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Creating characters your readers care about (In-depth guide)

Creating characters your readers care about (In-depth guide) Creating characters your readers care about (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    A thrilling plot can keep your reader turning the page, but in order to create a story that really sticks with your readers, you’ll need more than perfect pacing and an airtight plot—you’ll need characters your reader wants to invest in. Creating memorable characters is the secret sauce to creating reader investment, and it’s easier than you might think.

    Relatability and specificity

    Often, when authors are looking to create a character their readers will love, they go for relatability: making a character that the imagined reader will find familiar. Someone just like them, with similar life experiences, tastes, and opinions, who watches the same shows, shops at the same stores, and likes the same bands. While this can work for a quick hit of identification, it’s rarely enough to sustain reader investment, because this kind of character is ultimately a blank slate.

    Creating a character that is easy for the reader to project themselves onto is appealing at first glance because it offers the readers a risk-free intimacy of immediate identification. If the goal of the writing is for the reader to see themselves in a character, this seems like an easy way to do it. The problem here is twofold: if the references anchoring the character go away or become dated, the character’s specificity effectively disappears. On a deeper level, this type of characterization never allows the reader to actually get to know the character and to form a deep investment in their specific struggles. If a character only exists to be a mirror to the assumed reader, the story will always struggle to feel one-dimensional. It’s hard for this kind of character to fully come to life within the story because they are constrained by the need to be as “relatable” as possible, and thus as nonspecific as possible. And stories, above all, call for specificity. 

    There are no universally relatable actions, desires, preferences, or motivations, but human emotions like joy, fear, shame, and anger are universal. You can create a more durable investment in your main character by bringing the reader into the specific world of the main character’s emotions.  Instead of offering your main character as a place for your readers to project themselves into, consider thinking of your main character as someone the reader can walk with on their journey. It’s a paradox of human experience that those big universal emotions are actually best evoked through specificity, which creates empathy and identification on a deeper level. Think about it: you have a deeper level of trust and investment with a friend whose personal history and flaws you know and understand than you do with a friend who you only talk about TV shows with. We want to get to that deeper level with characters so that they become more fully formed in the reader’s mind in order to create the emotional investment that will sustain the story.  

    Creating a specific character has two components: investing your characters with idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes, contradictions, personal history, and flaws that make them feel unique, and using the conflict of the story to dramatize the process of personal change. 

    Your main characters and your side characters are going to have differing levels of specificity, and that’s okay. We want the most detail about the character the story is about. Your characters don’t have to be hyper-specific from the jump. You can start with a vague outline and fill it in. Our character worksheet can help if you’re looking to deepen your character. 

    Exercise:

    This exercise comes from Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, who adapted it from Danzy Senna. 

    In five minutes, write as many sentences as you can about the same character using the following construction:

    She/he/they was the type of person who_____

    E.g."She was the type of person who went to the bowling alley every Friday, but never bowled."

    Push past the obvious and easy. If it's still easy after five minutes, go for ten.

    The point of this exercise is to think about your character as a dynamic being and to explore some of the dimensions of their personality that you may not have thought of before. 

    Flaws and bad decisions

    Common writing advice is to make sure your character has flaws. While this is broadly true, what makes a good character flaw is dependent on narrative, genre, and to a certain extent, taste.

    Flaws can be scary because they’re an opportunity for the reader to dislike the main character. Some writers tackle this by giving their characters fairly neutral flaws, like being clumsy (interestingly, the clumsy character is almost always a woman or girl…we don’t tend to see a lot of brooding mafia men who drop things all the time). The thinking here is that it serves to make the character “relatable” by preventing them from being “too perfect.” However, this loops back to the “relatable” issue above. This kind of non-flaw prevents us from getting to know the characters in a meaningful way by substituting a surface-level difficulty for real intimacy about what the character’s vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms might be. 

    The other difficulty is that this kind of flaw has no effect on the narrative. It doesn’t matter to the story. The plot doesn’t change because of a character being clumsy, and they’re not likely to make bad decisions because of it. Whereas if a character’s flaw is that they tend to ice people out instead of talking about issues, that’s going to eventually create problems in their relationships and can lead to bad decisions—and the spice of narrative: conflict. 

    Of course, this leads to the question haunting most writers’ minds: What if readers stop liking my character because of a bad decision they make? Most characterization problems stem from this question and the belief that the most important quality of the protagonist is to be likable. But if you’re afraid of having your character make a decision your reader doesn’t agree with, pretty soon your character may not be making decisions at all. A totally passive character who is borne along by the narrative can’t make decisions the reader disagrees with—but they’re also very difficult to get to know. 

    If you feel a lot of anxiety or fear about the idea of readers disliking your character, it might be worth asking yourself why that is. Do you feel reflected in your main character? Is being likable in your real life important to you? How does that shape how you feel about your characters? If readers disagreed with your main character’s decisions, what’s the worst that could happen? On Wattpad, readers love to interact with their favorite writers, and while this is usually a wonderful place to connect, sometimes readers do sometimes share negative comments when a main character does something they don’t like. This can be hurtful, but you are always in charge of your comment space. In moments like this, it’s crucial to remember that you are in charge of your story, and your artistic vision is more important than whether or not every reader likes your main character’s every decision. If you have a clear vision, negative comments from people who don’t get it don’t hurt as much, because you are being true to yourself. 

    Good character flaws should be:

    • Meaningful to the narrative, whether through pushing the conflict forward or through illustrating the story’s themes. The big conflictual moment in a romcom, for example, where all seems lost, is most effective if it grows out of the main characters’ established flaws. Allow your characters to make mistakes and for those mistakes to change the course of the action.
    • Integrated into character. A good character flaw will feel like a coherent part of the character. The easiest way to do this is just to take one of your character’s strengths and extend it out past the situations where it is useful or called for. Maybe someone who is fantastic at keeping a cool head in tense, high-pressure situations struggles to articulate their emotions because they’re so used to keeping things locked down. Maybe someone who is an effortless social butterfly struggles to hear when they’ve hurt people because they’re deeply afraid of being disliked. Think about situations where your character will struggle to respond well, or where the opposite of your character’s strengths are needed, and try to integrate some of those situations into your plot.
    • Grounded in backstory. Why is this character the way that they are? This is the unending allure of the bad boy with a heart of gold. What made him this way? What other dimensions does he have inside of him? But this is applicable to all characters. We want to know what shaped them and why they behave the way that they do. A sympathetic backstory is a huge component in winning over readers when your character makes a bad decision. Allowing us to understand why your character acts this way is one of the best ways to build sympathy. 

    Backstory

    “Backstory,” broadly speaking, is everything that happened before the story opens. When we’re talking about character backstory, we’re talking specifically about the character’s past experiences that shaped them into the person they are when the story opens. Backstory helps your characters feel dimensional, like their decisions and reactions come from somewhere like they’ve lived lives outside the story’s confines. 

    Keep in mind that backstory exists to serve the narrative. The purpose of the backstory is to add dimension and resonance to the front story. You don’t need to make up a whole backstory before you start; it’s fine to build out as you go. Rather than envisioning a character’s whole life, a good starting point for building a backstory is to think about two positive and two negative memories that shaped your character. 

    Another great way to think about the backstory is to think about what the desired end state for the character is. What backstory creates the greatest number of obstacles to that end state in the front story? If you know what some of your plot events are going to be, you can tinker with your character’s backstory to make those events maximally impactful. 

    If you’re a writer who starts with a really fully formed character and puts together the plot later, you can approach this in the opposite way. Given what you know about your character, what situations or events would be most challenging for them to deal with? 

    Because backstory exists to serve the narrative, you want to make sure you reveal it in a way that is maximally impactful. You can reveal backstory through flashbacks, memories, conversations, overheard dialogue, and significant talismans. However, backstory reveals should never distract from the front story

    Don’t open with a flashback. In general, it’s best to avoid opening your story with a flashback. This locates the initial dramatic tension of the story outside of the story’s present moment—it starts the story in the wrong place. We want the story to start with the hook, not with background detail. 

    Don’t infodump. While it can be really tempting to give the reader all the background they need in one chunk, your reader is actually less likely to retain something that comes in a big chunk. Breaking it up throughout the story makes it easier to digest and connect to. 

    Do reveal information throughout the story. We don’t generally reveal our most traumatic memories to people we just met, so holding back big reveals can increase the sense of intimacy we have with the character. It can also create suspense, to get bits and pieces of backstory and watch it slowly come together. The sense that there is a big piece of information just around the corner is something most readers love, so you can use that to keep tantalizing your readers with new backstory reveals. 

    Internal conflict

    Internal conflict is a type of conflict in a narrative where a character is in conflict with themselves and is usually contrasted with external conflict.  In broad terms, external conflict is the fight a character is having with a person, force, or thing outside of them, and internal conflict is the fight they have with themselves. Adding in internal conflict can be a great way to make external conflict feel bigger and give your story more emotional weight. 

    Internal conflict occurs when a character struggles with their own internal desires, beliefs, and values. These conflicts usually emerge in response to or are highlighted by the external conflict, so the line between them isn’t hard and fast. 

    Here are some examples of internal conflict:

    • The character wants two opposing good things
    • The character is afraid of what they desire
    • The character is afraid of themselves/their own negative qualities
    • The character attains an end they’ve been striving for and doesn’t know what to do with themselves now that they’ve got it
    • The character has a fundamental belief about themselves that is blocking them from happiness
    • The character loses the thing they hung their self-worth on
    • The character believes a lie about themselves

    Which type of internal conflict you choose depends on the story you’re trying to tell and the characters you’ve built so far. Of this list, do any of these stand out as particularly interesting? What do you think is missing from this list? 

    Character backstory is a core component when you’re thinking about building out internal conflict. Try out our character worksheet to get a sense of your character’s personal history and contradictions. 

    Once you’ve got the general shape of your internal conflict nailed down, think about how you’re going to resolve it. The character who is afraid of themselves is going to have to confront the parts of themselves that they don’t like. The character who lost a pillar of their self-worth is going to have to find a new one, etc. The internal conflict indicates how the character is going to have to change over the course of the narrative. 

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