The Hardest Trick of Them All… Creating characters readers love to care about.
Have you ever finished a book and immediately regretted that you were done? That you wish you hadn’t read so fast and could open the pages once more and there would magically be another chapter you didn’t realize was there? An epilogue? Anything that meant the story wasn’t over? I have. But why? Why do we care so much? Why does the story continue to plague us? To come to mind throughout the day?
Quite simply, the answer is: It’s the characters. If the author has done her job well, then this is how you will feel after you have read the last word of the last page.
So…how does an author create these characters? Is there a process? A secret formula? I think the answer is yes…and no. There’s not really a secret formula, but there is kind of a process. Real people are multidimensional. Real people have so many emotions, it’s impossible to name them all. But real people are also flawed. I think as long as your characters are “real people with flaws,” then readers are going to love them—because they can relate to them. I get a lot of feedback on my stories and it’s usually readers who are asking for more of a certain character.
Here are my thoughts on how to create unforgettable characters.
- Know your characters. Now, I have to admit that I’m mostly a “pantser,” meaning that I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t do a whole lot of plotting before I sit down and start pounding out the first chapter. But I do create a character sketch first thing. I name my characters, then give them some backstory, which helps me figure out their issues, their fears, their views on life, their views on people, and their views of themselves. And then as I’m writing the story, I’ll get to know them even better. Yes, this means going back to the beginning sometimes and making a few tweaks in their reactions or responses to things, but this is simply how I write and it seems to work for my readers.
- Make your characters sympathetic. This means your reader likes them for some reason, feels sorry for them but roots for them to overcome by the end of the story. Maybe your hero is an ex-Navy SEAL who runs an orphanage. He lost his wife and twin boys in a terrorist explosion and it hurts him to be around kids—but he’ll give his own life to protect the ones now in his care. Seriously…who wouldn’t love a hero like that?
- Your characters need to have some pain in their past that has shaped them into the person they are today. And that pain has to have made them either a better person or desire to be a better person. In other words, by the end of the story, your characters have to face their past pain and come out strong on the other side. That’s called character arc, by the way.
- Make your characters suffer. Don’t be nice at all. Take the pain your characters suffered in the past and make it relevant to their present. When you do this, it becomes part of that all-important internal conflict that spills over into how they behave during the story.
- Please give your characters a personality. No one enjoys being around boring people in real life. Readers certainly don’t want to read about them. Give them quirks and habits. Are they funny or serious? Sarcastic or not? Witty or a little slow to think on their feet? All of those traits that you embed in your characters will pull the reader in and allow him or her to realize, “Hey, I want to know more about this person.” Or tell a friend, “I forgot that character isn’t actually a real person—and it sent me into a depression for a few moments!”
- It never hurts to make your character the underdog who rises to the challenge of saving the day, the hero, the world…or maybe just herself. Who doesn’t love Peter Parker/Spiderman or Clark Kent/Superman? Or even Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music? She started out as a bit flighty, a young woman who came from a difficult past, who was searching for her identity—and when she found it, grew up right before our eyes. The transformation was astounding. We liked her before that transformation, but we loved and admired her after. Your characters don’t have to be superheroes, but if they’re the underdogs, they need their shining moment in the end.
- Give your characters a worthy villain or at least some seemingly insurmountable conflict—and then have them work hard to overcome it.
- Give your characters something to care about. A worthy project, person, or place that they will work hard to save.
- Make your characters good at what they do. In my Elite Guardians series, I have a group of female bodyguards. They all used to be in some sort of law enforcement before going into the private security business. Therefore, they’re all talented, well-trained women who excel in their jobs. That doesn’t mean they’re superheroes or don’t ever make mistakes; it just means they have the advantage over the average person. The same thing in my Blue Justice Series. These books follow the St. John family through their daily lives as they fight to bring the bad guys to justice—and come to terms with their own struggles. But they’re all really, really good at what they do—and readers seem to love that.
I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it should definitely get you started on your quest to create unforgettable characters. What about you? What else do you like to see in your characters?