Have you ever put down a book you were reading because you just couldn’t bring yourself to care about any of the characters?
There are some genres out there that tend to get so focused on plot and concept that the characters are hammered into these thin cold puppets who act without any visible charisma or relatable motives.
As a writer, regardless of your chosen genre, you cannot let this happen. No matter how clever, complicated or nerdy your story is, it must have an emotional impact on readers.
If you want your readers to feel sorry for Jonathan when he breaks his leg, you’d do well to have him (for example) in the process of preparing for the biggest most important track meet of his life.
If you want Annabeth’s betrayal and abandonment in her romantic relationship to really sting, you should give her a history in which her mother left her after a messy divorce and then draw on the parallels between her childhood trauma and her present heartache.
Are you smelling what I’m cooking? The only way we’ll care about characters is if we understand their woes, challenges and triumphs in the context of their life’s story.
Larry Brooks does a fantastic job laying this out in his posts on Storyfix.com. In fact, he writes that the entire first quarter of a story/novel/screenplay is dedicated to this set up for our main character(s). You can check out his collection of blog posts in his story structure series here.
Give your characters history, fears, reasons for those fears, bad attitudes, reasons for those bad attitudes…etc.
Give him a dream of being a lawyer and watch how hard he fights for the rights of the underdog and how defensive he get any time he thinks his sister his being disrespected.
Give her a timid nature and make the reason for her meekness stem from a push-over mother as her role model. (Both examples from my novel work in progress).
If you’ve practiced writing stories, whether the short or the long form, and you’ve given these to friends or family to read, you will likely at some point receive the feedback that the characters fall flat at certain points. Hooray! You’ve been told where those trouble spots are!
At first the statement, “I just didn’t care about her when they broke up” feels hurtful. Naturally, you want your readers to adore your stories from the first time they read them, but this is rarely the case. Even better, this critical comment actually lets you know where you have work still to do.
If you can get your reader to tell you at what point their sympathy waned for your hero, you can then zero in on the problem and flesh out the stakes and finally, when you show it to someone else, you’ll have ratcheted up the emotional tension and you will make them cry. Or laugh. I personally have a penchant for tragedies.
This process of setting up a character’s back story is often harder than it looks. You may need to spend several writing sessions brainstorming things such as What does my character fear most? What is her wildest dream? What does he want to do with her life? Where does she go when she needs help? What are his personal quirks and habits and where do these come from?
These questions can stretch into eternity, but the more you practice this exercise the more you’ll acquire a sense for how much information you really need to launch your character on a path filled with purpose that your readers can emotionally connect with.
I wish you the very best of luck.
Do you have a story that’s falling flat right now? Could it have anything to do with your characters? Some people feel that plot, not character, should drive a story. Agree or disagree?
This Post Has 2 Comments
Lainie Mullen23 Jun 2011
Thank you. This is very helpful to what I’m working on. (Reminder: I, myself, am a character if I’m writing a memoir.)
Elise23 Jun 2011
So glad to hear it! It’s extremely challenging to do this when writing a memoir since you have to step out of yourself to make yourself a character, but that’s the right way to think about it. 🙂