How To Get Readers To Feel Something For Your Characters-Part II

So we’ve established that if readers don’t care about your characters, they are much more likely to ditch your book. On Monday, we talked about common author errors that lead to character apathy.

It’s not enough to just avoid the obvious pitfalls, though. When I finish a book with characters I really love, it’s almost like a death. I’m in mourning for a few days, and I’m known to be a little crabby. Those are the authors whose books I pre-order. When that next book hits my door, I crawl back into the world of my beloved friends. I pity the person that interrupts me. I aspire to write books that readers feel that strongly about.

Granted, there’s no formula for writing perfect characters. I have found starting with the following questions certainly increases your chances of writing deeper characters whom your readers will enjoy. How do you know if your manuscript needs more work on characterization? That’s simple. Every manuscript needs deeper characterization. Career editor Elizabeth Lyon maintains that this is a nearly universal phenomenon in the manuscripts she sees.

Batman Backstory

So, this particular backstory can get old, but that doesn’t mean your characters won’t have past experiences that shape them.

What experiences have shaped your character? Rare is the person who has made it to adulthood (or even the teenage years for those writing young adult) unscathed. Most of us carry around past experiences for good or for ill that shape not only our worldviews, but the actions we take. Well developed characters are no different. This doesn’t have to be clichéd. Not all heroes have to be orphans on quests to bring justice to the villains who killed their parents before their very eyes! Your heroine could just as easily be formed by her experience as a military brat who grew up on bases in other countries. Not really American, not really of the other cultures, either, this “third-culture” kid is restless and has trouble committing to long-term relationships. Whatever the backstory is, you need to know it, and every character needs one. Good novels generally show character growth. A great way to do that is to show a character overcoming the wounds of the past.

What drives each character? I’m not talking about the story goal here, whatever that might be. Don’t confuse this with getting the girl, defeating the villain, etc. These are usually universal needs that everyone can identify with. This is the personal yearning that is more important to the character than anything else. Is it a desire to be loved? Do they want to succeed and finally make a disapproving parent proud? Do they need to feel needed and useful? If you don’t know what they want most of all, how will you make decisions for the character?

Baby eats puppy.

See? Even cute, loveable characters can have bad habits. It makes them more complex.

Did you give them strengths? Weaknesses? No one is all good or all bad. Your heroes need flaws and your villains need redeeming qualities.  Not only does it make your characters more interesting, it also provides you with good sources of internal story conflict. A hero’s weakness can keep him stuck in the mistakes and experiences of the past where he’ll never get what he’s yearning for. His strengths will pull him toward character growth. Don’t go crazy with a grocery list of both, though. Pick one or two of each to emphasize, or you can just end up with a mess.

What does your character need to learn (often the theme)? In order for your character to get what she yearns for most, what does she have to learn first? For example, just because a desire to make a disapproving parent proud drives your character’s actions, she doesn’t have to get that approval in the end. In fact, she might need to learn that her disapproving parent will never be pleased. The story theme might be about her finally accepting that. In the end, the way her yearning is fulfilled is quitting the career that her parents approved of but she hated. She must now find her self-worth outside of parental approval.

Child's drawing

If you gave a description of your character to a sketch artist, would it look something like this?

Can you picture them? I’m not talking a semi-vague blob here where you’ve just nailed down the basics of hair and eye color, height and weight. You need a crystal clear, very detailed portrait of each character. In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyons lists the following physical characteristics that you should know: gender, age, height, weight, body build, body hair, race, skin color, skin texture, hair body and style, hair texture and color, smell of hair, head size and shape, facial hair, eye shape and color, shape of brow, shape and fullness of lips, teeth size and color, personal grooming, handshake, hands, nails, body smell, added scents, carriage and posture, activity level (lethargic to maniac, focused to attention deficit), deformities, hereditary physical attributes, birthmarks, scars, tattoos, overall health, habitual stances, gestures, and mannerisms, voice quality—volume and timbre and pitch (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass), quality of laugh, head-to-toe clothing (style, functionality, quality), and accessories (jewelry, bags, satchels, gloves, scarves, hats). Whew!

Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys over at Mired in Mundanity did a post back in May that provides authors with a list of 101 excellent questions to ask when developing characters. The final one is one of the best questions ever. “Why should I give a tinker’s damn about your character? Don’t get offended, it’s a valid question. What makes your character interesting? Am I supposed to like them, or hate them? Why?”  I’ve found it to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. I want to turn all middle-schooler and shout, “Just because, okay!”  Forcing yourself to answer it will go a long way in focusing your characterization efforts.

Barney's Hot/Crazy graph

Eccentric/sleazy. . .it’s a fine line. Always entertaining, though.

Are they eccentric enough?  This one comes from Sol Stein. I was skeptical of this advice at first, but after I was made aware of it and started studying good characters, I realized he was right. Stein maintains no one really wants to read about an average Joe. Readers have enough ordinariness in real life, so they long for something unusual in their fiction. Any How I Met Your Mother fan knows Barney’s character wouldn’t be as legen-wait for it-dary without his catch-phrases, suits, apartment purposely designed to discourage women from staying long, crazy vs. hot charts, elaborate playbook for picking up women, etc. You might not be friends with Barney in real life, but he’d be fascinating to read about.

Related Reading:

Mired in Mundanity’s whole list of 101 Questions for Characters

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test (A test to see how clichéd you’ve made your character.)

What Can Make Even a Loyal Reader Ditch Your Book

I am loyal to the point of folly. People, I watched season seven of Supernatural. Every. Single. Episode. The Geneva Convention is holding talks about whether Netflix should be required to pull those 22 hours of slow torture. It was horrible, but, by golly, I had logged a lot of miles with Sam and Dean in that Impala, and I was not giving up. I’m glad I didn’t since season eight was greatly improved, and I’m downright giddy about season nine.

I am just as teeth-clenched determined when it comes to reading.  Robin McKinley wrote two of my favorite young adult books, The Blue Sword and The Hero and The Crown. Her adult fiction can be sort of hit or miss for me, but I will read every page. I had to check out Sunshine on three different occasions over two years to get through it. It ended up being excellent, but the beginning was painfully slow. If Robin McKinley’s name hadn’t been on the book cover, I would have chucked the thing out the window the first time. But I am LOYAL.

Pushing through a boring book.

I have a professor friend who because of time constraints and because she reads slower than I do, has to be aggressively picky about what she reads. She has a formula for how many pages she will read of a book before she decides whether she’ll continue. It is as follows:

100 – (your current age) = the pages you allow the author to woo you

She’s 35, so she gives a book until page 65. I’m generous. I’ll give you 200 because I’m really hoping you’ll have a miraculous turn around half way through.

Even so, I’ve had a rough time lately with books. I returned more unfinished books in the last six months than I ever have before. Others I finished out of sheer tenacity, but I never grew to like them.

All of the books were critically acclaimed and from a literary perspective were well written. Some were the author’s first book, others were not. Two were science fiction, two were fantasy, two were mainstream fiction. What united them was their universal problem:

I did not care what happened to the characters. Not at all. Not a one. Zilch, zip, nada. Blow them all up, heroes and villains alike, and I would have slept like a baby.

Readers should care more about the book than their beverage.

The authors were very good at other aspects of the writing. The fantasy writer was a masterful world builder. He created one of the most interesting systems of magic I’ve ever seen, and then he plopped down a set of characters into it with all the relatablity of dry toast. Both of the science fiction writers wrote wonderful scenes of tension and suspense that I made notes on. One of the mainstream writers had lovely description of the world of her two protagonists. Sadly, her setting had more depth than her characters.

At the same time I read these books, I was alternating reading a series of paranormal romances. You know the type. They have the kind of covers that encourage you to buy an e-reader. The writing is atrocious. Every single time I read one I wonder how this author ever got a publishing contract. The dialogue is cringe worthy, and she is constantly telling instead of showing. BUT—this is huge—I am currently reading the ninth book in this series. These horribly crafted things are New York Times bestsellers. I continue to plod through the inferior writing because the author made me care about her characters.

If you make me fall in love with the people in your story, I will put up with a lot. I watched plots revolving around Pepperjack Turducken Slammers(! ) because I had already loved Sam and Dean Winchester for years.   If I don’t care a lick about your characters, I don’t care how pretty your prose is, I’m chucking your book.

Dean eats a Turducken Sandwich.

In the words of the great Sol Stein, “The fiction writer’s primary job is creating an emotional experience for the reader.”

So, please, make me feel something.

Questions for comments:

  1. Think about your favorite book. Why did you like it? Was it the writing style or the characters?
  2. What makes a good character?
  3. What makes a reader apathetic about a character?
  4. Why do you most often abandon a book?

Distinct Dialogue: How to Make Each of Your Characters Sound Unique

Last week I wrote a post on how Benedict Cumberbatch is able to convey a lot of depth to the characters he plays just by using his voice and speech patterns. Sadly, BC doesn’t come to my house a couple times a week and read my most recently written pages aloud for me, making even the dullest scenes sound amazing. If he did, I wouldn’t be spending so much time rewriting dialogue.

Authors should be reading their manuscripts aloud, especially the dialogue. Certain mistakes and clunky sentences that slipped past me even while reading a printout give me a verbal slap when I hear them out loud. If you can get someone else to read your pages to you, that’s even better.

So you’ve realized maybe your dialogue could use a bit of help. If you’re like me, the biggest problem is that all your characters speak pretty much the same way. So how do you get their individual personalities to pop off the page? Here’s some tips for making each of your characters distinct:

High and Low Diction:  I have one character that is the definition of otherworldly. She lives in a lofty spirit realm, completely out of touch with humans.  On my first pass at her dialogue, something about it wasn’t right. The problem finally dawned on me—diction. I got rid of the contractions and substituted words like “weep” instead of “cry.”    She’s the only person in the book who’s contraction-free and using phrases like, “I cannot linger here.”

Age appropriate:  I have more than one character that is immortal, so they’ve been alive a long time, even though they look young. Certainly, they had to learn to adapt to new slang and ways of talking to blend in, but a great way to distinguish these characters from my younger ones would be letting them slip up and use an out of date phrase. Likewise, they could be unable to adopt certain new ones. If I think about talking with my Grandpa, he is never going to use the words, “yeah, like, or cool” in the same way someone my age will.

Ethnicity and country of origin: I missed an opportunity here. Several of my characters are Russian immigrants, but they never slip up and say “da” instead of yes or mess up their English words. For example, they could say “Oofos” instead of UFOs, not knowing that it’s an acronym where you say each letter instead of a word they are trying to pronounce as a whole. I did think to occasionally sprinkle in a word or phrase in Russian, but these are used almost exclusively by those characters that Russian is their second language, not their first. So I inadvertently have my American-born Russians sounding more Russian than their ESL parents.

Vocation:  You would never know what my characters did for a living by how they speak. Job metaphors are a great way to distinguish your characters. I have a medic, a CNA, and a nurse. Do you think any of them make any medical comments? Nope. Not even anything as obvious as “code blue” when they are in a really sticky situation. Likewise, I have a dancer that could be “counting the beats” in a tense scene.

Education and Social Class: Some of this might come out in diction, vocation, or origin, but depending on how complicated your character, you could have an interesting mix. For example, I have a character whose parents were immigrants. An immigrant background might make readers think she had a modest upbringing, but in fact, her parents were talented artists, and her father was a professor at a prestigious university. Then her father died, and her family slowly descended to lower middle class, and finally she was on her own supporting her sister as a teenager. When my novel opens, she could qualify for food stamps, only has a high school education, and is living in an unsafe neighborhood. Still, she had educated parents, is very smart, and reads a lot. How would this character speak? Her neighbors who have always lived a lower class life do not speak Standard English, but I have her speaking it. Her younger sister might pick up more of the slang of the neighborhood since she was much younger when the family enjoyed the privilege of academia. Remember, you want to use just enough slang and accent to suggest a different way of speaking but not enough to irritate your reader.

Phrase length:  I like to compare and contrast two of the men in my novel frequently. I have descriptions of one being very quiet and speaking in “short, terse sentences bitten off at the end,” and the other “a schmoozer who loves the sound of his own voice.” Even if I overlook the obvious problem that I told my readers their speaking patterns instead of showing them, I also didn’t follow my own generalization. My so-called quiet character is given to mini-lectures, and the loquacious one ended up being surprisingly economical with his words. Again, this might be okay because it at least means they have speech patterns that distinguish them from one another, but they don’t fit their characterization.

Misdirection and manipulation:  I had a little bit of this in my dialogue on my first draft, but not enough, and certain characters needed a lot more of it. If you have a really awful villain who lies, why would they be straightforward in their dialogue? How often do you have a conversation with a friend where you go home and try to puzzle out what was truly said? How frequently do you commit to something you had no intention of doing at the beginning of a conversation with a coworker? I have some very multi-layered complicated characters speaking only in very straightforward dialogue. Not only is it not true to their characters, but I’m missing out on a wonderful opportunity for subtext and increased conflict.

Pet phrases:  Each character in your story should have a list of phrases they repeat. If you need inspiration, just pay attention to your friends for a week and take notes. I have one friend that always says, “In a way,” before he gives an example of something. Another grad student friend who reads a lot of academic texts is always using words I’d swear he made up, like “relationality.”  Spell check doesn’t think that’s a word, either. If you need an example from TV, think how Shawn and Gus from Psych have used “Suck it!” to such great effect for eight years.

A Lesson in Dialogue from Benedict Cumberbatch


Left to right, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk in Star Trek: Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch (BC) is a magnificent actor—hardly a newsflash to anyone who has seen BBC’s series Sherlock. He’s been nominated for more than one Emmy and I’m sure an equal amount of awards in Britain. I enjoyed the first Star Trek, but I admit I was even more excited for the sequel when I heard BC was cast as the movie’s villain.

I saw Into Darkness opening night and was not disappointed by BC’s performance. He was so compelling that there were times I was secretly rooting for him, and I’m a fan of Pine’s Kirk and Quinto’s Spock.

As the weeks passed, I wondered why I found BC’s villain so gripping. Last week a friend who had been overseas when Star Trek was released returned home. She was searching for someone to go see it with her. I quickly volunteered to see it again, driven by my desire to study BC’s character.

Since I knew how the story turned out, I was more detached this time. From the first scene with BC, I scrutinized his movements, speech, and facial expressions. Was it just because I had grown fond of his Sherlock character? I didn’t think so, as his Star Trek character was markedly different.

As BC paced in his containment cell, lecturing Kirk, I realized even more than his costume, facial expressions, or movements, Cumberbatch’s character was conveyed with his speech. While I’m certain some of the credit here belongs to the screenwriter(s), BC’s delivery was critically important. Thinking back to episodes of Sherlock, which are written by a different person, I remembered that BC does the same thing with Sherlock, although in a way appropriate to that character.

I’m not talking about his British accent here. I’m talking about how he lorded over Kirk without touching him. He did this with his word choice, intelligent reasoning, short clipped commands followed by longer explanations spoken with a condescension that belittled Kirk. BC barely moved his hands or body throughout this, and his face was nearly frozen as well. His diction and cadence alone expressed that he was a dangerous man of great intelligence and brutality.

I have read a number of writing guides that state your characters should each have a distinct way of talking, so that even if you took away the speaker attributions, you should know which character is speaking. I had a hard time understanding this advice. How was that accomplished exactly? As I watched BC on the screen, I understood.

So how do you make your characters spring to life as if Benedict Cumberbatch had lent his magic to enliven their dialogue? On Monday, I’ll walk through some examples of how to make each of your characters’ dialogue distinct.

Epic Romance: A Character Study from Lost

The couples of the TV series Lost

Recently while my husband and I were grocery shopping and trying to locate some Goo Gone, he asked me a surprising question.

Husband:  “What’s Desmond’s wife’s name?”

Me, with absolutely no hesitation: “Penny.”

Husband gets a blank look on his face, followed by a frown. I have come to learn this means I have said something he wasn’t expecting, and he’s trying to figure out my mental leap. He smiles when he finally makes the connection to the character on Lost. He clarifies:  “I mean our neighbor Desmond.”

Me:  “Oh!  Hmm, I have no idea.”

There’s undoubtedly some social commentary here about knowing a fictional TV character better than the man that lives fifty feet from me, but that’s not where I’m going. I heard the name Desmond, and my brain immediately retrieved the name Penny with it. The two names are inseparable to me, even though the characters spent more time apart in the series than they did together.

Lost had no shortage of couples. It seemed each character in its sprawling cast had at least one significant other except for poor Boone. As everyone paired off two by two, fans picked their favorites. I certainly had couples I liked better than others, but there was only one couple on the show I would have given the label “epic,” and that was Desmond and Penny. I’d never really thought about why until an article appeared in Entertainment Weekly last month asking fans to vote for the best TV couples ever.

The only Lost couple that made the list was Sawyer and Juliet. I mentioned this to a few friends who had also watched the series, and the debating ensued. I’ve found if you get any five people in a room and ask them who their favorite Lost character was, you’ll get five different responses. However, while many of us did like the S & J pairing, it was Desmond and Penny that were universally loved.

As a writer, I have to come up with new characters continually. I want my characters to be so well loved that my readers see them as old friends. Additionally, what I write almost always has an element of romance to it. All of this Lost debate made me wonder what makes an audience root for a couple. What made D & P  or S & J so compelling? I decided to take a look at who I saw as the four main couples of Lost and try to analyze why they did or didn’t work. As with all things Lost, I’m sure some people will heartily disagree with me.  That’s fine; I’m not against some lively debate in the comments section.

Jin and Sun fight to the bitter end.

Jin & Sun:  These two certainly had an interesting storyline, and I absolutely wanted them to work through their martial issues and fall in love again. The redemption theme in their relationship was compelling, but in the end, these two were never going to be the “it” couple because they were just exhausting. As a side plot they were fine, but I’d never write a couple like them as my main characters just because I think my readers would give up in despair. An occasional fight can make the romance interesting, but I think this couple crossed the line into depressing one too many times.

Jack and Kate never worked as a couple.

Jack & Kate:  Blech, I don’t even know where to start with these two. Jack missed so many opportunities with Kate early on. She would kiss him, and he’d pretend like nothing happened. She’d tell him she liked him, and he would respond by ignoring her and running off into the jungle. He had the relationship skills of a middle schooler. I kept expecting him to put gum in her hair.

Kate was no better. If Jack did anything, anything, she didn’t like, she just threw herself at Sawyer, even long after Sawyer had any interest in her. She shuttled back and forth between the two of them so fast, there were some episodes I got a crick in my neck. By the end of the series I felt they deserved each other, but mostly because I wouldn’t have wished them on anyone else. In fact, I disliked them together so much, I stopped liking them as individual characters.  Considering Jack and Kate were the leads of Lost, that seems like a critical error authors should avoid.

Lost kills off Juliet.

Sawyer & Juliet:  I can see why these two made EW’s list. Once they extricated themselves from the Kate/Jack/Sawyer/Juliet quadrangle mess, they were a solid couple. I have to acknowledge the writing genius here.  S & J were only together for roughly a season, and we never actually got to watch them fall in love, yet I absolutely was convinced of their dedication. How did the writers pull it off? They changed Sawyer.

We had seen Sawyer love Cassidy poorly in flashbacks and love Kate slightly better for the past few seasons. Still, he himself admits he’d make Kate a terrible boyfriend. So when we suddenly see Sawyer in a steady respectable job happily cohabiting with Juliet, it begs the question, “What happened?” We instantly know that what they have has to be real because the impossible has occurred:  Sawyer has settled down. When Kate and company reappear three years later, he’s not happy. He’s angry that they’ve disrupted his happily ever after.

desmond penny and charlie

Desmond & Penny:  So why are these two the only couple I’d label epic? S & J were in the running, but ultimately their romance was just too short. If you’re going to make me wade through several seasons of love triangle then quadrangle, then you need to make up for that later. Lost’s way of making up for it was killing off Juliet. Not okay. What made D & P triumph over the others was their constancy–a theme the writers captured brilliantly in “The Constant,” arguably Lost’s best episode. For Desmond there was only Penny, and it was the same for her. Each searched for the other overcoming both an island impossible to find and even time itself. Nothing deterred them, and unlike other characters (uh-hem, Kate) there was no “loving the one you’re with.”

There is much advice written about plotting that involves giving your hero a desire and then putting obstacles in the way of him getting it. The ending is just a matter of the hero finally getting his heart’s desire. Lost followed this formula with D & P really well but also in unexpected ways (the time travel element was fascinating). A lot of books I read and shows I watch make the obstacle a love triangle. I am not a fan of this plot device because I don’t often see it done well. Either it descends into a mess like it did on Lost, or it’s just never believable because the winner is clear from the beginning. I can count on one hand the number of love triangles I’ve liked, Cassandra Clare’s Will/Tessa/Jem triangle in The Infernal Devices being the best I’ve read so far. I applaud the D & P storyline for being moving and fulfilling without the need for a third person distraction, and for that, I deem it epic.

Now, in the spirit of all things Lost, let the disagreeing commence!  The comment button is in the left margin.

Up Next Ten Tips–a new blog series that will give highlights from helpful books for writers.