Readers, what determines whether or not you’ll be drawn into a fictional story? Is it meticulous scene-setting and imagery? Engaging storyline? Realistic dialogue? Exciting action? A strong author voice?
For me, a novel can be perfectly written – including all of the above – and still fail to draw me in by neglecting to build an authentic relationship with the characters. If I don’t care about the characters (love, hate, concern, some sort of emotional connection), nothing else about the book will matter.
(A character reading about a character)
Seriously, think about the last book you read. What kept you reading? You cared about the characters, didn’t you? You wanted to see what happened to them and whether or not they achieved their goal. I even finished one novel because I hated the protagonist so much I needed to know she got her comeuppances. She didn’t, unfortunately, and that was the one time I was tempted to burn a book. Love, concern, connection, respect, even complete and utter disdain for a character will keep a reader turning pages, whereas indifference will not.
So how do you build authentic relationships with fictional characters?
- Let your reader get to know them organically. As a reader, it is a huge turnoff when an author tells me what kind of person their character is. I don’t want to be told, I want to be shown. When I pick up your book, I want to engage in a journey … an escape from this reality to the one you’ve created. I want to get to know your character like I would anyone else: through their actions. Think about it. If someone approached you and told you they were funny, how would react? Would you automatically laugh at everything they say? Probs not. But if someone cracks jokes and makes you laugh on a regular basis, you’d decide they’re funny. The same goes for anyone introducing themselves as generous, kind, mean, greedy, etc. Don’t tell your readers what they should feel, show them why they should feel that way.
- Give your characters flaws. As flawed human beings, it’s very difficult to relate to perfect characters. In fact, it’s down right annoying. It’s also irritating when authors go overboard, turning every character into an alcoholic, drug addicted, abusive cheater. In real life, nobody’s 100% good or 100% evil. We’re all subject to the human condition and readers relate better with characters who share that disability.
- Give them passion. Not every character you create should be a raging lunatic about everything, but most people are passionate about something. Family, shopping, running marathons, animals, a relationship, religion, politics, rock climbing, street racing, painting, making money … most of us have something we’re willing to sacrifice for and work to achieve. Again, don’t tell us about your character’s passion … show us, by what they give up for it or how many hours they put in to achieve it.
- Let them struggle. My friend and co-author, Tracey Jane Jackson, is fond of saying, “You can’t have fiction without friction,” and she’s absolutely right. I’ve also heard, “Relationships without friction are fiction.” Also correct. In reality, people butt heads (and they can be butt-heads). They make stupid decisions and have to pay the consequences. Don’t shield your characters from consequences.
- Don’t give them one-track minds. This is an idiom and should never be taken literally. People do not have one-track minds, and characters should not be created like they do, either. Ever read a book about a person who does nothing but shop? Or who does nothing but kill? Passion is great, but characters need to be multi-dimensional.
That’s it for my suggestions on character building. Please comment and let me know what you think. Also, if I missed one, please add it in the comments. Thanks for stopping by!