This post first appeared in April 2022 newsletter writer’s corner and updated September 22. For ongoing writing tips, sign up to my newsletter list (and receive a gift for doing so!)
I’m thrilled when people let me know I’ve written characters readers love to spend time with. I’m very grateful for reviews like this –
‘the characters were hypnotically believable’ (Keepers)
‘brought the characters to life, and I found myself cheering for, yelling at, and commiserating with them along the way. (Keepers)
‘Burman’s capacity to describe her characters is remarkable. They are there warts and all! Yet the subtle nuances of their behaviour give genuine depth and vibrancy to all they do and feel.’ (Legend of the Winged Lion)
‘She’s a master at developing characters who grab you from the first page and keep you interested until the last.’ (River Witch)
There are more but sufficient self-aggrandisement!
Here’s an up front confession: I have no formal approach to character building. I’m too lazy to follow the advice which tells you to build a backstory for your character: what they have for breakfast, their education, what ‘motivates’ them, how the wrong colour shoes as a teenager flawed their life and so on. I tried it once or twice – it was dull, dull, dull. And impossible, because I didn’t know them well enough at that early stage.
Initially my characters come into my head as outlines – gender, age (approx), family (changeable) – cast into a setting and with a basic role to play in the story. As the tale evolves their wants, passions, disappointments, temper tantrums and hidden or not-so-hidden hurts are revealed over time.
It helps that I love to write in deep point of view. It means that after a while I begin to be them, to see what they see and how they see it, to hear what they hear and how they hear it. I write with their voice sounding their words and thoughts in my ear. I imagine it’s like being an actor taking on the persona of a character, except a writer has more than one to deal with at a time. The outcome, if the reviews are to be believed, appears to be largely successful.
The process – and the characters – can always improve
However, it’s very likely I leave too much to chance or create more work for myself than I should. And it’s a given that my characters could be even better if I was more focused on how I build them. So I went looking for advice, and this post is the outcome.
It’s obvious to say that when people read books they want to become emotionally engaged. This might be with the plot, where the reader has to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. But more importantly it’s about what happens next to whom. Characters must be involved for the reader to be engaged. It could be an individual, a number of people, a dog or a colony of spiders (as I discovered when reading The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky). The reader needs to be able to relate to the main characters, to share their emotions, make sense of their aspirations and see the rationale (warped or not) behind what they do. Most importantly, the reader must love them and be desperate for them to succeed. (Or hate them and be desperate for them to fail, which is perhaps a post for another time.)
All well and good, but what can the writer do to make this happen?
Making characters likeable
This isn’t too difficult. Have them do good things, be kind, stand up to the bad guy, and so on. We can’t help but like someone who offers to get something for us from the high shelf of the supermarket.
Making them relatable
This needs a little more attention and is much helped by considering how ‘real’ people think and behave. Real people are not always good. They don’t always stand up to the bad guy, they let their masks slip occasionally to perhaps think/say awful things. They also contradict themselves and speak and/or act differently from what we have come to expect of them.
Few people in real life are consistent in their thinking and behaviours, and those who are tend not to be relatable. Writers need to mix it up, let their characters be inconsistent on occasion to show they are ‘human’. Have a look around, think about people you know and are close to and steal bits of their personalities, the good and the not-so-loveable.
Characters readers want to spend time with – because they love them
Getting readers to love characters is more complex. To do this, the writer should aim to reveal the inner turmoil the character suffers, through internal dialogue, interactions with others and actions. Show the reader the character’s emotional hurts and vulnerabilities, and also – this is important – that the character is aware of these, therefore adding to their emotional complexity. Self-awareness is an endearing feature.
If you’ve established they are likeable and ‘real’, the reader will rally to their side as they struggle with their demons.
In The Wild Army, readers rally behind Tristan, who is a caring, sensitive young man. He’s horrified at his father’s empire-building destructive ways. He’s also sensible, cautious, not a risk-taker. What makes readers love him? (Spoiler alert!) His eventual willingness to actively throw himself into Callie’s cause, putting him in direct conflict with the father whose approval he still seeks.
Turning a likeable character into one readers love, happened to me when writing Keepers. Beta feedback about Raine, my main character, was overall very positive. There was one person, however, who said Raine seemed a little too capable, a tad cold in fact at times. They liked her, but didn’t love her. Oh no! Once it was pointed out, I knew what this person meant, and why. So I went about making sure my leading lady’s vulnerabilities were more apparent without weakening her energetic, bull-headed personality.
Drivers of their own destiny
Which leads to a key point, that your characters need to be proactive. They can’t simply let things happen to them or react to others’ initiatives. We all love a character who seeks to take charge of their own destiny. Like Callie and Tristan in The Wild Army, Gweyr and Ilesse in Legend of the Winged Lion, Raine in Keepers, and newest protagonist, Hester in River Witch. People are very much loving Hester (‘I was left thinking about Hester, long after I had closed the book.’), as I do!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on building characters readers want to spend time with. What works for you and what have you seen in novels which works – or doesn’t work?
For further reading, here is a fascinating post I came across which looks at how your key characters complement each other. The ‘soul triptych’. More on characters too in Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-editing for fiction writers.