Writing How-to: Create Characters Your Readers Love and Hate

It’s time for my monthly appearance on the Writers in the Storm Blog. This one is a continuation of my creating characters series. A portion of that post appears here. For the full post please click the link at the end of this excerpt.

African-American female at a coffee shop reading a book that's open about 1/2 way and she has a concerned look on her face as if she can't stop reading this exciting or concerning part.

You can create charming good guys and vicious villains, the hookiest of hooks, brilliant worlds, and twisty plots with the most intense cliffhangers, but if readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t recommend your book to their friends. Or worse, they’ll put the book down and never buy your books ever again. Why would they do that? Because they didn’t connect with your protagonist, antagonist, or viewpoint characters. Your reader wants to connect with at least one of those characters. They open the book wanting to love or hate your characters. But creating characters your readers connect with takes work. What makes readers not care? It could be one of several problems.

Why Readers Put Down Your Books

You’ve put a lot of work into writing your book. You love your characters and your story but your readers, be they critique partners, alpha or beta readers, or your book reviews, tell you your book was boring, or they couldn’t finish your book and put down your book, or they didn’t like it at all. It hurts. A lot. But it’s time to put aside your emotions and examine your reader and your story. 

If one reader has issues, the reader is probably not your target audience. If more than one reader makes similar complaints, it’s probably something your book does or doesn’t do. Evaluate it as objectively as you can. (Ask for help if you can’t.) Does it suffer from one of these common issues? 

  • There is no problem that matters. 
  • The conflict happens off stage.
  • Unrelated cause and effect.
  • Your character is a stereotype or trope. 
  • You aren’t putting your reader in your character’s shoes.  
  • Your character didn’t earn the ending. 

No worries. All authors experience at least one manuscript with faults that stop the reader. Take heart. There are ways to fix these problems in your writing. You can learn to create characters your readers will love or hate and will pay to read more of their stories.

The Problem Doesn’t Matter

If your character is happy and content, why should the reader care? Even if the story problem is a big bad guy or a world-ending catastrophe, if your character doesn’t care deeply and personally, neither will your reader. Being an altruistic superhero isn’t enough. The problem must matter to the protagonist or it won’t matter to the reader.

Remember the 2008 movie, The Incredible Hulk? Not a blockbuster. People didn’t connect with the film or the character because Banner’s needs and problems were largely unconnected to Hulk. In fact, he wanted to control Hulk. And Hulk’s limited reactions were usually “Hulk angry” or “SMASH!” 

Compare that movie to the deep characterization of the 2018 movie, Black Panther. We see T’Challa as a child yearning for a place he’s never seen. We feel the trauma of his father’s murder and we know his need to find his place, his destiny, to be the man his father wanted him to be. Most people can relate to that. Watching him struggle and fail and struggle again against a foe and against himself, we grow to care about him and his challenges. The problems T’Challa faced mattered both personally and in his larger world. His personal connection to the problem became the viewers’ connection. 

We human beings gravitate toward the personal. The challenges we choose or we make for ourselves may have some level of altruism, but deep down, it is something specific and personal. Look for a personal connection your protagonist has with the problem in your story. Ask yourself: 

  • Is this problem one that he could solve easily by doing one thing? 
  • Does the problem challenge his beliefs, his morals, his sense of duty, or his worldview?
  • Does the problem test his resolve to reach a solution?
  • If he does not face this challenge, will it change his sense of success or worthiness? 
  • What does he fear will be the catastrophe if he doesn’t act?

Thanks for reading this far. I hope you find it valuable enough to click through and read the remainder of the piece on the Writers in the Storm Blog.

What story and character have you read that kept you turning pages? What was it about the character that kept you reading?

Make Music with Character Voices

On the Writers in the Storm Blog, I offer suggestions how you can create characters with voices so distinct that your readers can “hear” theme music for each one.

Bright jolly vector staves with musical notes on white background, decorative major wavy set of musical notation symbol.

Do your characters feel flat? Do they all sound like you and only you? Tune in to the music of character voices, make them sound more like the different instruments of a band or orchestra. Make music with your character voices and your readers won’t be able to get enough of the stories you write.

Great characters are the key to great fiction.Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

What or Who Your Character Is

There are many things to consider when creating your story characters. Many how-to-write articles suggest creating a detailed profile of your characters. Delving into a character’s birth place, likes and dislikes, job, hair color, and using tools like spreadsheets and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires can be helpful, but characters are more than the details on a spreadsheet or form. Character are more than their story role, more than the point of view you choose for them, and more than what they do in the story. Your characters each need a voice, a unique voice. But how do you create that?

The Key to Understanding Characters

When a writer is told they’re too young or haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand the basics of character or even life. A general understanding of psychological personality types will go a long way to helping you create varied and interesting characters. 

Learn about the fundamental personality types. Go deeper than Wikipedia, though it may give you an overview that is helpful. There are literally millions of sites on the internet that discuss variations on personality types. Choose one that’s reliable like psychcentral, psychology today, and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Psych Central has a helpful explanation of what is personality. Psychology Today discusses the basics of personality traits. NIMH has a great resource on personality disorders. Those three sites offer multiple articles on personality, personality traits, and personality disorders. 

Read about establishing your character’s musical pitch and more in the rest of my post at the Writers in the Storm blog.

How to Use Goals & Obstacles to Fascinate Your Readers

Whether you write by the seat of your pants (a pantser) or you have a detailed outline (a plotter), or anywhere anywhere on the line in between, you’ve likely gotten stuck in your story. That’s disconcerting at the best and devastating at the worst. The story comes to a screeching halt and you beat yourself up. Yes, this happens to plotters sometimes. Unfortunately, it happens to pantsers more often than not. But don’t worry. There’s a way to solve or prevent most stuck-in-the-middle events. Use goals & obstacles to fascinate your readers.

Cartoon of long-haired character with hands folded and anxiously facing a laptop with coffee and papers. Stuck in the middle of your story? Use Goals & Obstacles to Fascinate Your Readers


In story writing, a goal is what your main character wants. It might be the blue ribbon in the county fair or to save the world from a weapon of mass destruction. But you knew that, didn’t you? So why am I harping on it?

And it isn’t just a want. It’s a need. To fascinate your reader, the main character’s want must mean something. It doesn’t have to be a theme-heavy, my-soul-will-be-destroyed type of meaning. But if your character does not achieve their goal, they lose something valuable. This irrevocable loss changes the principal character’s life for the worse (at least in the character’s estimation). A high schooler believes with his whole being that if he doesn’t win the football game and impress the recruiting agent, his life is ruined forever. That can make for a page-turning story.

More About Goals

The more concrete you can make the goal, the clearer it will be for the reader. How do you know your goal is concrete? By asking yourself, can the character take a picture of it? 

You can add a layer to goals and make the story deeper, more complex.

Add a Layer

To deepen the story, you can add a layer to the character’s goal by making it misunderstood. What the character THINKS she wants and what she NEEDS to avoid that sense of loss are two different things. In the high school football player above, what if he’s suffering from a chronic illness that will eventually destroy his ability to walk? He may think he wants the memory of the football victory to sustain him, but what he needs is to learn to cope with his illness. And when he loses the football game but gains a new understanding of how he can live and be happy, it will be a satisfactory ending.

But even if the path to a goal isn’t straight, it isn’t interesting, Use goals & obstacles to fascinate your reader.


Most how-to write instruct you to have lots of conflict in your story. But that word has connotations and meanings that confuse many of us. What it really means for a story is to prevent your character from achieving their goal. Set obstacles in their path. Obstacles can be a person (or persons), a place or environment (nature), or the character herself.

In a successful story, there is usually a single major obstacle, often a person we like to call the bad guy or the antagonist. Initially, the bad guy has all the control. It’s the bad guy’s moves that cause the protagonist to react, to choose an alternative path. And the bad guy hones in on the main character’s flaws with every obstacle he throws in the path to success.

More About Obstacles

A motorcyclist has stopped his cycle in the middle of a shallow creek but appears to find the creek and obstacle to his goal--Use Goals & Obstacles to Fascinate Your Readers

Vary the obstacles your character must overcome. How do you do that? With subplots. One subplot could be the foul weather on the last day of practice that causes a temporary injury or maybe the opposing team kidnaps the main character and dumps him in a location so he can’t possibly get to the game on time. Almost any subplot will work. Though it will have more impact if it’s at least tangentially related to the want and need.

If the character does not overcome many obstacles, the story isn’t satisfying. And if the obstacles are all the same, the story isn’t satisfying. If at least one obstacle doesn’t make the character back up and try again, the story isn’t satisfying.

A successful, satisfying story is one that keeps throwing obstacles in the character’s attempts to get what they want. The obstacles make the character work to achieve their goal. The harder the character works at achieving his goal, the more satisfying the story ending.

More Than One Path

Still in the dark about goals & obstacles? Read Conflict: Twist the Knife Slowly. Or search KM Weiland’s website helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com. You might want to start with The #1 Way to Write Intense Story Conflict.

Fascinate Your Readers

The most successful stories all use goals & obstacles to fascinate the reader. Don’t believe me? Take your favorite stories and analyze them. 

You and your imagination are the magic idea generator. But your magic story engine is the push—pull, the try-fail, the never-quite-successful moves toward an important goal. First drafts are supposed to be messy. That’s okay. Fine-tuning is for the rewrite process. For this first draft, use goals & obstacles and you’re well on the way to fascinating your reader.

How to Write a Great First Line

The first line of a story has a major job—to catch the attention of the reader. The right reader. As a writer it is, arguably, the most important line we write. So how do we write a great first line?

once upon a time handwritten on a piece of paper can be a great first line if you've written a fable or fairy tale

The Job of the First Line

If the job of the first line of a story is to catch a reader’s attention, then all it has to do is shock or be surprising, right? Well, that may work for some stories and some readers. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not necessarily the right way for the story you write today.

The most important job of the first line is to hook the reader, but it’s not the only job of the first line. The best first lines also introduce a writing style, a mood, a theme, and hints at conflict to come. Now, not all of us can write the perfect first line. But we can learn techniques that will give us a great first line.

No One Right Way

I’ve said it repeatedly. Every writer must find what works for them. The biggest shocker is that one way won’t work for every story written by the same writer.

Great first lines can reflect the story’s theme. It can reflect an odd or unique detail of the world. Establishing your character’s voice is another powerful way to create a great first line. Convey the stakes with your opening line and you’ll hook readers. Or you can use sensory details and the setting to establish mood and foreshadow what the story will be about.

The one thing that’s sort of consistent is that the first line must convey your writing style. Are your sentences short and choppy or full and flowery? That first sentence will let the reader decide, is this a style I can spend hours reading?

How Do You Learn?

Collect them. Collect first lines of novels and short stories in your genre. Good ones, bad ones, even mediocre ones will help you.

Analyze them. What’s your gut reaction? Are you interested or not? Is it—meh?

Don’t ignore the bad or the meh. Take them apart. Why does it give you that feeling?

Is it dialog? Go a step further. Is it internal dialog or with another character? What’s the dialog. Is it a confrontation, an expression of love or desire, or something else?

Perhaps it’s a unique voice or style of writing. Again, what is it expressing? How do you feel about the character or setting? What do you expect will happen next?

Is it heavy on description? What mood does it convey? Does it convey a theme? Why would the author of this story choose this location?

Perhaps it’s an action beat. What action? Why is the action important?

Don’t neglect popular stories outside of your genre. You never know when one might spark an idea that would make your first line great. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of 100 best first lines. Or check out the ones on my First Line Fridays posts.

How I Wrote a First Line

cover of My Soul to Keep by Lynette M Burrows from which the first line is taken

The giant bronze angel of death loomed over Miranda Clarke’s shoulder.

My Soul to Keep by Lynette M. Burrows

How did I choose that as the first line of My Soul to Keep?

I wanted to convey a location, an action, and a situation that firmly created the world in my reader’s mind. But how? The story world had so many elements of the real world it could confuse my reader.

I kept asking myself, how is this world different? What symbols would there be? How would their daily life be different? If I were one of the elite, my life would be one of luxury. Why would I want to run away from that?

I tried dialog. I tried an ‘every day’ scene. And I tried several settings. I also tried many symbolic representations of the society.

My story is a dark dystopian alternate history. The symbolism of the statue, this particular statue, looming over Miranda conveys theme, potential conflict, and the society. And the first paragraph, and subsequent paragraphs, build on the theme and conflict and society.

Does my first line appeal to every reader? No, of course not. You don’t want a first line that appeals to every reader. Your first line should entice YOUR readers to keep reading.

You Can Write a Great First Line

First, thanks to reader Jan G for giving me the push to write this post sooner rather than later. Second, know that you can do this.

Usually, a great first line doesn’t come in the first or second draft. Often the writer writes and rewrites the first line many, many times. Stephen King rewrites his first lines for months, sometimes years.

There are lots of good first lines out there. And there are many great first lines out there. How can you write a great first line? Scribble some bad first lines. Write many good first lines and you’ll find a great first line. Write a great first line and let your readers decide if you penned the perfect first line.

The Final Perfect Line

November is coming! November is coming! Writers are frantically preparing for the month of NANOWRIMO. In case you’ve been living under a rock, NANOWRIMO stands for National Novel Writing Month. Since 1999, a simple challenge to write 50,000 words in thirty days has grown to be a non-profit organization supporting and cheering on hundreds of thousands of writers. The push is to finish no matter how unpolished the words. Because until you write the first draft, the perfect phrases, you cannot craft the perfect final line.

photo of a notebook and pen, an open laptop, a smart phone and a cup of coffee--no matter how you prepare for NANOWRIMO you must write to craft the perfect final line.
one way to prepare

Prepare for NANOWRIMO

Many participants spend October planning the novel they’ll write in November. In the race to prepare, the writers create outlines and character bios and lists of complications and setting details. 

That means that advice for the participants fills many October blogs. This blog is not a lot different. In past years, I’ve written advice on how to revise their NANOWRIMO novels. In reverse you can use that advice to build a novel. Read my Re-visioning Your Story posts if you want that kind of writing advice. This year, instead of advice, I share a few last lines as inspiration.

The Perfect Final Line

He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance. 

Frankensteinor, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, 1817

He loved Big Brother.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, ©1948

But why does it not stop?

The Tell-tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe, 1843

I do hope that my darling will not run any chance of danger, more than need be, but we are in God’s hands.

Dracula, Bram Stoker 1897

And so, in hope and solitude, my story ends. Edward Prendick

The Island of Dr. Moreau, HG Wells, 1896

Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson 1885

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

The Outsiders, SE Hutton ©1967

A Wish for NANOWRIMO writers

An image of a fountain pen lying on the blank page of an open spiral notebook waiting for someone to craft the perfect final line
Use the tools that work for you

While many participants won’t finish, the effort puts thousands of words together for stories that have yet been told. And most of the results of NANOWRIMO will need serious editing. No matter. My wish for you is to find within those words the source for the perfect last line. The line that will resonate with readers for years to come. Good luck, participants!