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.)

How To Get Readers to Feel Something For Your Characters-Part I

Last week I talked about the quickest way to get even loyal readers to ditch your book. If they aren’t emotionally invested in the characters of your story, they’ll bail on your lovingly crafted novel in a hurry. Right now you might be thinking, “All right, Ms. Smartypants, that’s all well and good, but how do I get my readers emotionally invested? I’m emotionally invested in my protagonist up to my eyeballs. Give me some for examples here.”

That’s a legitimate question. I went back and analyzed those six books that I bailed on recently and tried to pinpoint exactly how the authors lost me. Why didn’t I care about the characters? In this first post on how to write characters that won’t put your readers to sleep, I’ll focus on some of the pitfalls to avoid. All of six of the books committed at least one of these, usually more than one.

No emotional reaction

Characters lack emotional reactions. This is especially crippling for a novel if your protagonist is the one with the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great stoic character. Stoic does not equal no emotion, though. The reason stoic characters work is because even though they aren’t crying as the love of their lives die in their arms, you know they are feeling powerful emotions and struggling to keep them in. As an author you’ve got to show us that struggle. If it’s a point of view character, for heaven’s sake, take us inside his head and let us know what he’s thinking. If he’s not a POV character, we need the actions that betray what he’s feeling—the trembling lips, the fisted hands, the clenched jaws. We also need that character’s actions and motivations to convey what he is feeling. The heroine might never speak of her burning need for revenge, but we can watch her hunt down the killer.

Dawson the Crybaby

There’s a reason I bailed on Dawson’s Creek, too.

Characters have only one emotional reaction. Yes, even in real life, people have a default reaction in stressful situations. Some are yellers, others are criers, and some people run away. A good character can absolutely have an M.O. What they can’t have is only one reaction over and over. I think everyone’s read a book where the character’s chest beat so much they should have died of a heart attack after chapter three. One of the books I gave up on had a female character that could do nothing but cry. Happy, sad, depressed, sacred, angry, Tuesday evening—you name it—she cried. A personal pet peeve of mine is the throwing of stuff off of desks and tables repeatedly to show a person is angry. Sometimes the author will shake things up and (gasp!) have the character also punch a wall or door. Buy an Emotion Thesaurus and give me some variety, please.

Low stakes for characters

I have to mention here that this picture is from an actual competition in the UK where people watch paint dry.

The stakes are too low. An author’s characters are her babies, so I understand the desire to not be mean to them. However, playing it safe does not make for good story-telling. Neither does it help your readers build an attachment to your babies. Writers need to be relentlessly awful to their characters. Readers bond with characters as they suffer. One of the books I ditched had dual protagonists. Other than the inciting incidents for each that set up the book, nothing upsetting happened to either of them for about 200 pages. I kid you not, I read chapter after chapter, and the only thing of significance that happened to either of them was they managed to get jobs. They weren’t even interesting jobs, nor was there any conflict in obtaining the employment. The two protagonists didn’t even meet until page 176. You know who else I hadn’t met after 200 pages? The antagonist. Or if I did, he was so mildly antagonizing I missed his entrance.

Whiny heroes are like toddlers

Whiny, selfish heroes. I just finished up a series of posts on the mythic hero. Traditional heroes generally aren’t allowed to be either of the adjectives I just listed, with good reason. It doesn’t endear him or her to your readers. I would suggest they’re not a good look on an antihero, either. Most of us can get behind a rough around the edges antihero who breaks the rules so long as the ends justify the means. No one likes a whiner, though. It reduces your hero or heroine to a petulant toddler. If your whole cast of characters is this self-centered, you’re essentially asking your reader to baby-sit.

Michael Bay Presents Explosions

No motivation/unclear motivation/unbelievable motivation. Why did your heroine just blow up that building? “Because it was cool,” is only a motivation if you’re Michael Bay. As an author, you need to know why your characters take the actions they do and say the things they say. What drives your hero? What is your heroine’s deepest yearning? What wound haunts your villain to make her so awful? If you don’t know, your reader sure won’t. If the plot isn’t driven by clear and believable motivation, how can the audience get lost in the world you are creating? It can’t. Readers won’t buy what you’re selling if they have to stop and start the reading process too often to try to puzzle things out.

Related Reading: