Have you ever heard the piece of writing advice that goes, “readers come for the plot, but stay for the characters?” This means that often times readers are drawn to a story by a cool premise or promise of a twist, but that by the time they finish reading, they soon forget the plot and are left with the memory of the characters. That’s because our minds love a good twisty, exciting plot, but our hearts love memorable characters.
Crafting strong characters begins with thinking about characters not as stiff creations with a certain height, eye color, or hometown (though it can certainly be a useful exercise to fill out character trait worksheets), but with looking at how they act in certain situations. For example, let’s say your main character is a third grader who sees two bigger boys bullying a stray dog. How he choses to respond to such a difficult situation will be much more informative about who he is as a person than a list of his favorite books or hobbies.
Here are three simple ways to create characters that readers will instantly care about:
1) PUT YOUR CHARACTER IN A DANGEROUS OR UNFAIR SITUATION
It’s human nature to worry about people in danger. If you open a book about the Titanic, you are already hoping the characters survive the shipwreck. If a girl is being bullied in the opening pages of a story, you can’t help but hope she escapes unharmed. Instantly, we are rooting for these characters to thrive.
Likewise, it can be very effective to put your character in situation that is clearly unfair: a boy punished for his brother’s mistake, or a girl forced to sweep floors of her stepmother’s house. Readers find unfair situations deeply troubling, which makes them automatically root for your character to persevere, in some cases even before we know what your character’s name is.
2) MAKE OTHER CHARACTERS LIKE YOUR CHARACTER
We tend to like people with an upbeat, funny, kind-hearted attitude. And giving your character these traits is a great way to make your character likeable. However, not all characters have to be “likeable” in the strictest sense; it’s okay to have pessimistic, angry, complex, or sarcastic characters, as long as they are still relatable and sympathetic. A great way to make any type of character attractive to a reader is to have other characters value him or her. For example, a boy who comes across as gruff, but who has a little sister who adores him, instantly softens our hearts.
Likewise, if there are clearly nasty characters in your book—say, a mean stepsister or cruel teachers—who don’t like your character, it will make readers actually like your character more. Remember: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
3) MAKE YOUR CHARACTER HIGHLY SKILLED OR TALENTED
It’s also human nature to admire people with extraordinary gifts. That could be supernatural powers like the ability to fly, bend steel, or read minds. Such supernatural powers fascinate us and draw us in instantly. But it can be just as effective—perhaps even more so—when a character is highly skilled not through magic or a twist of fate, but because of the hard work they’ve put into mastering a skill. We can’t help but root for a small boy who studies karate diligently over years and wins a big competition. We want such characters to be rewarded for their hard work.
Megan Shepherd grew up in her family’s independent bookstore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A New York Times bestselling author, Megan is the author of several acclaimed young adult series and the middle grade novel The Secret Horses of Briar Hill. She now lives and writes on a 125-year-old farm outside Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, two cats, and an especially scruffy dog. To learn more about Megan an her books, click on these links to visit her BLOG AND WEBSITE Follow her on TWITTER and like her FACEBOOK PAGE.
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