Characters are the heartbeat of a story. How well readers connect with your characters is a sign of a well-written story.
It’s also a sign of a marketable story.
We’re going to talk about how to make readers love (or love to hate) your characters, including a cheat sheet of action-items. But, before we dive in, let’s chat about why this is important.
Having fantastic characters that your readers connect to creates loyal fans. A loyal reader tribe can mean fun fan art and could potentially lead you to future TV deals (this is somewhat genre dependent). It also allows you to create book spin offs with beloved side characters, which is one way to sell more books as a whole. And it’s just a sign of good storytelling. Even if your book is plot focused, that plot still involves characters.
Bottom line: characters matter. Here are tips to create those memorable characters!
(Prefer listen? Scroll down for the podcast episode!)
1.) Understand your genre and its expectations.
One big part of whether or not people like a character has nothing to do with how you write them, but rather how the character fits their expectations. There are certain types of characters that readers will like, no matter what.
I’ve had that happen on more than one occasion where a certain type of character wasn’t really my favorite, but it hit a certain trope or archetype that people really liked. In a romance, the tall, dark and handsome guy. Or the trickster character (as a side or main character) can often connect with people, especially in certain genres like urban fantasy or mystery.
Understanding your genre and reader expectations is key to writing characters that are going to connect with your audience. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t change a stock character trope. You just need to be mindful about how you’re changing that trope.
And of course, I believe that you should always give your characters enough nuance that they expand beyond tropes. But having a few obvious tropes, even surface-level tropes, can really help sell a story and make easy reader connections.
2.) Make sure your protagonist has a definable arc.
This can be a growth arc where your protagonist changes in some way over the course of the story.
It can be a flat arc where your protagonist is not changing, but rather is stalwartly maintaining a certain belief in the face of adversity. They have to dig in and defend their beliefs to keep being that person.
It can be a tragic arc like with Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith. Your character makes a dark train wreck of decisions that lead to doo. Much doom.
Readers instinctively know when a well-rounded character is following one of those arcs. Make sure that your protagonist has a definable arc readers connect with.
3.) Play with your characters.
Something else you should do is play with your characters and let them breathe. Don’t just strictly follow character sheets. Let your characters surprise you by letting them go free-range with writing prompts.
One of the reasons that I create my One Random Question social media posts are so that people can put their characters in out of the box situations and maybe learn something different about them. We develop and grow as people, as characters in our own life story, from the different situations and things we encounter. This is true of your characters in your fictional worlds as well. (Want to check these out? Click here to follow me on Facebook.)
So play with your characters and write little side stories with them. There’s something refreshing about those unexpected moments on the page.
4.) Be attuned to breakout characters.
Another way to create those characters that readers love is to be attuned to breakout characters.
This is where using alpha and beta reader feedback is really helpful. I’m not saying that you have to change everything or bend over backwards to appease your readers when you have a different vision, but it can be beneficial to work with people when possible.
Sometimes as authors, we don’t see those breakout characters or those intriguing moments in our own stories, maybe because of our own prejudices. As authors, we may have certain types of characters we like more than others.
Be open to breakout characters or for your characters to go completely in a different direction than you expect them to.
Now, I understand if you’re in the middle of a series and that breakout moment is just NOT A THING. Your plot matters too. And if you’re doing the series with a publisher make sure you’re communicating with them about what their expectations are, because they might not be keen on that breakout character either.
Be attuned to those breakout moments. And as you can, especially with supporting characters, let them fly free and have fun.
5) Give all of your characters The Top Five.
It’s time to get practical and put those characters through their paces with these five easy traits.
And I mean all of your characters: your protagonist, any other main characters, and supporting characters. If you have a tertiary character that you think might be important, add them in as well.
Give every character 2-3 distinct physical traits.
Is the character taller than everyone else? Do they have a beard? Do they have a certain kind of hair texture or color? You just need two to three physical traits to use consistently in description.
Give every character 2-3 distinctive words or phrases that only they use or mostly use.
It could be something silly, like jolly gee willikers or something like that. It could be a distinctive greeting or leave-taking. But make these words or phrases exclusive to the chosen character. Exclusivity transforms a few simple words into a characterization element.
Josie Framer, the protagonist in my Arcane Adventures series, says the word “drat” a lot in response to negative vents. I chose “drat” over “darn” or something similar because “drat” is more distinctive and amusing. It also has an aura of innocence, which fits her characterization as a whole.
Give every character 2-3 physical gestures that they do consistently.
Maybe they’re always scratching their head when they’re confused, or they’re pinching the bridge of the nose when they’re frustrated. Or maybe they’re the kind that has to sit down when they deal with big information.
Whatever you choose, make the aspect more or less exclusive to that character (as much as you can).
Give every character 2-3 personality traits.
Are they shy? Are they outgoing? Are they very organized or are they less organized? You can use a personality typing system like the Enneagram or the MBTI to help you to categorize your character personalities further. But as with the earlier areas, make sure that there’s an exclusivity to the personality. Your story doesn’t need five bookworms or ten outgoing people. Really really.
Give every character 2-3 likes or dislikes, preferably some of each, and know why.
These can be deep dislikes. These can be shallow dislikes.
Shallow: I don’t like this flavor of ice cream, cause I don’t like it.
Deep: I don’t like that flavor of ice cream because that ice cream was stolen from them by bullies, forever sullying their memory of double fudge peanut butter ripple. *dramatic music*
As with the earlier areas, exclusivity is key.
That level of comfort builds reader love (or love-to-hate) for your characters.
The Top 5 system is great for all types of stories, but can be especially helpful with ensemble casts. It gives you a jumping-off point into deeper character development.
Characterization always matters.
Mindful character development, that factors in reader expectations, is vital for getting readers to connect with your characters. If readers feel like they understand and care about your characters, they have a vested interest in your story. And that vested interest builds a loyal fan base that keeps coming back for more.