Crafting Characters We Can’t Help But Root For by @megan_shepherd

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.

MS cageLikewise, 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

MMD+final+cover+hi-resWe 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 MS booksupernatural 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.

MSH35FULLsizedMegan 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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192 comments on “Crafting Characters We Can’t Help But Root For by @megan_shepherd

  1. Kristen Browning says:

    Thanks for the great advice! I have tried #1, but not the others. Perhaps #2 and/or #3 are the keys for a certain troublesome story of mine.

    Like

  2. Kim Chaffee says:

    Especially love the advice about putting your character in and unfair or dangerous situation. It really does tell a lot about the character. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  3. Great advice. Gonna save this to read again later.

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  4. Juli Caveny says:

    All great suggestions! Thanks for sharing with us today. I especially like unreliable MCs… Something about a totally flawed character that draws me in every time!

    Like

  5. Anna Gateley-Stanton says:

    Thanks much for your insight.

    Like

  6. Becky Scharnhorst says:

    Thanks, Megan! I’m excited to try these out on a couple of my characters. I’m certain I will go back to these tips again and again.

    Like

  7. Kim Pfennigwerth says:

    What great prompts on the exercise along with a really helpful post. Love the ‘come for the plot but stay for the characters’! Thank you Megan!

    Like

  8. Your tips for crafting memorable characters are helpful, Megan. Thank you for the tips.
    ~Suzy Leopold

    Like

  9. Aimee Haburjak says:

    What a great post on character likability!
    Can’t wait to check out your middle grade book.
    Thank you,
    Aimee

    Like

  10. Andi Osiek says:

    Love this post… such unique perspectives on ways to create impact for readers. Thank you!

    Like

  11. Angela Turner says:

    I am working on a middle grade story now and I am anxious to apply some or your suggestions. Thank you for an enlightening post.

    Like

  12. I love how great characters can stick with you as if you know them in real life. Thanks for the great tips on making that happen.

    Like

  13. mkresk says:

    Fantastic examples in this post. Thanks so much!

    Like

  14. Great post – it’s got me thinking about my current MC!

    Like

  15. Grew up in a bookstore!! I am so jealous.

    Like

  16. carolofparis says:

    Great post! thank you.

    Like

  17. Sharon Giltrow says:

    A great example of how to incorporate head and heart into your story head = plot, heart = character.

    Like

  18. Mindy says:

    Thank you so much Megan for your lesson on character development. I have learned so munh!

    Like

  19. Points well taken on crafting characters!

    Like

  20. writeknit says:

    Characters can’t be boring, tks for helping us make them strong.

    Like

  21. Yes! Great ideas on crafting characters! Thanks!!

    Like

  22. Amy Benoit says:

    I like your post — and yes, we cannot help but root for our characters when they overcome something major. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Pretty clever!

    Like

  23. Becky says:

    It is good to remember that not all characters are perfect! Thank you for the lesson!

    Like

  24. This was an interesting point that I hadn’t considered: having another character in the story like the character. Thank you for the post.

    Like

  25. Great ways to take a two dimensional character and make it become more real.

    Like

  26. judyrubin13 says:

    Thank you for sharing your techniques.

    Like

  27. Linda Crowley says:

    Great tools to use – I look forward to using them.

    Like

  28. Jenifer says:

    Liked post about how you can respond to the needs of your characters in writing a story so a person will want to read this story.

    Like

  29. Nicola says:

    Great advice 🙂 Gave some interesting points on characterization.

    Like

  30. Andrea Mack says:

    Thank you for the suggestions – really helpful!!

    Like

  31. Karen Leiby Belli says:

    Thank you! Didn’t have password access last week. The exercises are very helpful.

    Like

  32. Lauri Meyers says:

    Great tips on making the reader care about our characters.

    Like

  33. Amy Benoit says:

    Love your points!!! Can’t wait to put your insight to work.

    Like

  34. Amy Benoit says:

    Loving the exercises!!!

    Like

  35. Alex Borns-Weil says:

    You are so right. For example, we love Harry Potter partly because we start out by hating the Dursley’s, and they treat him so badly. Then when we find out about his special (magical) gifts and see him stand up for Neville, we love him even more.

    Like

  36. I’ve not really considered #2 but it’s my favorite. I LOVE to see a gruff and intimidating character stop to protect or reach out in some way to a vulnerable character who initially feels rejected by the first character.
    And #3 is a close second: when a character has to work hard at something over a period of time and become adept at an uncommon skill. Love that in a book.

    Like

  37. Patti says:

    Very helpful. This post inspired me and helped me understand the reader’s heart. so important. Thanks

    Like

  38. Gabi Snyder says:

    These suggestions make so much sense! Thank you for sharing; I will give these strategies a try.

    Like

  39. donnacangelosi says:

    Great ideas for making our characters endearing and memorable. Thank you!

    Like

  40. Leah Heilman Schanke says:

    Thank you.These are things we may have heard before but they’re presented in a very easy to understand way.This post serves as a good reminder.

    Like

  41. pathaap says:

    Love these suggestions! Thanks!

    Like

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