.

Recognition often creates a bond you can’t find anywhere else. You relate to the character and the lives they lead. You feel for their difficulties. You take comfort in characters knowing that you’ve felt their feelings, too.

You take these characters into your heart – and they never leave. By the end of the book, you can’t bear to part with those beloved people.

Personality

A character’s personality often seals a bond by making us relate as kindred spirits or by encouraging our smiles. Look at the people you like being around, and then look at the types of characters in your favorite novels.

For example, I enjoy witty, charming personalities. Characters like these make me fondly roll my eyes and shake my head. They make me smile. My character Cole has a way of saying the funniest things in the middle of a bad situation.

Other characters often have two faces that help endear them. They’re multi-faceted and complex, just like real people can be. Diego is hard-ass with soft moments that shine through when you least expect them. Cass takes himself far too seriously but puts his brooding aside the moment his best friend Sunny does something totally off the wall.

And Sunny is… Well, he’s an impulsive firecracker, holding back his emotions and the world with his mental walls. But he hesitantly lets his loved ones inside those walls, cautiously showing how much he truly cares.

Personalities touch the reader in such a way that heartstrings tug on a deep emotional level. The reader can’t help but give in and feel emotion for the people they grow to love.

Humanity

Even the most heinous villain has moments that make him human. Think of Hannibal Lechter: He was awful, but he did have a soft spot for Clarice and courteous manners. Another example is the dark, imperial Darth Vader. Feared leader by all, he came around in the end.

You don’t have to like a character to feel something for them.

Sometimes you even start caring about them, because you see the potential for good in their souls. The brief moments of humanity show there’s hope for change. Snippets that show that an evil character was once good quickly bond readers to the worst murders.

Sometimes characters are just so bad that they’re good.

The HBO series Deadwood is another fine example of characters with humanity. They have vices, but there are certain lines that even they won’t cross. Their integrity shows through.

Characters – good or evil – need facets to come alive. If they don’t, they come across as flat. Think of your favorite characters. What is it about them that makes them human? What are their vices and virtues? What line won’t your character cross, no matter what?

And maybe most importantly, how low can your character go?

Enrichment

Give your character real problems to face and real decisions to make. Also, give them realistic solutions. The obstacles characters come across throughout a novel, no matter how big or small, should always highlight the character’s traits and enrich them in some way.

How does your character deal with a crisis? Does he fall apart at the seams, or does he rally like a trooper? If he’s constantly in control, what happens when he finally loses it? What triggers make him explode? How does he handle pressure, stress and struggle?

Nobody’s perfect. Sooner or later, a situation presents itself where we all crack. How a character works through the situation to the ultimate solution enriches him, enhancing the bond you create with the reader.

The moment could simply be running out of coffee and it’s 3am. How does he feel? What’s he thinking? What does he do? Maybe the moment is a burst of frustration at a pen lacking ink. Maybe it’s a high-drama moment as your character faces death by stoning or the terrible loss of eyesight.

How your character handles himself in difficult situations gives a reader valuable insight that enhances personality, humanity and recognition.

Pain

Many authors fear hurting their characters. They fear exploring deeper into the character’s psyche. They don’t want their characters to be sad or feel lost or have pain.

Don’t hold back. Put your characters through hell. Take chances and explore your character’s struggles through the situation. The pain is temporary, and the outcome is often amazing.

Don’t you want to know how your character will grow and develop? Don’t you want to see whether your character emerges unscathed or whether he’s emotionally scarred? Wouldn’t you like to know how he changes as a person?

Before exploring how you can endear your character to readers or how you can instigate emotion, think about some of your favorite characters from novels you’ve read. Obviously, if you can remember them, something about them touched you deeply.

Now think some more. What was about those characters? What made you care?

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Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. I liked this post very much Harry. I think we like to see in good characters, what we see in ourselves – I think it is fair to say we all go through these things, so good characters do as well.

    A friend of mine sent me some old photographs of us when we were at university, 15 or so years ago. I looked at me, then, and me, now – it is amazing when I think back at how much I *didn’t* know then, and how much I’ve grown. And really, I’m just a “young whippersnapper” at 38… :)

    Ah, Darth Vader, my hero. The dark side is calling me…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..butterfly effect.

  2. Great post. My favorite characters are usually the small eccentric ones. But as far are main characters go, I tend to remember the characters who are the most troubled or overcome the most. I also like a dark sense of humor.

    Your tip about realistic solutions is dead on I think. I can’t stand to read books where they start out good and then suddenly every problem is met with some kind of crazy solution. What works for tv sitcoms doesn’t work for novels.

    Amy Derby’s last blog post..The Bold Move Gets The Gig

  3. @Brett: Reflections are good things. Sometimes it helps you bond with a character, or it helps you to realize something about yourself you never knew before.

    @Amy: I’m all about keeping it as real as possible with my characters. Sometimes when James and I are stuck for a reaction, we revert back to our gaming days.

    “What am I supposed to do here? This is gonna hurt no matter how you slice it…”

    “Ok, James, roll me a d10.”

    So, we roll the dice and see what fate deals out. And even if we don’t like the outcome, we still go through with it. Makes for some very interesting twists.

  4. Interesting method. :-)

    What kind of fiction do you write?

    Amy Derby’s last blog post..Vitametavegamin Anyone?

  5. @Amy: Good question. At the moment, it’s romance (and not your dime store version either). We also do fantasy and horror.

  6. @ Harry – I love that with the dice – I still do that too… just don’t leave the old d4 laying about, it’s a killer when it gets lost in the shag carpet (ouch!)

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..butterfly effect.

  7. We have no choice but to use dice. I’m a sure thing. I always pick evens, I choose tails every time, and from one to ten, my favorite number is six.

  8. @Brett: Well, when the cats knock the dice jar on the floor, the 4d is the only one I *know* they won’t be able to pick up!

  9. Making your reader’s brain create synaptic connections that provoke an emotional response. It’s funny how that’s something you want to do in just about every line of work.

    As for me, I love characters who are heros to others but have personal issues they must overcome themselves. Usually some social aspect or something.

    So do you guys have any books currently published?

    John Hoff’s last blog post..The Art of Persuasion (Part 3 of 3): 7 Tips To Sharpening Your Persuasive Skills

  10. Rolling dice D&D style has to be about the most awesome idea for writing :D

    Harry, this post was a great follow-up to your advice in letting the characters run the story. I know that I need to work on making my characters recognizable, without making them flat. I’m also a bit afraid to make my characters go through some pain – I’ll give them one situation and let them get over it.

    It’s a good thing you’re writing these posts – my fiction is severely lacking!

    RLD: Taekwondo Happiness’s last blog post..Update

  11. @ Harry – that’s a good point, I never thought about it that way. I have a set made out of polished brass, very nice and heavy (better be careful what table you game on…)

    I think this is good advice for fiction writing, and biographical stuff (I’m writing one of those, as some of you know). Let the characters run the story.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..butterfly effect.

  12. @John: Nope, nothing published yet. We’re kind of working backwards. We have years and years of material, enough for several books in a series, so they’re all essentially written, they just need to be organized and edited.

    Our goal is to have the first novel done this year.

  13. @ John, nothing for me yet either, but working on one biography and another non-fiction. Just for fun I might do an e-book (hey, lots of people do that, and I have half a dozen probably mostly written)…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..butterfly effect.

  14. Hi I saw you comment on Amy Derby’s blog so I thought that I come over for a visit. I truely hope thet you gentlemen are haveing a great day!

    mike golch’s last blog post..Cat nap interuptus

  15. @Mike: Hey Mike, thanks for stopping by! I just took a peek at your blog and Harvey looks just like one of my cats. They’re funny with blankets, aren’t they?

  16. @ Mike – Glad you found these guys. I just found their blog a few days ago. They’re a lot of fun. There’s even a dominatrix photo around here someplace…

    @ Harry – I’m generally not a romance fan. Or a sci-fi fan (unless it’s Charles de Lint — I love that guy). I do like the Stephen King variety of sci-fi/horror. I just wish people would stop making lame movies “loosely based” (meaning in title only) on his books.

    Amy Derby’s last blog post..I Pitch, I Score (And You Can Too)

  17. @Amy: Well, what we write isn’t your usual run of the mill romance, we don’t do sci-fi at all, and our horror is nothing like Mr. King’s. Who knows? Maybe we’re creating a whole new genre? Romance with a fantasy/horror edge? I don’t know.

    Truth be told, when you asked that question, I had to ask James what genre we fit into. I think I never thought of that because I didn’t want to limit myself. I just write what I write and there it is. But such has been the problems the music industry faces. Like Blondie back in the 80s. The industry tried to pigeon hole her into a disco genre, but she wasn’t really disco. She wasn’t punk or pop either.

    I agree with you that King’s books don’t translate well into movies at all. I have yet to see one done that I like. There’s so much going on inside the characters’ heads that you can’t make come across on the screen.

  18. “Many authors fear hurting their characters.”

    And this is why I have not finished a novel. It’s a real fear, and one that I have to overcome.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..When Freedom Rang – A Story of Startup Failure

  19. @ Melissa – Then you’ll like our post coming this week. It’ll be all for you. (And RLD. And Amy. And all the others who’ve mentioned the fear of hurting a character.)

  20. I just finished Ender’s Shadow — and boy, were my eyes wet at the end.

    This companion book to Ender’s Game explores one of the supporting characters from that first book, a little boy named Bean. I commented on it in another MwP post, but it’s like having the (original) Star Wars movies told from the point of view of Han Solo (leading up to, during, and after episodes IV, V, VI).

    So in Ender’s Shadow, we learn about the life of a boy who in Ender’s Game, we know only as a “runt”, but who turns out is every bit as smart, if not smarter than Ender. That intelligence, though, comes at a price.

    The two books are certainly classified as science fiction, but they’re really about growing up, hard choices, manipulations by people who think they know (ends justifying the means), and doing the right thing.

    Oh, and the other thing that will really make you care about the character is how “good” your villain (antagonist) is — whether the villain’s motivation makes sense (usually they think they are right, not evil), how he challenges your character, etc., will really determine whether how much your readers will care.

    There are several more books in the series that I hope to check out in the near future.

    Nez’s last blog post..The Need to Belong

  21. @Nez: Thanks for the review. As soon as I’m done with the stack of novels James sent me for Christmas I’ll be sure to dive into the world of Ender and Bean.

  22. Manictastic says:

    Isn’t this a post with a lot of truth? You’re absolutely right that characters should be explored in full. Wouldn’t it just be annoying if a 600 page thriller doesn’t offer any insight in the reasons lying behind the protagonist’s actions?
    It’s tempting to reduce oneself to just fixed characters who don’t evolve, because it’s so easy, it’s easy for the writer since he doesn’t have to explore himself, his imagination, his own dark side.

    Manictastic’s last blog post..Deserted: Part 6

  23. It is true that characters are most important in a story. And for me, plot comes second because I write literary fiction. Caring…as I read in an article today, sympathizing with your characters is dangerous, as you might make things easier for them by changing the plot, but empathizing with them is good because that way you see their POV, which helps you to understand them better.
    .-= Shruti Chandra Gupta´s last blog ..Editing Tip =-.

  24. Wonderful article. I’m currently reading “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers. I love her character development. Angel and Hosea are both very real. I hope to be able to create my characters with as much honesty and realism as she did.
    Ayn Rand was my favorite for great characters.
    Ages ago, I read a book with such delightful characters that every time I looked up from my book, I expected to see them standing before me. The bad thing was I didn’t write the book or author’s name and have no idea what they are. I would love to read more of her work.
    Thank you for following my blog. I hope you will continue to find articles of interest.

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