There has always been a debate on what is more important–plot or characters. For a long time, I stood on the PLOT side of things, because I thought it was my cool twists and turns that kept readers glued to the page. CHARACTERS, I believed, were just the people populating my world, the ones I did things to in order for the to story work.
And, well…I was wrong.
How do I know? Well, when I think about what makes a great read, characters always pop into my mind first. Barrie Watson and Eight Beaufort from Martina Boone’s novel Compulsion. Karou of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Mat Cauthom of The Wheel of Time. These are all characters that entranced me. I’m guessing you probably feel the same way. If you think about the stories you loved to read, the ones that made you forget to eat or workout or walk the dog…what about them stuck with you after the book was finished? Do you wish you could read more about the same plot, or do you want more time with the characters?
I’m not saying that plot and world building aren’t important, because they are. But it is the characters readers bond with and root for, and this happens because of one very important word: EMPATHY.
When characters are unique yet well-rounded and familiar in some way, we connect with them. We empathize with what they are going through, become tense when trouble hits, and relax when they emerge in one piece. We care about what happens to them because our emotions are engaged.
So how do we build strong characters that command a reader’s attention?
Create Empathy Through Action, Not Circumstance
Some writers try to use hardship as a way to elicit reader empathy, creating characters who are kicked around, impoverished, or have some sort of physical disability or handicap. Stories with these types of character situations might start out with dead parents, being moved across the country, losing a job or discovering a spouse was cheating. Going this route can be dicey though, and feel like an overused plot device if the author isn’t careful. Readers might have sympathy for what the character is dealing with, but they can also grow bored or impatient because they have seen this scenario before.
What pulls a reader in and makes them care is when they see how the character acts despite their hardship. The actions that one takes regardless of bad circumstances is what is compelling. If a character is a frazzled mess after discovering his spouse has packed up and left him a Dear John note on his nightstand, and yet he manages to shove hurt aside because he has a shift at the Teen Distress Call Center, that makes us care. His actions, his strength…this is why we are drawn in, and whatever his goal is, readers will now have an easier time rooting for him to succeed.
Understand What Came Before
The character’s life did not begin on page one, so we need to spend some time thinking about their past. What events and traumas shaped them? What happened to them that left them feeling utterly helpless and weak? Who let them down in life, and who built them up? What marked them, and wounded them? How do these past events now influence their personality and behavior?
We all try to avoid the hurts of the past, and to keep bad things from repeating. Thinking about who and what hurt your character will help you understand how they behave now to emotionally protect themselves. Don’t be afraid to show their vulnerabilities. We all feel vulnerable at times, even though we try to mask this feeling. Readers will connect to the rawness of a character feeling exposed.
Give Them Flaws, Self-Doubt & Let Them Make Mistakes
People are unique, and characters must be as well, but that doesn’t mean they should be completely foreign to the reader. One way to create commonality is through flaws. As people, we are all flawed and expect to see faults in others. If a character is too perfect and too confident, they won’t feel real. Showing a hero’s shortcomings makes them authentic and rounded. Readers will empathize when they see a character overreact and make a mistake as a result of flawed thinking. It is a reminder of their own imperfections, and they know just how painful it can be when saying or doing something stupid creates a big mess to clean up.
How do you create complex heroes worth rooting for? What ways do you help them to stand out to readers? Tell me in the comments!
A version of this post first appeared here.