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.
TIP: One of the best ways to dig into your character’s backstory and deeper layers is to use the Character Builder.
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!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Steve Adams says
I’m an aspiring writer and how I keep my reader’s is I keep their imagination working. Keep their imagination and you keep the reader
:Donna Marie says
Fantastic stuff, Angela 🙂 I really can’t wait to put all this good info to use! I’ve missed visiting, but hope to pick up on all of this soon 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks Donna! Life just seems to get busier, doesn’t it? And heck, it’s summer, so we have to stop and smell the roses, too 🙂
Traci Kenworth says
I’ve learned the benefits of a flawed hero/heroine over this past year. They make for deeper, more unique characters.
Carrie Lynn Lewis says
The more I learn about character development, the more I have to learn.
Plot is my strong suit. I can spend hours (days, weeks, months) working out plots and subplots, asking all those luscious what-if questions and listing endless options.
Characters? Not so much.
The most roundly developed characters in my story worlds are those I “grew up with”. I start when they’re born and write a personal history. Where they went to school. How they did. What successes and traumas they experienced. Friends. Opponents.
For the best of those characters, an organic enemy arose at the same time, a rival from high school on, though the lead character thought they were friends and helped the “friend” when the friend showed up in need.
I’ve done that only a few times, but as I look back on it, the time I spent was well spent. Of all the characters I’ve written about, I have the deepest understanding of those.
And yet, I see how I could improve even on that.
Thanks for the post and for the tips on empathy. As others have said, sympathy is relatively easy.
Not so much.
Mary Jo Caffrey says
Here is a great aid to developing characters that inspire and motivate readers to turn pages and read the last words with regret, losing, as it were, a good friend at the end of the story.
Thank you for this thoughtful and useful article.
Phoenix Rainez says
Great post thanks for sharing. It has definitely made me think harder about each of my characters, thank you.
Kelly Miller says
Fabulous article, Angela! What really spoke to me was when you said, “What pulls a reader in and makes them care is when they see how the character acts despite their hardship.” I need to keep this in mind on my WIP and make some much needed adjustments. Thanks!
Thanks — this is very helpful as I work on revising my latest MG.
Tamara Meyers says
Hi Angela, thanks for the great post. I find it easy to create characters we can have sympathy for but empathy is a harder emotion to invoke. I guess it’s because in order to have empathy we have to be able to understand what another person feels. We can have sympathy for a person, an animal or even a plant (aw, that poor little flower wilted from lack of water), but empathy is a much more personal feeling.
Thank you for pointing out that empathy is the key that makes readers root for our characters.
Carol Baldwin says
One of my characters is naive in her beliefs about how the world will treat her African American friend. This is both a strength and a weakness. (like real people have- right? ) Thanks for the post. I created a worksheet out of it!