I’m back after a little blogging break and ready to ring in the New Year real proper like. I hope that your holidays were happy and if they weren’t happy, at least they’re over, right?
So let’s dive back into my favorite writing topic; CHARACTERS. I swear I’m gonna get off of them one day, but that day ain’t today.
I recently received a review for In Her Closet that spoke to my little writer heart. Here’s part of the review:
“I found Yves to be unlikable but in a very relatable way. The sort of woman who most women wished they could be or are afraid of becoming. She did what she wanted, had sex when she wanted and in the words on Destiny's Child Independent part two-She did them boys like they used to do her. I wish there were more heroines like this, but I know the reason there aren’t.”
[Insert fist pump gif]
That shit right there made me so happy, you guys. I’ve stated before that when I wrote Yves Santiago, it was with the an exact intention to give her all of the “negative” traits that we often see in romance heroes. Traits that we easily forgive once he falls in love because love redeems all things. I wanted to know if we would feel the same about a heroine. It feels good to know that I was successful.
However, as much as I have championed purposely breaking the stereotype and suggesting some ways to make unlikeable characters more relatable, I realize that this is difficult task. Not everyone wants to do that, nor is every story meant to have an out-of-the-box character. Some times you just need a Joe Smoe or a regular-smegular girl.
But no two readers are alike so, how can you encourage empathy for your character?
1. Make them pretty.
I’m gonna go ahead and tackle this one first, because it’s really the easiest way to get this done.
None of us wants to admit that we’re this shallow, but there are literally thousands of books and movies out there to prove us wrong. Screenwriters and film makes have it easy. All they have to do is throw Trevante Rhodes up on the screen and instantly we’re all dialed in.
Oh, that was just me?
But like I said, they only need to trot out a physically attractive person to get the viewer’s attention. A novelist doesn’t have that option so we have to be more deliberate. We have to describe the character in a way that suggests attractiveness. We do that by showing how other characters respond to that attractiveness. Maybe we wax a little poetic about the timbre of a hero’s voice or how flustered and shy he becomes under our heroines advances. The secondary and tertiary characters that they interact with can compliment their looks or express jealousy or envy because they won the genetic lottery.
However, it’s important to be careful with this because you can turn off a certain segment of readers who are sick to death of reading about incredibly attractive people. I must admit that I feel this way about blond haired, blue eyed, heroes and heroines. There are so many blond and blue eyed characters in romance that one would swear the bulk of romance are written in Scandinavia. Yes, our shallow asses love to read about someone who is not only attractive to us, but is attractive to the people in the world you have created. Just shy away from too much sameness when you’re describing them.
2. Make them a victim/savior/martyr.
These three things could be used as plot devices to raise the stakes and increase tension, but depicting any of your characters in this way can also make your reader interested in their journey.
A victim will be pitied and the reader will hope that they are ultimately delivered from their suffering. When writing victims there is some danger of making them appear weak, but you can combat this by illustrating that they had no choice and give them either the courage to endure, or make them brave enough to rescue themselves. If they are a victim of psychological or emotional abuse, you have to make sure you’re really explains why they can’t just leave their situation.
A savior will always be the hero of a story. There’s not much you can do wrong here. Your reader will undoubtedly admire their courage to accept responsibility for others and take care of the people they love. However, the savior can look reckless and foolhardy if he rushes into the conflict in a way that makes everything worse or only interfering just enough to seem like a meddler instead of a true hero.
The martyr is probably the most difficult of these to do well. Sacrifice doesn’t always win sympathy, especially when or if the reader feels like it was a needless sacrifice. There must be some reason for it beyond being noble or admired for that alone. Your character must really have no other choice but to make that sacrifice. It also needs to make a significant and positive difference in the lives of the supporting characters.
3. Give them plans, purpose, ambition, and dreams.
A lot of newbie authors make the mistake of letting the story happen to their characters versus letting their characters actions drive the plot. This cream a character with no initiative who seems to be pushed around by the plot until the writer runs out of things to put them through and decides to write “the end.” The best way to combat this is to always have your character arrive on the page with a purpose or plan. This way the the plot point is presented you have a thing that your character is trying to achieve.
In addition to plans and purpose, if you’re treating your characters as real people they will have hopes, dreams, and hopefully ambitions. The are easy things to get your reader to sympathize with, especially if you ground them in the five categories of human desire. These are things that every human needs to survive and thrive. Your reader will indentify with them even more if your character puts great importance on that dream or desire.
If your story is about your characters plan—also called a quest—you characters journey toward obtaining their goal is immediately sympathetic. This is why we root for Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, and even characters like Dexter Morgan or the murderous and deceitful heroes of dark romances. We get caught up in their plans and dreams even when those things are appalling or criminal.
4. Make them risk it all.
Real tension and conflict is create when your character has something to lose. Be it a social, physical, or a financial risk, make them do what is right or necessary in pursuit of their goals—even up to breaking the law or turning a blind eye when someone else commits a crime. From that moment on, their fate is tied to that person or event and we will root for them to overcome it.
In that risk, however, there must be some sense of fairness. They shouldn’t be sneak, underhanded, or a cheater just for the sake of presenting some sort of negative trait that they have to over come That won’t garner much sympathy. Readers will respond warmly to a character who is brave and at least attempts to play fair, but will find it difficult to connect with a character who is morally bankrupt.
5. Make them a positive and/optimistic about their goals.
Your characters attitude toward other people, their inner dialogue with themselves, and their approach to the plot points in the story can sway the reader from ambivalence to like. A character who takes responsibility for their mistakes, responds to their trials and tribulations with self-deprecating humor, and always strives to improve themselves will show your reader a struggle that they recognize. We’re all trying to be better people aren’t we? And in that way, your character is just like us. A character that is written the complete opposite way can also be endearing, but the ones who feel, think, and struggle just like us are the ones that we love to love.
6. Make them selfless.
Doing a courageous thing without seeking recognition is probably one of the most difficult things to do in real life so it would definitely be commendable in a fictional character. This is not something the should be forced into, it should bring them fame or fortune, and should be approached with modesty, and humility. Selflessness is a form of sacrifice, so of course it will garner sympathy.
7. Make them dependable and reliable.
In the words of Tony Montana, “all I have in this world is my balls and my word and I won’t break them for no one.” A character who is a good guy, who keeps his word no matter what will be easy to fall in love with. Especially when everything and everyone tries to make their word impossible to keep. Never underestimate the impact of a promise. Promises kept and promises broken are a reoccurring theme in fiction.
8. Make them clever.
This is different from intelligence, because intelligence can be misinterpreted as elitist or snobbish. Clever is being smart without flaunting your intelligence. It’s using your street smarts to get out of sticky situations. It’s conquering a situation with self confidence and being surprised that it words. Readers love a character who solves a problem with exactly the right facts when they need them, but they don’t like a pompous know-it-all that flaunts that knowledge.
9. Make them perfectly imperfect.
Now that I’ve given you a long list of squeaky clean, perfect character that we love to love, now I’m going to tell you to give them some imperfections. Your character needs some flaws or they won’t have anything to overcome and your reader will have nothing to root for. So scuff them up a little bit. Make them a smoker. Make them brutally honest. Give them anxiety or a deep rooted need to always drink green smoothies for breakfast whilst complaining about how awful they taste. Dig into their backstory and give them a limiting belief that makes them feel real.
Any of these 9 things will make your character an instant favorite that will stick with your reader. If you need a little bit of help crafting that character, pick up a copy of The Basic Character Creation Workbook!
Thanks for reading and happy writing!