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?

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